Flouting Arrest on 2 Wheels,
for the Monthly Crime of Pedaling Without a Permit
New York Times
May 4th, 2005
By Dan Barry
BARBARA ROSS is 41 and lives on the Lower East Side. Several times
a week, she straps on a blue helmet and rides her bicycle through the
streets of this city. What a troublemaker.
It doesn’t matter that she works in human resources for a large
company, or that she votes and has a dog named Doc. Just check her
name in the criminal justice database: two arrests within the
last year, both while in possession of that insidious, two-wheeled
invention, the bicycle — also known as a bike.
Ms. Ross was nearly arrested a third time in March, but used her
wiles to get out of a jam. Seeing the heat coming down the street, she
chained her bicycle to a pole and ducked into a bar. All she could do
was watch the sparks fly, as police officers cut the heavy chain with
a special tool and confiscated her bicycle.
“I’m just an everyday person,” she said yesterday. “But I like to
ride my bike.”
She even admits it. Typical bicyclist.
This city usually works like a trusty old bicycle, always able to
shift gears for difficult hills on the horizon. But lately the wheels
are not spinning smoothly. Something is broken.
For more than a decade now, cities around the world have
accommodated a monthly event called Critical Mass, in which bicyclists
ride en masse through the streets to enjoy themselves, promote
transportation alternatives, and send the message that roadways are
not just for cars. A supposed charm of these rallies is that no one
is in charge. They are, like, organic.
The police here used to tolerate the rally, which takes place on
the last Friday of every month. Officers sometimes held off traffic
as a cycling cluster wheeled out of Union Square Park and looped
through Manhattan streets. You would see parents cycling beside their
children, and even a tandem or two.
All that changed last year. In late July, some cyclists caught the
police unawares by disrupting traffic on the Franklin D. Roosevelt
Drive. And in late August, on the eve of the Republican National
Convention, a few of the thousands of rallying cyclists violated
traffic laws and purposely blocked crosstown traffic in a practice
called “corking.” Scores were arrested, though very, very few of the
The police then tried to find a Critical Mass leader to establish
an agreed-upon route and other ground rules. They were told that no
one is in charge, although a direct-action group called TIME’S UP!
promotes the monthly event on its Web site. Besides, a predetermined
route would, like, violate the spontaneous spirit of the rally.
Uh-huh, said the police.
After years of allowing Critical Mass rallies to take place, the
police began arguing that the event required a parade permit; without
one, participants were subject to arrest. The department began using
a helicopter above and orange netting below to play a crazed
cat-and-mouse game playing out on pavement. Hundreds of otherwise
law-abiding cyclists have now looked forlornly out the backs of police
The cyclists bear some responsibility, of course. A few seem to
enjoy taunting the police as much as they do running red lights.
“And when you press them about observing the lights, they say you
wouldn’t arrest somebody driving a car,” Paul J. Browne, the deputy
police commissioner for public information, said. “It’s sort of:
We’re breaking the law on one hand, but on the other, we’re being
treated more harshly than motorists.”
But Ms. Ross, who is a volunteer with TIME’S UP!, spoke for many
when she said that cyclists are essentially being arrested for minor
traffic violations that would normally warrant only a summons. “If
I went through a red light and got a ticket,” she said, “what could
It’s no longer about traffic flow, though. It’s about control.
Once a month now, the police — who say they are willing to
facilitate the rides if permits are obtained — surround Union
Square. A chopper hovers above to track rogue packs of cyclists.
Officers stand ready to snare bikers with netting, or to confiscate
hurriedly abandoned bicycles. They arrested 34 people at Friday’s
Meanwhile, city lawyers are seeking an injunction to prohibit
TIME’S UP! from publicizing the monthly gatherings. Their astounding
logic is that the cyclists gather in Union Square Park before each
rally; large gatherings in city parks require special permits; no
permits are being sought. Therefore, publicizing an unlawful event
is — unlawful.
The wheels of this city are not spinning smoothly. Something is
broken. The next rally is on May 27. It’s a good thing that people
on both sides wear helmets.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company