The Bike Helmet as Riot Gear?
The New York Times
November 4, 2004
By LYDIA POLGREEN
Laurie Williams, a mild-tempered graduate student with a tousled mane of curls capped by a bicycle helmet, straddled her neon-green mountain bike, surveyed the gathering crowd in Union Square last Friday night and wondered if she really belonged there.
“I love riding my bike, but it is not a political thing,” she said as she warily eyed dozens of police officers with plastic cuffs stuffed into their pockets arrayed against hundreds of rambunctious cyclists in Halloween costumes. “It’s exercise; it’s transportation. I ride because it’s an efficient way to get around.”
Ms. Williams and about 1,000 other cyclists showed up last Friday night to ride in Critical Mass, a monthly bike ride that takes over the streets of Manhattan in a demonstration of bicycle power aimed at promoting nonpolluting forms of transportation.
But in recent months the rides have taken on a political tone, and the bicycle has emerged as an unlikely symbol of protest, setting up a clash between a group of cyclists bent on preserving the anarchic nature of the ride and officials in the Bloomberg administration, who have demonstrated little patience for disorder.
This clash has some riders worried that the aggressive tactics of Critical Mass – taking over city streets for a few hours a month – is hurting the cause of other cyclists as the police use tougher tactics to control the demonstrations.
“It should be about safety in numbers and better conditions for bikers,” Ms. Williams said. “It isn’t about politics.”
Before the Republican National Convention hit town in August, few New Yorkers had ever heard of Critical Mass. It is a ride held in hundreds of cities across the globe, but it claims no organizers, though an environmental group called Time’s Up! promotes it. It simply materializes once a month. There is no route, the people at the front of the ride decide where they want to go. Riders often block car traffic to allow the ride to proceed quickly, sometimes with the help of the police, who have typically tolerated the ride even if it does snarl car traffic.
The point of the ride, participants say, is to emphasize the benefits of cycling and to promote cyclist safety.
The rides took place in New York for several years with little incident, until August, when the ride on the eve of the Republican National Convention turned into a huge anti-Bush demonstration with 5,000 riders.
The police arrested more than 250 cyclists, and since then they and riders have been engaged in an increasingly tense battle over whether the ride can proceed without a permit. Dozens of cyclists have been arrested in two rides since August, most of them charged with disorderly conduct or traffic violations.
When five cyclists who had their bikes seized by the police in the September ride went to court to block the city from seizing bikes in October’s ride, the city asked a federal judge for an injunction to stop the ride altogether. The judge barred the city from seizing bikes of people who were not charged with breaking the law and the request for an injunction was denied on technical grounds. But the central issue of whether the ride can proceed in the future is far from settled.
While bicycles are considered vehicles under the state vehicle and traffic laws, and riders are required to ride on the street and obey the same traffic laws as cars, the city has argued that because the ride disrupts other traffic it must have a permit. Because bicycles are permitted to ride on the street and Critical Mass is anarchic by nature, with no one claiming to organize it, people who ride in Critical Mass and promote it say they do not need a permit and, in any case, there is no organizer to apply for one.
In this legal tussle, the bicycle has emerged as an unlikely symbol of defiance in New York City, something many cyclists have mixed feelings about. The city has had a long and contentious relationship with bicyclists, who were viewed as a nuisance. Yet it is paradoxical that the fight over Critical Mass has emerged just as cycling is gaining widespread acceptance, particularly from City Hall.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has emphasized alternative forms of transportation, even buying a bicycle in preparation for the transit strike that never materialized. The city has more than quadrupled the number of bike lanes and paths since 1997, and data from the Department of Transportation indicate that the number of bikers has increased substantially.
A bike path looping Manhattan, so long desired by cyclists, has nearly become a reality, despite a few incomplete sections. Indeed, the fight over Critical Mass comes just as the act of riding a bike in the city, once viewed as borderline suicidal, has become, well, rather pedestrian.
“For every person that rides in Critical Mass there are 10,000 people who ride bicycles for fun and transportation in New York City,” said Noah Budnick, projects director at Transportation Alternatives, a group that advocates cycling. “It is very much part of the mainstream.”
“Critical Mass is a two-edged sword,” Mr. Budnick continued. “On the one hand, it encourages bike riding and people feel really safe while riding in the mass. But on the other hand, it potentially paints bike riding in a very confrontational, not mainstream, sort of fringe light.”
When the velocipede arrived in New York in the late 19th century, it set of a craze that spawned dozens of bicycle clubs and prompted the city to build the first urban bike path, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and running the length of Ocean Parkway. On opening day in 1895, it was mobbed with 10,000 riders, forcing the city to widen it.
But soon the automobile and later the subway won out over the bicycle as the best way to get around New York, and for much of the last century people who chose to ride bicycles in New York were seen either as quaint eccentrics, like George Plimpton and Murray Kempton, or as radical iconoclasts, like the aggressive bicycle messengers who rose to prominence in the go-go 1980’s.
“Cycling was, and to some extent still is, seen as transgressive,” said Charles Komanoff, a lifelong city cyclist who once ran Transportation Alternatives and is a staunch supporter of Critical Mass. “To get on a bike meant to become a kind of person that many people regarded as alien and even an affront to them.”
No one embodies New York’s schizophrenic relationship with bicycles better than Edward I. Koch. The transit strike in the spring of 1980 put thousands of new cyclists on the streets, and after a visit to China in which Mayor Koch was wowed by the sight of thousands of people plying the streets on bicycles, he ordered a bicycle lane installed on the Avenue of the Americas.
But cyclists universally rejected the lane, for various reasons, Mr. Komanoff said, which led the city to remove it and “left a bad taste in mouth of average New Yorkers.”
“The attitude of most people was, ‘what more do you people want?’ ” he said. ” ‘We gave you a bike lane and you rejected it.’ “
The relationship further soured a year later, when a series of collisions between bicyclists and pedestrians left three people dead and one badly injured, Mr. Komanoff said. In the last few months, debates have raged over Critical Mass on Internet message boards popular with cyclists like MetaFilter and the discussion board for the New York Cycle Club.
Some riders say the rides hurt the image of cyclists and make drivers and pedestrians less likely to support cyclists’ rights. Others argue that Critical Mass makes an important point about cyclists’ rights to occupy space on the city’s streets, echoing the Critical Mass mantra: “We are not blocking traffic, we are traffic.”
On Friday night, few drivers and pedestrians seemed to agree. At stalled intersections, drivers fumed and walkers waited to cross, though some applauded the ride.
“Any chance of crossing the street tonight?” a woman screeched at a corner on Park Avenue near the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. “This is ridiculous.”
City officials have said they tolerated the ride in past years because the disruption it caused was minimal. But the event has grown, said Gabriel Taussig, chief of the Administrative Law Division in the city’s Law Department, and has become unmanageable. “We have never sought to stop the ride altogether,” Mr. Taussig said. “But it clearly was an event that required a permit the past few months.”
But many riders oppose getting a permit. Steven Faust, who has been riding a bicycle in New York City for 50 years and leads rides for the Five Borough Bicycle Club and rode in Critical Mass last month, said getting a permit would send the wrong message.
“Where does it end?” Mr. Faust asked. “If I want to ride with a dozen friends to a movie, will we need a permit? It is the principle. Cyclists have the right to use the streets, and we will continue to stand up for that.”