When Bikers Clash, the Tape Rolls
New York Times
June 24, 2011
By Sean Patrick Farrell
When Casey Neistat got a ticket on Second Avenue and Seventh Street in the East Village for riding his bicycle outside the designated bike lane in May, he did what many outraged cyclists do. He grabbed his cellphone and shot a video of his encounter with the ticketing officer, who admonished him to ride in the lane at all times.
Then Mr. Neistat took it a few steps further: He followed the officerâ€™s order to the letter, keeping to the bike lane even when the way was blocked. And he had a friend record his painful-looking pratfalls as he crashed into obstructions, including a moving truck and a police cruiser, like a modern-day Buster Keaton. The video has become a sensation on YouTube, drawing nearly 3.7 million views.
At a time when homemade videos have helped ignite protests and revolutions around the world, it is only fitting that they are a potent weapon in New Yorkâ€™s biggest street fight: the battle over bike lanes that the Bloomberg administration is carving out all over the city. These short visual clips â€” featuring police stops, arguments, indignant commentary and sometimes humor â€” are fast becoming a staple of urban cycling, fueled by Web sites that gladly post them and by relatively inexpensive cameras that can be mounted on helmets and handlebars.
â€œFor me itâ€™s the only voice Iâ€™ve ever had, making videos,â€ said Mr. Neistat, 30, a filmmaker best known for â€œThe Neistat Brothers,â€ a 2010 HBO series in which he and his brother, Van, chronicled their own lives and observations in quirky little videos.
The series grew, in part, out of the brothersâ€™ earlier efforts to mix outrage and laughs; in one 2003 piece, Casey Neistat bewailed Appleâ€™s unwillingness to replace iPod batteries; in another, in 2005, he demonstrated the ease of bike theft in the city, elaborately cutting through a lock â€” his own â€” in broad daylight, then documenting his fellow New Yorkersâ€™ failure to react.
Mr. Neistatâ€™s bike-lane video takes the form to a high level, with fast-paced editing, a soundtrack and genuine comedy. Most other cycling-outrage videos stop about where his begins â€” with a confrontation, often about proper use of the bike lane.
Barbara Ross, a volunteer with the cycling advocacy group Timeâ€™s Up!, recently posted a
video in which she asks an increasingly exasperated police officer why he has parked in the bike lane while giving a cyclist a ticket for running a red light.
Another rider has fixed a camera to his helmet for his regular commute, and posts the results on his YouTube channel, some with titles like â€œIdiot Bikerâ€ and â€œJersey Drivers.â€ He has recorded run-ins with inattentive drivers and wrong-way bikers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where many in the neighborhoodâ€™s large Hasidic Jewish community have squared off against cyclists. A guerrilla campaign, by hooded cyclists under cloak of night, to repaint bike lane markers that were removed by the city in Williamsburg was chronicled in 2009 and posted online by another auteur.
The rider with the helmet camera, who insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution, explained in an e-mail that the camera â€œserves to expose insecure drivers, and it acts as a sort of insurance in the event I am the subject of an accident or police quota. If I am riding, itâ€™s recording.â€
The videos are not always flattering to bikers. This spring, a segment showing a cyclist stopped by the police for riding on the sidewalk in Brooklyn attracted nearly a half-million views on YouTube. But the clip was as much about the heckling the cyclist received from a bystander, who appeared to have been handcuffed and arrested.
Even Mr. Neistat can be heard on his video telling the ticketing officer that he is â€œdoing the world a favorâ€ by riding his bike â€” a remark that has drawn criticism online from viewers who say he is unduly smug.
â€œI donâ€™t really believe Iâ€™m doing the world a favor,â€ Mr. Neistat said. â€œI probably should have cut that out.â€
Shortly after his piece appeared on YouTube, another slickly produced video offered a different take on the cityâ€™s busy streets: a birdâ€™s-eye view of a Manhattan corner where each player â€” pedestrian, driver and cyclist â€” broke the law and endangered someone else.
As the drama pinged its way around the Web, it was held up by many as proof that New York was full of scofflaw cyclists. And drivers. And pedestrians.
â€œI think people donâ€™t seek out streets education; they donâ€™t think it applies to them,â€ said the videoâ€™s creator, Ron Gabriel, who made the piece last year while a student at the School of Visual Arts, as part of a traffic-awareness campaign he calls â€œNYC Goes Three Ways.â€
â€œMy video is supposed to be entertaining,â€ he said, â€œbut I tried to sneak some education in.â€
Last month, the cityâ€™s Department of Transportation rolled out its own campaign to sneak in some education about shared road space â€” particularly among new cyclists â€” with a series of humorous videos on television and the Web. Starring celebrities like John Leguizamo and Mario Batali, the spots are titled, â€œDonâ€™t Be a Jerk.â€
And whom did the city hire to direct them? Casey Neistat, of course.