Big pack of bikes piques police
November 15th, 2004
By Martha T. Moore
Once a month for six years, Jym Dyer, a 44-year-old software engineer, hopped on
his candy-apple-red bicycle and joined about 1,000 other riders to pedal through
the canyons of Manhattan.
There was little organization and no route other than following the whim of the
riders in the lead. The huge pack could simply take over the wide avenues and
stream through intersections regardless of stop lights, while side-street traffic
had to sit and wait. “It was wonderful,” Dyer says.
But that changed in August before the Republican National Convention here. The
bicyclists got political, the cops got mad, and now the city is in federal court
trying to stop the rides from taking place.
Critical Mass, as the monthly bike ride is called, has turned into a showdown
between bicyclists and city police. The skirmish began three days before the
opening of the Republican convention, when the pack of bicyclists swelled to
5,000 and the ride turned into a rolling demonstration against President Bush.
Police arrested more than 260 bicyclists.
At the September ride, nine people were arrested, and police confiscated bicycles
of other riders who locked their bikes and left. A federal court judge later ruled
that the police could not impound bicycles of people not arrested. At the Oct. 29
ride, 35 people were arrested and their bikes impounded.
On Friday, the city asked the same federal judge for an injunction to stop the
ride unless the riders obtain a police permit. New York police now want Critical
Mass to have an agreed route and to let the police control traffic at the
intersections. Police say riders block intersections for a half-hour at a time to
allow the pack of bikes to pass. As a result, emergency vehicles have been unable
to move in the gridlock. In addition, the pack has used freeways that are off-limits
‘We are traffic’
The bicyclists say they don’t need a permit to use city streets. Plus, there’s no
group organizer to apply for one.
“We are traffic, and traffic doesn’t need a permit,” says Leah Rorvig, 22, a
volunteer with Time’s Up!, an environmental organization that publicizes the time
and location of the ride on the group’s Web site.
“If they were just traffic, they’d be sitting at the (red) light like everybody
else,” police spokesman Paul Browne says.
But Rorvig and other riders say the essence of the Critical Mass ride is that it
is spontaneous. Riders wouldn’t follow a planned route, they say. “That’s
explicitly the philosophy of Critical Mass, that there is no leadership,” says
Matthew Roth, 27, another Time’s Up! volunteer. The ride “is about having those
two hours of freedom.”
The city and Critical Mass, represented by the five riders who sued over having
their bikes confiscated, are due in court Dec. 8.
Riders: Police are problem
Critical Mass bike rides began in 1992 in San Francisco and have spread to more
than 300 cities across the country and overseas. The rides are designed to
encourage bicycling as an environmentally friendly way to get around the city.
But they have rolled into trouble before. In 1997, bicyclists and police had a
run-in in San Francisco when some of the 5,000 riders diverged from an approved
route, blocked traffic and fought with motorists. Police arrested 250 riders. In
Los Angeles, more than 70 bicyclists were arrested during the 2000 Democratic
In New York, the size of the group makes bike riding pleasant in contrast to
everyday maneuvering through heavy traffic, riders say. Until August, the monthly
rides were uneventful, even when good weather attracted more than 1,000 riders.
“It’s been happening here for six years without a problem,” Rorvig says.
“The people who are making it a problem are the police.”
Advocates of urban bicycling worry that the fracas will weaken public support
for spending city money on bike lanes and paths on the city’s bridges and waterfront,
says Transportation Alternatives, a New York advocacy group. That would make riding
a bicycle in Manhattan, which already ranges from challenging to terrifying, even
more difficult, says Noah Budnick, the group’s chief bicycle advocate.
More than 112,000 people ride bicycles in the city, according to Transportation
Alternatives. “We have the worst bike thieves in the country. We have
furniture-sized potholes. And we’ve got drivers that run a million red lights
every day,” Budnick says. “Critical Mass encourages a lot of people to bike,
that’s for sure. But in New York City, where it’s a very textured, complicated
political environment, you need to have support for biking from all different
groups, not just bicyclists. The conflict discourages support of bicycling.”
For the ride set for Nov. 26, winter chill and early sunset will likely cause
the number of riders to dwindle to a few hundred. But police say there is no
reason to let the pack continue to break traffic laws.
“If suddenly you have the F.D.R. Drive (freeway) filled with bicycles, the
public expects you to do something about it, not wait to see if it goes away
on its own,” says Browne, the police spokesman.
He attributes the tension to a sudden shift in the ride’s agenda, not a change
in police tactics. Over the summer, “they began to take on this different
complexion, an anarchist notion of a wholesale takeover of the streets,” Browne
To the contrary, rider Dyer says, he is trying to persuade other bicyclists to
stop at lights during the next Critical Mass ride. “I don’t see a new element of
anarchist lawbreakers in the ride who are suddenly controlling it,” he says. “I’ve
read about them in the tabloids, but I’ve never met any of them.”
Dyer, who was arrested during a protest at the Republican convention and lost his
red bike for three weeks, wonders if the continued crackdown is to avoid the
appearance of singling out convention protesters for arrest. (He has pleaded not
guilty and awaits a court date.) But mostly, he says, “I just don’t understand why
Copyright 2004, USA Today.