Legal FAQ

1. Which traffic laws apply to bicyclists?

Bikes are traffic, so all traffic laws (referred to in New York as
Vehicle and Traffic Laws or “VTL”) that apply to cars apply to bikes.
This includes signaling to make a turn or stop.

2. Is it legal to ride against traffic?

No, since all traffic laws that apply to cars apply to bikes, it is
illegal to ride a bike against traffic.

3. Is it legal to ride on the sidewalk?

No, it is illegal to ride a bike on the sidewalk. The police can
seize your bike if you are riding on the sidewalk.

4. What happens if my bike gets seized?*

  1. The police officer will issue you a ticket and take your bike to
    the local police precinct where it will be stored for a week or so.
    If you wait too long you will need to call New York City Police
    Department at (646) 610-5410 to locate your bike.
  2. The day after you bike is taken, you can go to the Environmental
    Control Board or ECB and have a hearing between the hours of 8 am and
    3 pm. You will need to bring a photo identification and your ticket.
    Call the ECB at (212) 361-1400 for information on their closest
  3. At the hearing you may or may not be issued a fine for riding on
    the sidewalk.
  4. Pay any fines required by the ECB and get a receipt.
  5. Take the receipt and your ticket to the precinct that has your
    bike and ride home.

* This information is particular to bikes seized while the
rider was riding on the sidewalk. If your bike was seized under other
circumstances, you may find to be helpful. We have
not verified all of the information there, but the gentleman who put
the page together has been working hard to collect that information
for himself and others.

5. What kind of gear do I need on my bike?

The city and state require a person riding in New York to have:

  1. a bell that can be heard at 100 ft., but not a siren or a whistle;
  2. a brake “that will skid on dry pavement;”
  3. a reflector;
  4. two lights, red in back and clear in front, which must be used
    from one half hour after sunset until one half hour before sunrise.

6. If I am over 14 do I have to wear a helmet?


7. Is it legal to bike with earphones in New York?

You can only legally ride with one ear covered, not both ears.

8. The police stopped me because my bike does not have the
proper lights, but I think the real reason is because of my anarchist
black cross flag. What can I do?

Not a whole lot. It is legal for the police to stop and ticket you
for an equipment violation or for riding on the sidewalk, even if they
also stopped you for other reasons. There are civil rights issues
involved if it’s actually a pretext stop because the police
don’t like your appearance, race, or the views you are expressing;
but this particular struggle for justice is ongoing.

9. Do bicyclists need to ride no more than two abreast?

No. New York State does have an archaic “two abreast” law, but it
does not apply in the City of New York. Since some of the police seem
unaware of this, here are the gory details:

§ 1234 of the NY State Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL) states,
among other things, that

  • bicyclists must use a bike lane if one exists,
  • bicyclists must ride to the far right-hand side of the street if
    no bike lane exists, and
  • bicyclists must ride no more than two abreast.

However, § 4-02(e) of the
NYC Traffic Rules (PDF Format)
explicitly overrules § 1234 of the VTL:

§ 4-02(e) State law provisions superseded.
Pursuant to authority provided by section 1642 of the Vehicle
and Traffic Law [1], the following provisions of such law shall not be
effective in the City of New York: sections 1112, 1142(b), 1150,
1151, 1152, 1153, 1156(b), 1157, 1171, 1201, 1202, and 1234.

10. Do I have to ride in the bike lane if there is one?

Generally, yes (as per § 4-12(p) of the aforementioned NYC
Traffic Rules), except when you need to turn off the road and for
reasons of safety, and only if the bike lane is usable. Many
bike lanes in New York City are not usable; they’re unsafe,
obstructed, and not even built to highway code specifications. You
could get a bogus ticket for not using them, though.

11. What do I do if I get a ticket for not having the required
equipment on my bike?

While a driver of a motor vehicle can drive away and repair defective
equipment, this may not apply to a bike rider and the bike may be
seized. You might try to persuade the police that you have the same
right to repair the bike or get the necessary equipment after getting
a ticket. However, the specific law regarding driving away applies to
motorized vehicles, not bikes. If you are able to leave with your bike
you must get whatever equipment you are missing, put it on your bike,
and take a picture. Take the picture and the receipt to the court on
the ticket and tell the judge you have fixed the problem. Be advised:
you need to go to the court noted on the next business day after you
get the ticket.

12. Is the speed limit really 15 mph in city parks that allow

Yes, and you can get a speeding ticket.

Other Bike Legal Resources:

Transportation Alternatives 1: Legal Features

Transportation Alternatives 2: Legal Features

New York State Department of Transportation

New York State Department of Motor Vehicles

State University of New York at Buffalo School of Law

[1] Here’s the relevant part of § 1642:

§ 1642. Additional traffic regulations in cities
having a population in excess of one million.
(a) In addition to
the other powers granted by this article, the legislative body of
any city having a population in excess of one million, may by local
law, ordinance, order, rule, regulation or health code provision
prohibit, restrict or regulate traffic on or pedestrian use of any
highway (which term, for the purposes of this section, shall include
any private road open to public motor vehicle traffic) in such
city. …

You can find the rest at the
State Legislature site.
Select “Laws of New York”, “VAT”, “Article 39”, then “1642”.