On September 15, Mayor Bill de Blasio put out a press release celebrating a new two-way, separated bike lane right next to City Hall. “We are committed to making cycling in New York City safe, and that includes making changes right on the doorstep of City Hall,” the mayor is quoted as saying. “For thousands of cyclist [sic] who cross the Brooklyn Bridge each day, this means a much safer ride.”
Ten days before that, when the bike lane had been completed but not yet officially announced, Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, snapped a photo of it and posted it to Twitter:
— Paul Steely White (@PSteely) September 5, 2017
For the past four years, photos like White’s have made up the daily fare at Cops in Bike Lanes, a Tumblr launched in September 2013 to provide an “incomplete record” of police vehicles blocking bike paths. (Its subtitle summarizes New York City traffic rule § 4-08 (e)(9): “It is against the law to park, stand, or stop within or otherwise obstruct bike lanes.”) Since then, the site’s anonymous founder estimates, Cops in Bike Lanes has posted about 650 photos of cops parking in, standing in, stopping in, or otherwise obstructing bike lanes; approximately two-thirds of those submissions have come from the site’s 5,000 followers.
The inspiration for the site came after two specific sightings during daily commutes from Brooklyn to Manhattan, says its founder. In the first, he was riding in Soho when he came across a portable NYPD floodlight blocking the entire bike lane in the middle of the day; he took a photo, figuring he’d do something with it later. Almost a year later, he came across an interceptor (those little three-wheeled vehicles) parked at the base of the Manhattan side of the Manhattan Bridge entrance, with no cop in sight, though he waited fifteen minutes for one to show. “Those two instances,” he says, “really were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Over time, it became clear that the problem was citywide — the site showcases photos from every borough — but worse in areas with fewer available parking spaces. (One stretch of Schermerhorn Street near Hoyt Street in downtown Brooklyn — where, ironically, the NYPD has a Transit Enforcement station — is so routinely blocked by police vehicles that even recent Google Street View photos depict it.) The site also informally tracked “repeat offenders,” noting patterns where the same cop car was spotted in a bike lane over and over.
“It’s a big problem,” says White. When cyclists have to veer into traffic, they risk not only collision but, ironically, being ticketed as well. Police have been known to ticket cyclists for riding outside of a bike lane — as made famous by the viral Casey Neistat video — even though it is perfectly legal for them to do so if the lane is blocked.
But, White continued, there’s an even more worrisome danger. While cops parking in bike lanes is far from the biggest threat to cyclists’ safety — those would be, in no particular order, pedestrians treating bike lanes as sidewalk extensions, car doors flying open, and vehicles turning across bike lanes without signaling — the message it sends to citizens of New York City about the NYPD’s commitment to protect and serve them is that their safety is secondary to the police’s convenience.
While City Hall is building more bike lanes and encouraging people to bike more, it’s doing little to enforce those spaces. The NYPD does not specifically track any bike lane–related summonses issued to drivers. According to a report by Transportation Alternatives, in January through May of last year, 32 precincts issued more tickets to drivers with tinted windows — which pose no harm to cyclists — than for speeding and failure to yield combined. In that same time frame, fourteen cyclists were killed by vehicles in the city, with twelve of those drivers committing moving violations at the time of the crash. But, in the days following many of them, the police initiated ticketing blitzes aimed at cyclists themselves.
“The reason there’s an antagonistic relationship between cyclists and the cops is not because cyclists inherently hate cops,” says the Cops in Bike Lanes founder. “It’s because [cyclists] see really obvious, simple things that could be done that aren’t being done.”
New York City has added 115.2 miles of bike lanes from 2014 through 2016, according to the New York City Department of Transportation. But only 37.2 of those miles are protected by physical barriers from both traffic and would-be parkers. The other 78 miles of conventional bike lanes, created by painting a single line down the road, are all too often treated like parking spots, loading zones, walking space, or pretty much anything other than bike lanes.
The man behind Cops in Bike Lanes acknowledges that sometimes fire trucks, ambulances, or, yes, cop cars, are in the bike lanes with lights and sirens on — a necessary intrusion to do their duty. But none of the cases he has posted are like that. They’re just cops in bike lanes. Eating. Relaxing. Chatting. Or nowhere to be found.
For those wishing to do something about this state of affairs, there are a few methods of civilian oversight, none of which are particularly effective. You can file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an agency with high-profile failings on major issues such as police brutality, to say nothing of minor traffic violations. Another method is good ol’ social media complaining: In 2014, the NYPD rolled out Twitter handles for each precinct, which are displayed as bumper stickers on each car. (Tweeting at them works roughly as well as any other form of social media complaining.) The third tactic is to issue your own tickets, as some activists did in 2015. (This does not work. When an activist asked the cop if he knew he was parked in the bike lane, he replied, “Yes,” and then walked away.)
The Cops in Bike Lanes proprietor compares police behavior in bike lanes to a kind of reverse “broken windows” policing, citing the controversial criminology theory that punishing small crimes will set the tone that the city is orderly and lawful, thereby preventing more serious ones. If the city were to eliminate unnecessary quality-of-life and traffic infractions by police, he suggests, could this set the tone that officers are not above the law? After all, if they receive no consequences for violating bike lane laws, what other laws can they violate with impunity?
“It’s really tough for me to think at this point that the cops or the mayor’s office really give a damn about cyclist safety,” he laments, citing the nationwide hesitance to prosecute drivers who kill cyclists. “Any time they try to trot out one of these spotlights, whenever they try to say, ‘Oh, look at all the good we’re doing,’ it’s almost immediately disproven.”
The mayor’s office and the NYPD did not reply to requests for comment.