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hell on wheels
critical mass riders vs. the city of new york
by jeffrey d. walker

Late one Friday evening just before the spring, I was walking with my girlfriend in the West Village. On our way to the next watering hole, we were approaching an intersection when a motley crew of bicyclists suddenly overtook the breadth of roadway that lay before us. The rush of riders seemed like a herd of cattle careening down all lanes of travel. Some rode BMX bikes, some rode mountain bikes, and some rode street bikes. A few sported vintage models, some rode expensive new models, some traveled on folding models and some rode tandem bikes. A few made due on roller blades and scooters. They were young and old. Some dressed to draw attention to themselves, blowing horns or blaring radios tied onto their handlebars and yelling as they made their way, while others appeared to be quietly proceeding coincidentally amongst a sea of other riders. I watched as a couple hundred cyclists made their way past and disappeared in a southerly direction just as unexpectedly as they had appeared.

This was my first and only in person experience with the monthly bicycle protest known as Critical Mass. At the time I didn’t know it was a protest (they ride in support of low and non-emission transportation alternatives), but the majesty and harmony of all those riders moving together was a scene that stayed with me for some time. It inspired shock and awe.

The Critical Mass riders next came to my attention in August of this year when their monthly outing, falling on the last Friday of each month, overlapped with another event that was taking place: The Republican National Convention. And the two did not mix well.

Although Critical Mass rides take place each month in over 300 cities worldwide, and although several websites and blogs document large monthly rides in New York City clear back into 2001, New York City law enforcement officials warned the CM riders that they would have to obtain a permit if they planned to ride on the last Friday of August in 2004. This was the same mandate put on all groups wishing to protest during the RNC. (Despite your interpretation of the right to assembly guaranteed by the United States Constitution, protest groups are generally required to obtain a permit before gathering).

However, Critical Mass “organizers” indicated that they did not intend to seek a permit because they had not be required to do so in the past. I use the quotes around “organizers” because it is difficult when the website www.critical-mass.org expressly states: The ".org" domain notwithstanding, Critical Mass is not an organization, it's an unorganized coincidence. But I'm also troubled about calling a ride that takes place on the final Friday of every month a “coincidence.”

Regardless of my confusion, the New York City Police Department was clear when it arrested and confiscated the bicycles of many Critical Mass riders on the last Friday in August, 2004. Despite the fact that no such police action had ever occurred before. Despite the fact that prior documented encounters with the NYPD and the CM riders had occurred without incident, and without the requirement of a permit to ride.

Most of the charges against the riders were dropped. Most of the bikes were also returned. But the problem did not end there. Attorneys for The City of New York [writer's note: I am also an attorney for the City of New York, though not in the division that dealt with this issue] asked the Court to require the CM riders to obtain a permit before their monthly ride. Critical Mass riders, increasingly concerned by the escalating police presence at their rides, and after several more arrests and bicycle confiscations, filed a Lawsuit of their own against the City of New York alleging that the police officers’ actions were a violation of the riders’ civil rights. While the merits of the bikers’ civil rights lawsuit are ongoing, a judge ruled in early November that the CM riders do not need to get a permit from the City before their ride (although, he indicated that the group should let police know of their intended route in advance).

As a City attorney, I can understand the concerns of the police. There is much benefit to the orderly flow of traffic. Critical Mass would counter that they are traffic. Which is true; however, as such, they are subject to the rules of the road that any other vehicle is subject to. Specific to bicycles, that would include: New York Vehicle and Traffic law § 1234, which specifies that riders must travel on the right hand shoulder of the road and cannot ride more than two abreast; NY VTL § 1236, indicating that a bicycle must be equipped with a lamp after sunset, and; NY VTL § 1237, stating that hand and arm signals must be used (just to name a few). A vast majority of the riders I saw in my one experience would have been eligible for a ticket on one, if not all of these offenses. In a June 22, 2004 New York Daily News piece that seemed to favor the position of the riders, staff columnist Joshua Robin nonchalantly admitted that the riders blatantly ignored traffic signals, though “Not many motorists appeared angry. Most seemed startled.”

A fair assessment; I recall being startled to see a flock of cycles appear. And although they did not obey the rules of traffic, you’d be surprised how quickly a few hundred bikes can flow past. However, an opinion piece in the November 7th New York Post asserts that “in recent months,” the once orderly Critical Mass rides have “deteriorated into mass disruptions of traffic.” Having seen the ride but once, long before this battle between CM and the NYPD started, it’s difficult for me to assess the truth of this statement. But given how congested and disrupted traffic in New York is generally, I’m reluctant to blame a few hundred cyclists for causing even a fraction of the total traffic problems in the greater Manhattan area on the nights they ride.

I am left torn between my understanding of the law and the magic that I know as a citizen in New York. Were it not for the recent publicity, I could picture taking my vintage English Three-Speed racer and joining the CM riders on a spin thorough the roadways of Manhattan. What more beautiful way could there be to tour the City? Then I think of riders being struck by an automobile or crashing into a pothole, suffering serious bodily injuries. That’s the kind of lawsuit I see every day. Not to mention, I’ve been arrested enough. I’m old enough to know that the City has an interest in public safety; I’m young enough to support the cyclists’ right to ride down the street in a stunning mass. Right and wrong blur together like the spokes on the bicycle wheels whizzing through the streets. I wonder if the City and CM can achieve the kind of balance it takes the riders to conquer the roadway?


A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

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russ carr
11.19.04 @ 7:51a

This really is a dicey situation. I've only been to Manhattan once, but I remember the traffic vividly; it's about like Chicago, only about 30 percent more congested. And I would NOT want to move en masse through the Loop on a bike unless the streets had been blocked off.

I understand the concerns of the NYPD, but it IS tough to swallow that they would feel this need to change precedent, even with the RNC. For their part, CM should have the common sense to know that -- with gummint anxiety over terrorism around the conventions -- they might have to tiptoe around their regularly scheduled unorganized ride.

This is another example of where the law is forced to mediate when simple common courtesy could have handled things just fine.

Apropos of nothing, but...

why is a PROtest nearly always considered bad,

while a CONtest is nearly always considered good?

jeffrey walker
11.19.04 @ 9:00a

Answer: Contest = good because Americans love to compete and win. Protest = bad, because Americans do not like to be told what to do or think.

I can understand the fear of traffic in NYC. It’s all an attitude thing – people here (both drivers and bikers) routinely ignore traffic signals. I recall my first trip here at age 18. To my friend who was driving: “hey – you just ran that red light.” Driver Bob W., “Yeah, but so did the three cars behind us.” The double parking? The constant lane changing? Fighting taffic in NYC as much of a running-with-the-bulls-esque sport as it is means of transportation. I think its just something you get used to here.

jael mchenry
11.19.04 @ 11:34a

The image of a swarm of bike riders reminds me of the time I walked into a bar (called Hell) in October, and it was filled to the brim with people in Santa suits.

Kinda odd.

They were protesting something, too. I think they were pro-anarchy. Although very organized, considering.

jeffrey walker
11.19.04 @ 12:48p

re: the riders;

here is an exerpt from an e-mail sent by a non-intrepid member commenting on this article

i HAVE seen several critical mass rides and they are downright dangerous. the first time, i was walking along and suddenly saw hundreds of bikes speeding down Park Avenue. they did not obey ANY traffic laws; in fact, at each intersection half a dozen or so would stop in the street and block all vehicular traffic so that the other hundreds could blow by completely unimpeded. basically they created the same roadblocks that are normally associated with the ones the PD puts up for parades. I also saw them impede an ambulance by (a) continuing with the roadblock and (b) not stopping or moving aside. I was so frightened by what looked like a bunch of unmotorized hell's angles that I called the police. I support their purpose and their rides, but for the safety of all new yorkers, they must obey the traffic laws, they must get permits, and if they do not, they must be arrested. you saw a bunch of cyclists in the village, which may seem like a cool, free-spirited, american way type of thing, but on the major streets of new york city, running amok, blocking traffic, impeding emergency services, and freaking people out, it is just not cool at all.

juli mccarthy
11.19.04 @ 3:53p

I have to say I agree - one person's rights end where the next person's starts. Peaceful protest is cool, but interfering with an ambulance is bad.

I'm in favor of cycling, but this is kind skirting the line into inciting mob action, isn't it?

jeffrey walker
11.19.04 @ 4:14p

I can see it being called a "mob" -- but it isn't like an angry bunch of people out to cause trouble. They're just riding through.

I suppose I could only be agreeing with it because the actual spectacle of bikers in mass is very interesting. Anyone that sees it would watch it, anyway. I suppose if this was just people walking, I wouldn't attach anything positive with it. But I cut these bikers a little slack, be it justified or not.

Not to mention, I know f no documented situation where these bikers held up EMS employees to any serious negative impact on anyone. If anything, their actions are a temporary inconvenience. But its an inconvenience that looks cool. I’ll admit I’m much more likely to give them a pass for slowing me down as opposed to an inconvenience of a guy double parked in the roadway, or some guy hassling me for change on the sidewalk. Screw those guys. If that makes me biased or unfair, so be it.

juli mccarthy
11.19.04 @ 4:28p

For the most part, I'm with you. I go into the city (in my case, Chicago) rarely enough that *I* am a nuisance - street performers, beggars, bicycle messengers, you name it, I stop and gawk. I can't tell you how many times I've almost been run over by (justifiably) angry people because I came to a complete stop right in front of them.

robert melos
11.19.04 @ 5:53p

Juli makes a very interesting point here when she says, "one person's rights end where the next person's starts."

This applies to everything in life, and a plethora of individuals rights being trampled on by other individuals who also believe their rights supersede the rights of everyone else.

Very metaphoric of the world situation in general. It would seem common sense to yield to cars, but yet laws give pedestrians the right of way in many places. Bicyclists could fall into that category, but not quite. They are just more at risk because of traffic, yet a group of people on foot could also block traffic.

I haven't been to NYC since before 2000. I used to enjoy going there, but haven't for sometime because of the high prices for most things. Yet it would be nice to see a flow of bikes going by in the village.

Besides, if it thumbs its nose at conventional thinking, I'm all for it.

rawls !!!
11.19.04 @ 6:59p

I really like the balance of Jeff's piece (and subsequent dialogue here), I'm sort of on the fence about this as well. I've known of CM since the mid '90's. When conducted in towns like Greensboro and Raleigh, NC it REALLY creates havoc at rush hour, I'm not saying New Yorkers are predisposed to disruptions in traffic but people in NC are definitely NOT. On the one hand the Raleigh area ranks very low in pedestrian and biking safety and CM is a good (albeit jolting) reminder for cars to take it easy...but then it would suck to be caught in the traffic this can cause.

tracey kelley
11.22.04 @ 10:38a

I think if a protest doesn't communicate the message well, then it isn't a good protest. Had the column not stated the purpose of CM, I would have never known. Thus, when I encounter them, I'd probably just be pissed off, which lessens the likelihood that I'll listen to the message.

So interesting or not, the main point should be is it effective? If not, then it's just grandstanding.

lisa r
11.22.04 @ 8:42p

My mother is a retired nurse, and I grew up around EMT's. Blocking EMS's route to the hospital is not only asinine, it's illegal. Every second counts if someone is in cardiac arrest, has uncontrolled bleeding, or is in anaphylactic shock. With all due respect to Jeff, the fact that they held up EMS for any length of time is selfish to the point of being criminal. Their right to protest granted under the First Amendment does not include the right to interfere with someone's right to receive immediate emergency care in the pursuit of that protest. Period.

I'll go one step further--I hope if anyone ever does suffer as a result of such behavior on the part of a group of Critical Mass riders, I hope the riders have their bike pants sued off them. There's simply no excuse for such a callous disregard for life.

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