2004-12-05 A Critical Mess - NY Times

A Critical Mess


New York Times

December 5th, 2004

Editorials Op/Ed


The sight of hundreds or even thousands of bicycles on busy streets
is something that sounds more like Beijing than New York, but on
Manhattan's avenues, it has become a regular event. In monthly rides
meant to promote healthful and nonpolluting commuting, cyclists have
gathered and then pedaled for a few blocks en masse, often up Park
Avenue from a parking lot at Union Square.

The ride, called Critical Mass, is part of a grass-roots effort
that has taken hold in major American cities and hundreds of other
cities worldwide. In recent months, though, what for six years had
been a generally uneventful spin in New York City has drawn the ire of
the police, who regard the bikers as a safety and security hazard and
illegal to boot. The city has asked a federal court to halt the rides
unless organizers get a permit, as they would for a parade. That could
bring the rides to an unfortunate end.

Some cyclists have contributed to the showdown with unnecessarily
aggressive behavior like blocking traffic and running red lights.
Even so, the police seem to have come on awfully strong. Other cities,
among them Chicago and San Francisco, have found ways to reconcile
bikers and the police. But politics and increasingly frayed tempers
have complicated matters in New York.

The turning point seems to have occurred before the Republican
convention last summer, when regularly scheduled rides -- on the
last Friday of the month -- took on overtones of a political protest.
In July, some cyclists headed to the F.D.R. Drive, where bike riding
is not allowed. At the end of August, just before the convention,
Critical Mass attracted 5,000 riders. As part of a general crackdown
on protests without permits, the police detained hundreds of riders --
including, apparently, innocent bystanders. Since then, scores more
Critical Mass cyclists have been arrested.

Norman Siegel, a prominent civil rights lawyer who is representing
five riders whose bicycles were confiscated, agrees that Critical Mass
riders should obey traffic laws. But he has reasonable concerns about
what the police want. By petitioning to bar future rides by groups of
even a few cyclists unless they have permits, he says, the city is
seeking to pre-empt Critical Mass altogether.

Critical Mass has no organizers, and there's no way to know how
many riders will participate in any given month. That's a problem if
a permit to ride must be regularly obtained. The movement -- which
takes its name from a documentary film about cycling -- spread from
San Francisco in the early 1990's through the Internet and word
of mouth. Various Web sites keep riders informed, but there is no
hierarchy, and there's no formal leader of the pack. Critical Mass
by its nature is no leaders and all followers, joined together by a
love of cycling.

There is no law keeping bikes off the streets. The sudden
appearance of thousands of riders obviously poses a challenge, but
need not inconvenience others if riders do their part and obey traffic
laws as they should. There are no doubt scofflaws among Critical Mass
bikers, just as there are among car drivers. But the problem now is
that instead of issuing summonses, the police have been arresting the
cyclists, handcuffing and taking them away. That is not the best use
of New York's finest.

In a city like New York, with heavy traffic congestion and
overburdened mass transit, bicycles offer an alternative that ought
to be encouraged. Bicycles do not create dangerous air emissions.
They offer health benefits to the riders. And they're easier on the
city's aging roads.

Past efforts to encourage commuter biking included the path on
Sixth Avenue, a project of Mayor Ed Koch. Few people used it, many
complained about it, and it was abandoned. But times are changing. As
a way to promote cycling, Critical Mass has legs, in more ways than
one. The city should work with riders to defuse their disagreement so
the monthly rides can go on, in an orderly, lawful and safe way.

Copyright 2004, New York Times