December 29, 2006
Cyclists, the Police and the Rest of Us
Urban bike riders often feel they’re pedaling on virtuous ground, striking a blow against pollution and traffic congestion. That’s particularly true of a movement called Critical Mass, which holds demonstrations around the world on the last Friday of every month, tonight included. Thousands of riders will take to the streets. They’ll force cross traffic to stop and wait as the bikes all whiz by. There have been scuffles in the past with the police in San Francisco and in Seattle, but lately nothing compares to the confrontations in New York, where the stare-down between cyclists and police officers keeps escalating, threatening to create a losing proposition for both sides.
The New York police, who deem Critical Mass an illegal parade and have drafted a law that would essentially ban it, have seemed obsessed with the rides since one coincided with the Republican National Convention in August 2004. Officers arrested 264 cyclists then. There are fewer arrests now, but the response is no less disproportionate. An amazing array of police resources — scooters, vans, unmarked cars and helicopters — chase a quarry that looks like fish in a barrel. Police vehicles race the wrong way and on sidewalks, posing a greater public danger than the bikers.
The department’s proposed parade law — which would greatly restrict the right of assembly for even small groups — goes overboard and isn’t likely to stop the monthly rides anyway. Considering that more than 200 cyclists have died in traffic in New York over the last decade, including two hit by motorists on a bike path recently, the department should have better priorities. The police should pay more attention to the real problems — everyday cyclists who ignore red lights and one-way street signs, and motorists who crowd and cut off bikers.
Law-abiding bicyclists could win a lot of hearts if they focused more on bad behavior by fellow bikers. That includes the Critical Mass practice of corking streets — as halting cross traffic is called — which is an odd way for cyclists to make their case that biking is the answer to gridlock. Ride leaders should work with the police to chart a route and allow officers to stop traffic for them, as was done before the 2004 confrontations. As both sides prepare for the year’s final ride, we’d like to see everyone gear down a notch.