NYC Police Crack Down on Cyclists in Central Park
New York City's Traditionally Lax Enforcement of Traffic Laws on Cyclists is over – but bike riders say it's vindictive
By Matt Seaton
We're sitting in a cafe at the halfway point in our weekend ride, using cups of coffee to warm hands chilled by the sub-zero temperature outside, and my friend Derrick relates how he was ticketed recently by police in Central Park in New York.
"It was about 11 in the morning and I was just there to take pictures. I was cruising gently around, doing about 10mph, and there I am -- pulled over by a cop for going through a red, and given a ticket."
"How much was it for?"
"Two hundred and seventy bucks."
A little local knowledge here. There are a couple of semi-submerged cross-town routes that traverse Central Park in Manhattan that are always open to traffic, but in the park itself the main loop road is only open to cars and cabs for a few hours a day. Otherwise, it belongs to pedestrians, dogwalkers, joggers, runners, rollerbladers and cyclists. There are lots of crossing points with traffic lights, but the park is so popular with recreational and sports cyclists in all but the hardest winter months, that the unwritten rule is that pedestrians look out for themselves when they cross and the traffic signals are irrelevant when the park's closed to vehicular traffic.
Except now, apparently, they're not. And park cops are out there ambushing bike-riders and writing them up any time they like. The injustice of this practice has sparked, of course, a counter Facebook group -- with the catchy title of "Suspend the lights in Central Park when closed to vehicular traffic".
But it's not just in the park; police are cracking down on cyclists all over. Hundreds of tickets have been issued over the last few weeks by the NYPD, apparently determined to issue a stern warning to riders as they start to emerge from winter hibernation: the city's traditionally lax enforcement of traffic laws on cyclists is over -- run a red, or ride the wrong way down a street, and now you risk being busted.
This is fair enough, and a change in the old laissez-faire attitude was probably due. It's pretty annoying, and sometimes scary, to find a restaurant delivery guy barrelling towards you the wrong way down the bike lane on one of their hefty electric bikes. And it's dangerous for pedestrians who naturally assume they only have to look in one direction before stepping across the bike path.
But there are two problems with the new get-tough policy. One is specific to Central Park: it's a recreational area, shared for years by New Yorkers seeking fresh air and exercise. A policy of enforcing the observance of traffic signals when the roads are closed to traffic would kill cycling in the park. At a time when public policy should be supporting health and fitness, it's sheer folly.
There is a bigger picture, however -- and one that raises familiar issues for urban cyclists all over. The context in New York for this crackdown on cyclists' traffic violations is political. New York's department of transportation has invested much capital -- real and metaphorical -- in installing miles of bike paths, pedestrianised and share-use zones. It has pushed through these measures, often despite opposition from local residents and businesses. But now there's a backlash.
The most publicised local instance is where some well-to-do residents of Park Slope in Brooklyn have leveraged their influence (as they count among their number the previous city transportation commissioner, who happens to be married also to a New York senator) with a noisy campaign against one particular bike lane. But this is symptomatic of a broader pushback.
The transportation department has responded by announcing a public information campaign designed to encourage better behaviour by cyclists (entitled "Don't Be a Jerk!", as mentioned here previously). But it's clear also that city hall -- feeling under attack for offering cyclists too many carrots -- now wants to be seen to be wielding a stick.
That might seem like smart politics just now, but it's dangerously short-termist. If the result is that too many cyclists, caught unawares by this dramatic shift in policy, get fined off the road with $270 tickets, then the city government will simply have failed its own policy objectives and delivered a big win to the pro-car, anti-sustainable transport lobby.
We've seen the shape of this battle before in the UK, faced by cycling organisations like the CTC and London Cycling Campaign. The real challenge for the pro-bike groups, such as Transportation Alternatives in New York, is not to get caught in the trap of seeming to defend the indefensible (that is, making excuses for red-light runners), but to advocate responsible cycling while criticising what's counter-productive and petty-vindictive about the crackdown.
It's not an easy balancing act, but this anti-bike backlash creates a dangerous moment. It may seem like a little local trouble, but the consequences could go far beyond -- and last long after Derrick has settled his fine.
Submitted by volunteer on March 14, 2011 - 16:07. categories [ ]