2004-11-22 CM Truce? (uneditited) – Gotham Gazette

Can Critical Mass Negotiate a Truce? (Unedited Version)
Gotham Gazette
By Jen Benepe
November 22th, 2004


The recent Halloween Critical Mass unleashed a pissing match
among competing newspapers in New York City. Alex Storozynski,
AM NewYork’s editor, published a front-page op-ed that
criticized “anarchists” in the group, and accused them of
beating a motorist, and “blocking an ambulance while it

The NY Press countered with an article criticizing Storozynski
entitled “Critical Mass Ass”. A commentator on E-bikes, the
private electronic exchange for cyclists in New York, reacted
with lightening fury and called Storozynski’s piece,
“spittle-flecked ravings” with “one inaccuracy per

The NY Daily News had their own two bits, publishing an op-ed by
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly with the headline “Extremists
have hijacked the bike rides,” detailing the same claims later
repeated by Storozynski, leading several cyclists to conclude
that both newspapers’ only sources was the DCPI—the press arm
of the Police Department.

“What was most offensive about the Kelly op-ed was that it said
“extremists” have “hijacked” the ride, using the language of
terrorists,” said Matthew Roth, 27-year-old volunteer PR and
legal organizer for Times Up!, the group that publicizes the
Critical Mass rides. “Whether people are consciously getting
that, in light of the fact that this is New York where we had
terrorists strike us, to apply that same tone to a bike ride
that has always been peaceful, is not only insulting, it’s

What is so disappointing about the growing hysteria and
bandwagon jumping by the mainstream press is that many failed
to do any accurate reporting of their own by either riding the
ride, or talking to the cyclists that have. Their low-skim
treatment of the facts is mirrored by the real-life lack of
communication between the Bloomberg Administration and the
cyclists themselves. This reporter attended the Halloween
Critical Mass ride–not in a car, nor in a reporting van parked
hygienically at the curb prior to the ride–but on a bicycle.

Despite finger pointing on both sides that borders on the mildly
paranoiac, interviews with implicit Times Up! leaders and
riders, and off-the-record interviews with the police, revealed
that their philosophies and tactics are much closer than they

A review of the history of the ride reveals that in the “old
days”, that is, year 2000, the Critical Mass ride was not only
a peaceful event, but it enjoyed the company of six “regular”
police scooter escorts, according to Roth who has been doing the
rides almost since their inception. Then the group numbered 400,
grew to 800 in 2003, 1,500 in July 2003, and finally 2,000 in
March 2004.

Never in their history had Times Up! contacted the police and
asked for their protection, said Roth, a fact echoed by other
CM riders. “They just appeared,” and would help “cork”
intersections so that cyclists would not be hurt. They also
encouraged CM riders to run red lights to help the ride go
faster and keep the group together, according to several CM
riders, acts that are normally considered illegal. Besides
subtle differences between the two administrations, according
to Roth most of the police escorts were friendly.

On one memorable ride back in 2001 after the ride had ended,
as the cops waved good-bye at Tompkins Square, one called out,
“Thanks guys, that’s the most fun we’ve had all month.”

Cops say that “anarchists” have infiltrated the CM group and
made it less peaceful since the RNC arrests in August. They also
say that those people continue to ride with the CM group today,
a claim that is disputed by regular CM riders.

Malia Howley, 29, said that the RNC event was an isolated
incident that required no more self-analysis and hand wringing
than it created during the one-month that it occurred. Steve
Klein, a Times Up! and Critical Mass regular who owns 26 bikes
which he lovingly stores in his Washington Heights apartment,
made similar statements about the curious change in police
attention to the ride.

“But now it’s helicopters and police everywhere,” said
Howley. “They’re making a much bigger deal out of it than they
need to.”

The burning question on many peoples’ minds, especially the
police I spoke to is, why not go and get the permit? Setting
aside for a minute that Times Up! does not want to take a
leadership role and ask for the permit because they say it
flies in the face of what Critical Mass is all about— a
“leaderless” group of cyclists traveling in unplanned
directions to demonstrate that they deserve space on the road
alongside cars—what are the chief objections that the groups’
implicit leaders voice?

The whole point of the Critical Mass ride is “to make New
Yorkers and especially the administration spend more energy and
put more resources into making the city friendlier for cyclists,
” said Roth. “Cars think they own the road,” said Klein, who
bristles at the idea that they should have to get a permit.

“Do cars need a permit to drive in the street?” Roth asked

But even in private, cops disagree. They say that the logistics
of emergency response planning and the safety of the cyclists
are at stake, and they would like to be able to plan better for
a CM event that has only gotten bigger over time. It has also
been pointed out that cyclists can sue the city if they are hurt
during the ride, claiming that they were not properly protected
by the NYPD.

Cyclists scoff at the idea that they may be in the way in the
case of an emergency. “If there is a pure vehicular traffic
jam, it’s actually harder for police emergency vehicles to get
through,” said Roth. Other cyclists agree. “And anyway the
cyclists and pedestrians killed each year by cars cost the city
much more than the non-existent lawsuits by cyclists in the

So how much is hysteria, and how much is real? Should the
cyclists get a permit? Roth says no, because so far, the actual
fight has brought light to an issue that has needed, and is now
getting, more attention from the Bloomberg Administration–bike
transportation safety.

But officials from the Department of City Planning, the
Department of Transportation, and the Parks Department, all say
the Bloomberg administration has made a commitment to improving
the safety of cyclists in New York, as well as the access ways,
and bike lanes available to them. They point to the over 100
miles of Greenway which have been developed, the 32-mile trail
around Manhattan, and the installation of hundreds of bike
parking areas around the city. According to the Department of
Transportation, prior to receiving $2.4 million to continue the
Bicycle Network Development Program, New York City had 56 miles
of “Class II” bicycle lanes. “Since that time, an additional
51.5 miles have been added, bringing the total of bike lane
miles to 107.5. This combined with 75 miles of Greenway, brought
the total bicycle network to 182.5 miles.” They also point to
the fact that the Mayor takes public transportation to work, and
Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff rides his bike in.

“It’s kinda’ cool that the police are trying to come to the
table,” said Kevin Bolger, 32, a long-time CM rider and daytime
bike messenger who organized many of the “Bike Summer” rides
in 2003 and plays a leadership role in the cycling community.
“I definitely want to work with the police and make it as
friendly as possible.” Does it help that the permits will allow
them to ride through red lights? “That’s something to think
about for sure,” he said.

For those who have watched the fight between cyclists and the
administration escalate, the first priority now is that both
sides sit down and start a dialogue. That dialogue should
include much more aggressive measures to improve the safety of
cyclists in the city, as well as ease the commitment for the
112,000 cyclists commuting to Manhattan every day by improving
bike parking facilities. Roth’s prescription for a better
cycling New York also includes bike lanes separated with planter
boxes, better development of the greenways, education for
motorists about cyclists, and tougher laws punishing motorists
for hitting or killing cyclists and pedestrians. He also thinks
the cycling community should be represented by respected bike
advocates like Charles Komanoff, President of bike advocacy
firm KEA, and Phil Goff, principle of Bike Liaison in Portland,

These can only be accomplished by calling attention to cycling,
which the Critical Mass has done, said Roth. “Since Bloomberg
hasn’t asked us to the table, why get a permit?”