In 1895, New York City was a hotbed of cycling fever. Bicycles were the fashion statement of the day, and everybody had one, or wanted one. But then the automobile appeared on the scene, and our road infrastructure, laws, and societal attitudes slowly changed. Over time, people came around to accepting the dominance of the streets by the automobile as the “natural order” of things.
The wheel that goes around has come around, and bicycles are once again the most fashionable way to get around the city. But space on the roadway is a finite resource, and making some room for bicyclists is a challenge to the automobile’s dominance of New York’s streets. This isn’t a negative outcome for drivers. More people on bikes means fewer people in cars, and less traffic congestion for drivers. It leads to greater traffic safety for everybody too—drivers included. It means less pollution, and it means less wear and tear on the roads. It’s a win-win for everybody.
For those who see the world as a zero-sum game, however, more people on bikes is seen as a win-lose proposition. If cyclists win some space on the roads, drivers lose, because they face pressure to slow down and drive more carefully. If cyclists are forced from the roads by aggressive drivers, pedestrians lose. In the win-lose worldview of a zero-sum game, any concession made to somebody on a bike means that somebody else must “lose.”
And that worldview leads to pushback against cyclists. Bike lanes are under attack by everybody who isn’t on a bike. In Williamsburg, leaders in the Hasidic community objected to bike lanes. Their rationale? “Hotties” on bikes would offend the religious sensibilities of the community. No, wait, that wasn’t it—it was a “safety issue.” Or something. Pressure was brought to bear on City Hall, and the offending bike lanes were removed.
In the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, an automobile lane was replaced with a new bike lane.Traffic was calmed, and the street became safer.
Although most Park Slope residents support the bike lane, some objected, pushing for a return to the good old days of less safety. Although these well-connected NIMBYs have fired their first salvo over the Park Slope bike lane, they’ve made no secret of their desire to stop all bike lanes in New York City.
Politicians have joined in the bicycle-bashing. From behind the scenes, Senator Charles Schumer is working his connections to get the bike lanes removed, while Representative Anthony Weiner, who has mayoral ambitions, semi-publicly informed Mayor Bloomberg that he will spend his first year as Mayor “tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.”
Politicians are attacking from atop the bandwagon as well. One proposal would require all New York City cyclists to register their bikes and affix a small sticker to their seat tube. Councilmember Eric Ulrich insists that this is a public safety measure, although his office has reportedly been unable to name a single constituent who was injured by a cyclist.
Still, bike-on-pedestrian crashes are a public safety issue, and one of the main complaints against cyclists is that they endanger pedestrians by riding on the sidewalks. But when cyclists ride on sidewalks, it is not because they are “scofflaws,” it is because they feel endangered by motorists when they ride in the street. The obvious solution to that problem would be to make some road space for cyclists—which is exactly what the city has been doing.
In contrast, bicycle registration does nothing to promote safety. The stickers are not readily visible to any bystanders who might witness a collision between a cyclist and a pedestrian. And if a motorist wanted to report a cyclist violating a law—say, running a red light—registration is of no use to law enforcement, because police can only issue traffic citations when the officer witnesses a traffic violation.
Does a bicycle registration law serve any purpose, then? Unfortunately, yes. In Los Angeles, police used a similar law to harass and ticket otherwise law-abiding cyclists. Would the NYPD use a registration law to target and harass cyclists? Consider the department’s recent history:
• The city agreed to a $965,000 settlement with 83 wrongfully arrested cyclists.
• Five other cyclists sued for wrongful arrest—and won.
• Cyclists who rode around a police car parked in a bike lane were ticketed for not riding in the bike lane—by the officer who had blocked the lane.
• In January, the department launched a “forever” ticketing blitz for traffic violations—directed solely at cyclists.
• Cyclists have received citations for imaginary violations—like the “helment” violation David Lettier was charged with.
In Los Angeles, when the City Council was informed that the LAPD was using the city’s bicycle registration law to harass law-abiding cyclists, the ordinance was repealed. Other cities have repealed their bicycle registration ordinances, after receiving similar complaints about law enforcement harassment of cyclists.
But for proponents, mandatory registration is seen as a way to stick it to cyclists, while still seeming to be fair. “If you want the right to use the road, you should be registered,” they argue, stubbornly ignoring that cyclists already have the right to the road, and are already subject to the existing traffic laws.
Enter New York Assemblyman Michael DenDekker: he proposed a bill that would require a license plate on all bikes. Expounding a bit further on his idea, DenDekker said he’d like to see cameras aimed at the bike lanes, to record whether cyclists are wearing helmets—apparently unaware that cyclists are not required to wear helmets in New York. However, after his proposal was roundly criticized, DenDekker took the hint, and withdrew his legislation.
What is it about cyclists that engenders such animosity in New York? The usual angry rhetoric accuses New York’s cyclists of ignoring the laws. But here’s the thing: ALL New Yorkers, pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists alike, disregard the traffic laws. So if New York cyclists disregard the traffic laws, how does that make them any different from any other New Yorker?
It doesn’t. Well, except for that traffic safety part. Last year alone, 269 people were killed in crashes in New York City; 151 of these fatalities were pedestrians, 18 were cyclists. And who was responsible for these fatalities? 80% of all New York City crashes resulting in serious injury or death to a pedestrian involved a male driver, with 79% of the most serious crashes involving private passenger cars. Bicyclists are apparently so insignificant a factor in traffic fatalities that they did not even figure into the percentages.
Nevertheless, when the city decided to crack down on traffic lawlessness, it was cyclists who got the “dangerous scofflaw” label, and the NYPD went after them with a vengeance. Within the first two weeks of January, over 1000 citations had been to cyclists, with a promise that the crackdown was permanent.
Look, everybody has a duty to observe the traffic laws. They are an essential component of public safety, and should be enforced. But what’s happening in New York is different—the traffic laws are being strictly enforced against cyclists, while pedestrians and motorists get a pass to continue to ignore the traffic laws. If the city was truly concerned about public safety, the logical place to start would be with preventing traffic fatalities—and that would mean directing attention at the motorist behavior that caused 269 deaths last year. Instead, the NYPD is consumed with its irrational war against cyclists.
And it’s not just the NYPD. Politicians, well-connected NIMBY groups, and New York media outlets are all locked in this senseless war against New York’s cyclists. And to what end? The pro-bike policies of Mayor Bloomberg, and his Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, have made the streets safer for everybody. The antithesis of these safer streets is what the anti-cycling zealots would have New York return to.
By Bob Mionske
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.
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This article, The Bicycle Wars, was originally published on Bicycling on March 8, 2011.