Big pack of bikes piques police
By Martha T. Moore
Once a month for six years, Jym Dyer, a 44-year-old software engineer, hopped on his candy-apple-red bicycle and joined about 1,000 other riders to pedal through the canyons of Manhattan.
There was little organization and no route other than following the whim of the riders in the lead. The huge pack could simply take over the wide avenues and stream through intersections regardless of stop lights, while side-street traffic had to sit and wait. "It was wonderful," Dyer says.
But that changed in August before the Republican National Convention here. The bicyclists got political, the cops got mad, and now the city is in federal court trying to stop the rides from taking place.
Critical Mass, as the monthly bike ride is called, has turned into a showdown between bicyclists and city police. The skirmish began three days before the opening of the Republican convention, when the pack of bicyclists swelled to 5,000 and the ride turned into a rolling demonstration against President Bush. Police arrested more than 260 bicyclists.
At the September ride, nine people were arrested, and police confiscated bicycles of other riders who locked their bikes and left. A federal court judge later ruled that the police could not impound bicycles of people not arrested. At the Oct. 29 ride, 35 people were arrested and their bikes impounded.
On Friday, the city asked the same federal judge for an injunction to stop the ride unless the riders obtain a police permit. New York police now want Critical Mass to have an agreed route and to let the police control traffic at the intersections. Police say riders block intersections for a half-hour at a time to allow the pack of bikes to pass. As a result, emergency vehicles have been unable to move in the gridlock. In addition, the pack has used freeways that are off-limits to bicycles.
'We are traffic'
The bicyclists say they don't need a permit to use city streets. Plus, there's no group organizer to apply for one.
"We are traffic, and traffic doesn't need a permit," says Leah Rorvig, 22, a volunteer with Time's Up!, an environmental organization that publicizes the time and location of the ride on the group's Web site.
"If they were just traffic, they'd be sitting at the (red) light like everybody else," police spokesman Paul Browne says.
But Rorvig and other riders say the essence of the Critical Mass ride is that it is spontaneous. Riders wouldn't follow a planned route, they say. "That's explicitly the philosophy of Critical Mass, that there is no leadership," says Matthew Roth, 27, another Time's Up! volunteer. The ride "is about having those two hours of freedom."
The city and Critical Mass, represented by the five riders who sued over having their bikes confiscated, are due in court Dec. 8.
Riders: Police are problem
Critical Mass bike rides began in 1992 in San Francisco and have spread to more than 300 cities across the country and overseas. The rides are designed to encourage bicycling as an environmentally friendly way to get around the city.
But they have rolled into trouble before. In 1997, bicyclists and police had a run-in in San Francisco when some of the 5,000 riders diverged from an approved route, blocked traffic and fought with motorists. Police arrested 250 riders. In Los Angeles, more than 70 bicyclists were arrested during the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
In New York, the size of the group makes bike riding pleasant in contrast to everyday maneuvering through heavy traffic, riders say. Until August, the monthly rides were uneventful, even when good weather attracted more than 1,000 riders. "It's been happening here for six years without a problem," Rorvig says. "The people who are making it a problem are the police."
Advocates of urban bicycling worry that the fracas will weaken public support for spending city money on bike lanes and paths on the city's bridges and waterfront, says Transportation Alternatives, a New York advocacy group. That would make riding a bicycle in Manhattan, which already ranges from challenging to terrifying, even more difficult, says Noah Budnick, the group's chief bicycle advocate.
More than 112,000 people ride bicycles in the city, according to Transportation Alternatives. "We have the worst bike thieves in the country. We have furniture-sized potholes. And we've got drivers that run a million red lights every day," Budnick says. "Critical Mass encourages a lot of people to bike, that's for sure. But in New York City, where it's a very textured, complicated political environment, you need to have support for biking from all different groups, not just bicyclists. The conflict discourages support of bicycling."
For the ride set for Nov. 26, winter chill and early sunset will likely cause the number of riders to dwindle to a few hundred. But police say there is no reason to let the pack continue to break traffic laws.
"If suddenly you have the F.D.R. Drive (freeway) filled with bicycles, the public expects you to do something about it, not wait to see if it goes away on its own," says Browne, the police spokesman.
He attributes the tension to a sudden shift in the ride's agenda, not a change in police tactics. Over the summer, "they began to take on this different complexion, an anarchist notion of a wholesale takeover of the streets," Browne says.
To the contrary, rider Dyer says, he is trying to persuade other bicyclists to stop at lights during the next Critical Mass ride. "I don't see a new element of anarchist lawbreakers in the ride who are suddenly controlling it," he says. "I've read about them in the tabloids, but I've never met any of them."
Dyer, who was arrested during a
protest at the Republican convention and lost his red bike for three weeks,
wonders if the continued crackdown is to avoid the appearance of singling out
convention protesters for arrest. (He has pleaded not guilty and awaits a court
date.) But mostly, he says, "I just don't understand why they bother."
Submitted by forrest on February 8, 2008 - 12:36. categories [ ]