With gasoline prices soaring toward $3 a gallon, New Yorkers might see cycling as a viable alternative if cyclists weren’t repeatedly thrown in jail by the New York Police Department. Since last year’s Republican National Convention, when the NYPD made headlines for conducting arrests at a pre-convention Critical Mass ride, the police have continued to pick up hundreds of cyclists, seizing their bikes and prompting ongoing protest. But now the debate has expanded overseas. Last Saturday, the World Carfree Network, an international organization promoting sustainable transportation, kicked off its “Free NYC Cyclists” campaign to draw global attention to the city’s actions.
“We’ve been watching the situation for a year now, and it’s obvious there hasn’t been a local solution,” says Arianna Farnam, a WCN staff member in its Prague headquarters. “We think this will have more impact than local campaigns because people in Europe see cycling as something worth supporting rather than suppressing.”
WCN, which has member groups in 29 countries, initiated the campaign on August 27 to mark the anniversary of last year’s preemptive roundup. Last August, Critical Mass was held two days before the start of the convention, which had already drawn thousands of protesters, and the NYPD reacted by seizing 264 cyclists in one of the city’s greatest mass arrests to date. Of course, the RNC produced its own cache of arrestees—1,821 in total, the majority of whose cases were dismissed—but bicycle-related arrests have persisted. According to WCN, 518 cyclists have been arrested for participating in community rides since last August. Their bikes were also confiscated.
“For those of us experiencing this firsthand, it seemed appropriate seeking outside help. We want to draw attention to the outrageous policy here,” says Sara Stout, steering-committee member in WCN’s New York City office. “The city sees cyclists as a threat—it’s effectively criminalizing us and not seeing the situation clearly—and we feel this campaign is an opportunity for them to learn something. We want resolution, not conflict.”
For people whose radar has failed to pick up on Critical Mass, the loosely organized bike ride takes place on the last Friday of each month in 400 cities across the world and is usually held during rush hour to demonstrate cyclists’ legitimate right to the streets. In 1993, New York City experienced its first Critical Mass, which continued to attract thousands of cyclists monthly without hitch—until last year’s mass arrests. Since then, not a single ride has taken place in Manhattan without arrests or bike seizures, spawning multiple battles in state and federal court.
The city’s reaction escalated in March, when it filed a lawsuit to try to prevent an advocacy group from publicizing the event—a move many cyclists saw as a means to silence discussion. The lawsuit also contended that the public could not participate in Critical Mass bike rides, claiming the event required a permit. But the legality of that claim remains unclear. Under New York law, bikes are considered vehicles subject to the same traffic laws as motorized vehicles. However, Assistant Chief Bruce H. Smolka, head of NYPD’s South Manhattan Borough Command, has declared in court that he regards seven cyclists or more as a “procession,” requiring a special permit.
“This problem is a human rights issue that concerns the world community,” WCN’s Farnam says from Prague. “From an international perspective, it’s unlawful and unjust to arrest anyone for any reason if they’re not breaking the law.” Stout wholeheartedly agrees, saying, “It’s already dangerous and nearly impossible to use a bike here, but to more or less criminalize it is just absurd.”
In Europe, cycling is seen in a wholly different, if not holier, light. While CN monitors and explores global car-free alternatives from Prague, the Dutch, for whom cycling is almost genetic, are experts. With 20,000 kilometers of designated bike paths, the Netherlands has made cycling a significant part of the national infrastructure. “We used to fight against the authorities, but now they ask us for our opinion,” says Miriam van Bree, national lobbyist for Fietsersbond, or the Dutch Cyclists Union, an outgrowth of the Critical Mass movement in the 1970s and early ’80s. “Everyone thinks the Netherlands is a cycling paradise, but if we didn’t put bikes on the agenda they’d be forgotten. It’s natural to cycle, but it’s not natural to make policy.”
As it stands, the Netherlands has one of the highest bike densities in the world. Its population of 16.4 million owns 17 million bicycles, and an estimated 3.4 million hop on for the daily commute. But it wasn’t always so good for cyclists. “In Amsterdam, it has been a long and hard struggle. Every bike path has been fought for,” says Natascha van Dennekom, policy maker at Fietsersbond’s Amsterdam branch. Van Dennekom explains that cars dominated the city’s roads until cyclists banded together, increasing their numbers and, gradually, their influence. “Now our views are considered.”
For Pascal J.W. van den Noort, co-founder of the Anglo-Dutch foundation Vélo Mondial, which focuses on promoting bicycle infrastructure and planning, the advantage of cycling in this day and age is a no-brainer. “In Europe, we already pay $8 a gallon, and I promise you it will go up. That’s also America’s future,” he says. “I know Americans can calculate very well, especially when it’s their own money. It would be like stealing from their own wallets if they didn’t consider where they were spending it.”
Of the situation in New York City, van den Noort regards it as serious, but prefers to take a more philosophical approach. “I think Bloomberg and Pataki should sit down together with Bush and share their experiences,” he says, referring to how the president has become an avid biker since a bum knee forced him to stop running. Bush recently rode on his ranch with Lance Armstrong. “They should start planning a cycling infrastructure and ask those being arrested to help sort things out.”
Back at home, the cat and mouse game continues. But as the cyclists’ plight gains greater attention outside New York City, that could change. For one,
Still We Ride, a documentary covering the August 27 arrests, which has been shown locally by Rooftop Films, will begin touring Europe in mid September.
“Whenever we show the film outside New York, we’re met with a 30-minute discussion, even though it gives an in-depth analysis of the situation,” says Andrew Lynn, one of the film’s producers, who was also arrested on August 27. “People are shocked—wait, why is this still going on?—but we say we don’t know. I’d say this falls into a pattern of curtailing civil rights that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with biking—it’s community organization.”
As World Carfree Network launches its campaign, which includes a global letter-writing campaign targeting New York officials, one thing remains certain, says WCN’s Farnam: “August 27 is when this begins, but that’s definitely not when it ends.”