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December 4, 2004

Critical Mass vindicated! (for now)

As many of you know I have been doing the Critical Mass rides for a few years now, and recently the NYPD has taken upon itself to target otherwise peaceful cyclists in an asinine display of authority.

Yesterday, the injuction against the rides was struck down by the courts.

READ ON for a GREAT Times summary...

New York Times

December 5th, 2004

Editorials Op/Ed

The sight of hundreds or even thousands of bicycles on busy streets is some=
thing that sounds more like Beijing than New York, but on Manhattan's avenue=
s, it has become a regular event. In monthly rides meant to promote healthfu=
l 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 ta=
ken hold in major American cities and hundreds of other cities worldwide. In=
recent months, though, what for six years had been a generally uneventful s=
pin 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 fe=
deral 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 aggressiv=
e 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 S=
an Francisco, have found ways to reconcile bikers and the police. But politi=
cs and increasingly frayed tempers have complicated matters in New York.

The turning point seems to have occurred before the Republican convention l=
ast summer, when regularly scheduled rides - on the last Friday of the month=
- took on overtones of a political protest. In July, some cyclists headed t=
o 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 hundre=
ds of riders - including, apparently, innocent bystanders. Since then, score=
s more Critical Mass cyclists have been arrested.

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

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 m=
ust be regularly obtained. The movement - which takes its name from a docume=
ntary film about cycling - spread from San Francisco in the early 1990's thr=
ough 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. Critic=
al 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 tho=
usands of riders obviously poses a challenge, but need not inconvenience oth=
ers 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 d=
rivers. 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 mas=
s transit, bicycles offer an alternative that ought to be encouraged. Bicycl=
es 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, C=
ritical Mass has legs, in more ways than one. The city should work with ride=
rs to defuse their disagreement so the monthly rides can go on, in an orderl=
y, lawful and safe way.

Copyright 2004, New York Times

Posted by raji at December 4, 2004 1:12 AM

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