Seems that New York police are not overly fond of Critical Mass riders. Apparently they make a habit of harassing, ticketing, detaining, arresting, confiscating bicycles, and even injuring New York Critical Mass participants.
The good – and quite amazing – news is that New York City agreed recently to pay out almost a million dollars to settle a lawsuit brought by 83 Critical Mass cyclists in 2007. Some cyclists got $500; one got as much as $35,000.
The conflict arises from the fact that the New York police have been unable to stomach Critical Mass cyclists flouting traffic laws. N.Y.P.D. spokesperson Paul Browne described Critical Mass rides as “anarchy”! So the N.Y.P.D. has deployed hundreds of officers, a mobile command unit and even a helicopter to monitor the rides!
Oooh … gotta keep an eye on those scary people on their 20 pound bicycles!
I have to say that this kind of angry, punitive approach contrasts sharply with my impression of the Vancouver Police during Vancouver’s Critical Mass last month. It seemed to me that the two policemen on bicycles were there more to protect than to monitor. Which is as it should be.
Critical Mass is a peaceful demonstration that minimally disrupts traffic just once a month, while making a point that really needs to be made: cyclists have the right to take up road space.
Critical Mass in New York City has a particularly proud record. Cycling in this city was much more dangerous in the 1990s, with few bike lanes. Critical Mass emerged in Manhattan as a way for cyclists to promote cycling safety and visibility by cycling together in a group, and it quickly grew. Just as in Vancouver, the ride attracts all kinds of cyclists, from all strata of society: families, bike messengers, kids, social activists, children and grandmothers.
Lawyer David B. Rankin, one of the lawyers who represented the cyclists, expressed the optimistic hope that the city’s policies toward the Critical Mass cyclists have now changed:
“We hope that the cyclists and the N.Y.P.D. can figure out a way to work together.”
Let’s hope that Critical Mass cyclists and the New York Police Department can indeed figure out a way to work together. Perhaps the N.Y.P.D. should take a trip up to Vancouver and observe how it should be done.
Critical Mass has a very bad reputation. But it comes from the phrase “Critical MAss” meaning getting enough people together to create a critical mass to cross the road without being run over by cars. I feel it is important to remember this because it is about self protection, not about civil disobedience. When a group is in danger, it has to get together to show its strength in numbers. Bikers are alwys in danger because they are smaller and cars are faster, so we must get together with all other bikes, regardless of our differences, and build our critical mass whether at a critical mass ride or just on the streets every day.
I personally think that Critical Mass has reached the point where it’s doing more harm than good for the cycling movement. Acts like shutting down the Lions Gate Bridge are really counterproductive to the cause.
When I first heard about it a few years back I wanted to join a Critical Mass ride, but I never found the time. Now that it’s betting such bad press I really don’t want to be a part of it.
It seems to me that most Vancouverites are now well aware of cycling issues, and much of the credit may well be due to Critical Mass. But I think the time has come to switch from using a stick to finding the right carrot.
You could be right, Sean – given how much the Critical Mass rides enfuriate some motorists (although I definitely think their fury is out of all proportion to the 5-minute delays …)
Any ideas on what that carrot could be?
That’s a good question, and I wish I had a good answer. Right now the best I can suggest is to not antagonize motorists.
I try to do this by actually stopping at stop signs, at least when other cars are present. I smile and nod at drivers who stop to let me through to acknowledge their kindness (it’s amazing how often they do this even though they have the right of way). If a motorist and I are both waiting at an intersection for the other guy to go first I wave him through. And I try to be predictable by doing things like signaling turns and moving into the traffic lane gradually when I have to go around parked cars.
Last year as I was heading downtown on the Adanac bike route I pulled up to Clarke drive and hit the button to change the lights. At that moment a huge semitrailer was approaching the intersection and there was a raucous burst of squealing and shuddering as he fought his rig to a stop. I thought “so much for all the gas I saved by riding my bike today”… That taught me to wait for a natural break in the traffic so I can cross without stopping anyone, or at least try to avoid hitting the light when it will stop a bus, semitrailer, or a big pack of cars.
That’s my best suggestion. I’m not sure if it’s enough to counter the inevitable rogues of the road, but it surely can’t hurt.
That IS a good answer, Sean! Actually, you have just described exactly the way I bike, too. (Except I had not thought of waiting for a natural break in the traffic – that’s a good idea.)
I like to think of good mannered biking as winning them over, one motorist at a time. I even thank them when they do things that are merely required by law, such as stopping at a stop sign and waiting for me to go by, rather than just speeding straight through to avoid having to wait 5 seconds for my bike to pass. In such instances I think of it as rewarding good (albeit legally-required) behaviour, and in this way trying to encourage good driving … and also I really appreciate it, as I do encounter a fair number of motorists who will break the law rather than be delayed by a cyclist – for example, by jumping the line at a 4-way stop, rather than letting me take my turn in the correct sequence.
However, I agree with you that there are an amazing number of motorists who will stop even when they do NOT have to. My wife and I just returned from a ride to Vancouver and back, returning on the CVG. At almost every one of the roads without lights, motorists stopped for us. Restores my faith …