End the Anarchy: Critical Mass deserves a police escort to keep it safe

am New York | November 5, 2004

By Alex Storozynski

A rogue group of aggressive cyclists is playing a dangerous game of chicken with the New York Police Department. This morning, both sides are headed to federal court. The judge should end this confrontation in the name of public safety.

For the past several years, hundreds of cyclists have taken to the streets on the last Friday of each month for "Critical Mass" rides to promote environmentally friendly transportation and cycling safety. But in recent months, these rides have become anything but safe.

In the past, the NYPD has tolerated them, even though the participants ignore traffic laws and block intersections. But now, about a thousand cyclists take part in these rides each month, so the police are looking for a way to make this event safe.

Unlike other bike tours of the city, the Critical Mass group refuses to obtain a permit and the routes are chosen haphazardly at the last moment by people at the front of these ever-growing rides. This summer the tone of these events became combative. Instead of promoting safety, the riders celebrate anarchy.

On July 30, hundreds of bikers entered the FDR Highway at night. Motorists driving at speeds that are legal on the highway were suddenly dodging bicycles that were going much slower.

The riders flout other laws as well. Teams of bicycles are sent out ahead of the group to "cork," or block, side streets so the pack can go through red lights unfettered for as long as 20 minutes at a time. In July, the massive bike ride blocked an ambulance while its siren wailed. That same night, a TV news crew videotaped cyclists beating a driver who tried to go through a green light during the ride.

While the average Critical Mass ride has about 1,000 cyclists, some 5,000 showed up in August to protest the Republican National Convention. That ride became confrontational, chaotic and dangerous. Police arrested more than 250 for disorderly conduct.

On other occasions, riders have stopped in Times Square and carried bicycles over their heads, bringing the crossroads of the world to a standstill. When the police handed out flyers that said the cyclists needed to follow traffic laws, some of these flyers were set on fire.

And last Friday, the Critical Mass mob tried to take over the FDR once again. Bicycles on the streets make sense. Bicycles on a highway are a recipe for disaster.
That's why Judge William Pauley III, who will preside over this matter today in the Federal Southern District, should prohibit these mass rides until the organizers ask for a permit from the NYPD. Judge Pauley should order Critical Mass to obey the rules of the road, such as stopping at red lights, not blocking intersections and avoiding highways.

The motto of Critical Mass is: "We are not blocking traffic, we are traffic.” Well, then follow the traffic rules. The drivers of automobiles who ignore traffic lights or block the box receive hefty fines and points on their licenses that drive their insurance rates higher.

The Critical Mass crew says that it cannot ask for a permit because it is not an organization, per se. Yet somehow, Critical Mass has a Web site and a lawyer, and it puts out press releases.

The argument that this is an infringement on civil liberties is ridiculous. This is not a freedom of speech issue. These riders are breaking traffic laws. In fact, the city and the police agree, bicycles are a good form of transportation. It's a matter of safety.
The NYPD says that with permits, it would allow the Critical Mass riders to go through red lights. But the police would have to be present to block traffic. That way, if an emergency vehicle needs to pass, the police could temporarily stop the cyclists.
This paper supports cycling as a form of transportation in this city, for recreation and commuting. That's why we run a weekly column by Transportation Alternatives. The TA is a respected and rational advocacy group for bicyclists, pedestrians and sensible transportation. The group has done a tremendous job making New York City more responsive to the needs of those who ride bikes for recreation and to commute.
The city has a strong record of supporting cyclists. Mayor Bloomberg, for example, says he supports the Critical Mass agenda, but not their method.

New York City is growing more bicycle friendly all the time. Just this summer, the city opened a new bike path over the Manhattan Bridge. That means all four East River bridges now have bike paths. And since 1997, the city has increased the length of its bike lanes from 56 miles to more than 182 miles.

The city's Department of Transportation has a bicycle division of eight people that works on things like finding new areas to create bicycle lanes, printing bicycle maps and responding to requests to provide more bicycle racks to businesses and communities that request them.

The vast majority of riders who take part in the Critical Mass rides each month have their hearts and pedals in the right place. But a small group of anarchists has hijacked the ride and is using it to confront the police. These bikers are giving Critical Mass and cycling a bad name.

The riders should get a permit, and get the police to shut down side traffic as the ride makes its way through the city. That way, Critical Mass can remain a safe and massive event that welcomes the thousand or so bicyclists who want to take part.

The monthly Critical Mass bicycle ride has been turned into an unnecessary confrontation with the NYPD While most participants in the ride have their hearts and pedals in the right place, using the event as a way to promote cycling safety, others have been more flagrant breaking traffic laws, giving cycling a bad name. (Getty Images).

About a thousand cyclists take part in the monthly Critical Mass bicycle ride. With the event growing larger, the NYPD wants the cyclists to get a permit for the event to make it safer.