2005-01-11 Critical Impasse – New York Press

Tuesday, January 11,2005
Critical Impasse


The NYPD has lost yet another round in its legal battle against the Critical Mass bike ride. On Thursday, December 23, U.S. District judge William H. Pauley denied the city’s request for an injunction that would prevent Critical Mass cyclists from gathering and riding without city permits.

Judge Pauley’s ruling was a victory for cyclists, but only a defensive one. It doesn’t do anything to stop the NYPD’s aggressive crackdown on cyclists. The real benefits of Bray vs. City of New York will likely be felt in the long-term. Attorney Norman Siegel’s legal team is shedding public light on the irrationality of New York City’s dysfunctional, car-oriented transportation policies and the NYPD’s role in enforcing them.

One of the most telling moments of the Dec. 8 hearing came during attorney Steven Hyman’s cross-examination of NYPD Assistant Chief Bruce Smolka. Hyman wanted Smolka to explain exactly how the police define a “procession” of bikes. Would 100 bikes be a procession requiring a permit? How about 50? 20? For three hours, Smolka avoided answering. Finally, in attempting to justify his officers’ arrest of seven cyclists at Union Square on November 26, Hyman backed Smolka into a corner. Yes, Smolka, said, seven cyclists riding together in the street and obeying all traffic rules may be considered a “procession.” They could be arrested if they didn’t have a permit. Seven cars, trucks or SUVs doing the same thing? No, that’s traffic. “Roadways are designed primarily for vehicles to travel in,” not bicycles, Smolka said. Cycling in a group, in other words, is criminal in New York City.

Locking your bike is also illegal in New York according to the NYPD. Transportation Alternatives’ amicus curiae brief shredded the police department’s justification for seizing hundreds of bicycles that were locked to lampposts, signs and street fixtures. In its argument, TA noted that there are 6375 miles of street in New York City and 3400 bike racks. That makes for one legal bike rack every two miles, or one legal bike rack for every 33 cyclists. In New York, if you can’t lock your bike to a lamppost, then you can’t lock your bike. The NYPD is essentially arguing for the criminalization of cycling.

Some of the sharpest testimony came from Charlie Komanoff, an economist and environmental activist. Komanoff demolished DOT Deputy Commissioner Michael Primeggia’s claims that Critical Mass creates unacceptable traffic delays and threats to public safety. On an average day of New York City gridlock, Komanoff calculates, motorists experience a total of 730,000 vehicle hours of delay. A large Critical Mass ride creates, at most, an additional 750 vehicle-hours of delay, an amount that is “statistically invisible against the backdrop of ordinary traffic delays in Manhattan and New York City.” The arguments Komanoff assembled for this case lay the theoretical groundwork for a major revamping of New York City transportation policy. It’s worth reading for yourself: http://www.rightofway.org/Declaration2.pdf.

—Aaron Naparstek