IMAGINE YOU’RE THE POLICE COMMISSIONER of a large American city.
You’re charged with enforcing the laws, fighting crime, keeping public order, and protecting the public’s safety.
And in a large American city, there’s more than enough to keep you and your police force busy. So where do you focus your efforts? Do you focus so intently on serious violations that you neglect dealing with the far more numerous minor violations? Do you obsess over minor violations, to the extent that you neglect dealing with the serious violations? Or do you try to deploy your forces to bring down the serious violations while also keeping an eye out for the more minor violations?
If you’re Ray Kelly, police commissioner of New York City, the answer is clear: You obsess over minor violations by cyclists while ignoring virtually all other traffic violations in the city.
The question increasingly being raised is: Why? What has pushed this over-the-top vendetta against New York’s cycling community?
I know, I know. Ray Kelly will say that it’s being pushed by the lawlessness of New York’s cyclists. Sorry, Ray, but that one just pegs the BS meter. If traffic lawlessness were the prime concern of Ray Kelly, why are motorists and pedestrians—both groups notorious for being traffic scofflaws—getting a total free pass to violate the law with impunity?
You don’t believe that’s happening? Check this out then. In their continuing crackdown on cyclists, New York’s finest set up a speed trap in Central Park at 6 a.m., before the park is opened to motorized traffic, but at exactly the right time to catch roadies getting some training time in before the office.
Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but that sounds to me like the police were out looking for cyclists, and only cyclists. The telltale giveaway is that after issuing tickets to every cyclist they could nab, the police packed up their speed trap and left when the park was opened to motor vehicles. That way, they wouldn’t have to explain why they were ignoring speeding motorists.
What confused cyclists even more was when they were told that the speed limit for cyclists is 15, despite the speed limit for motorists being 25. Cyclists weren’t the only ones confused by this new onslaught. Police officials rescinded the tickets later that day, as they sheepishly admitted that the speed limit for cyclists is indeed 25, and that they would rather be doing something else.
They would rather be doing something else. Another telltale giveaway—this one being that the orders to harass cyclists are coming from “higher up.” As high as the precinct captain? No, higher.
So what got Ray Kelly’s shorts all in a bunch? A rude encounter with a cyclist? Or something more personal—say, a public comment from traffic commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan about Ray Kelly’s failure to call a snow emergency following a December blizzard? That’s what some are saying. And—assuming they’re right—Ray Kelly responded to the very public comment about the blizzard response by launching an all-out war against cyclists.
Under this tit-for-tat hypothesis, some say that Kelly is “getting back” at Sadik-Khan by going after what is widely perceived as her “favored” group—cyclists.
Of course, Kelly could deny that he has an anti-cyclist agenda—but he hasn’t. And even if he did, there’d be a lot of history to deny, going all the way back to the 2004 Republican National Convention, which saw cyclists arrested for the simple act of riding their bikes lawfully on the street.
Following that massive assault on civil liberties, Kelly’s police force engaged in a protracted war with Critical Mass, a war that resulted in payouts of over $1 million dollars to wrongfully arrested cyclists.
Under Kelly’s command, the NYPD has launched a crackdown on violations by cyclists, focusing their attention on everything from the ridiculous (red-light violations when the park is closed to motorized traffic—here’s an idea, how about flashing yellow lights when the park is closed to automobiles?) to the nonsensical (ticketing cyclists for nonexistent violations, like not wearing “helments” and violating a15-mph speed limit).
Really, Commissioner Kelly? This is the best you can do? This is the legacy you want to be remembered for? Have you so thoroughly addressed all of the other law-enforcement issues in New York that there’s nothing left to do but harass cyclists for imaginary and petty violations?
Here’s a clue, commissioner, free of charge. We know that 80% of pedestrian deaths and serious injuries are caused by male motorists driving private cars. That, and not some roadie training at 6 a.m. on a closed and deserted park road, is the real safety problem in New York. Yes, we know that occasionally cyclists engage in dangerous behavior, and we know that law enforcement directed at dangerous behavior is necessary and desirable.
But let’s compare the numbers here. One pedestrian was killed by a cyclist in 2009. Last year alone,269 New Yorkers were killed by reckless drivers. The numbers don’t lie, Commissioner Kelly—cyclists aren’t the problem; reckless motorists are. You yourself are on record as opposing Commissioner Sadik-Khan’s bike-friendly policies because
“[They] levy additional obligations on us at a time of reduced manpower. These decisions impact on our deployment, on our use of resources. There is always some give-and-take.”
If that’s true—and I’m sure it is—isn’t it time to end this irrational war against cyclists, and start using your limited resources to address the real traffic-safety issues in New York, Commissioner Kelly?
By Bob Mionske
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.
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This article, The Bikelash Continues, was originally published on Bicycling on March 28, 2011.