My ticket for bicycling on NYC sidewalk: ridiculous for 5 reasons

Dear Mayor Bloomberg and New York City’s future head honcho,

I’m a bicyclist.

Bicycling laws and infrastructure are broken in this city.

I know because I recently got to experience the remarkable aplomb with which our metropolis unfairly handles and inexplicably targets this wild, threatening technology known as the bicycle.

My tiny story might worth a little listen, given NYC’s bikeshare program is about to launch. You’re going to have hundreds of riders like me. Hundreds more annoying letters like these. Actually, it will be worse. Much worse. The new folks about to hit the streets might incorrectly assume that they’re safe in bike lanes, and that moving around the city by bike is somehow warmly embraced by everyone.

So let’s limber up that complaint box, and get to the criac:

On Saturday, April 26, around 7 p.m., two officers pulled me over for riding my bike on the sidewalk at 4th Ave. and 39th Street in Brooklyn.

I was in fact riding my bike on the sidewalk.

I should not have received a ticket.

Here’s why:

1: This street lacked a bike lane.

I do not know of a street going from 3rd Ave. (where I was coming from) to 6th Ave. (my destination) that has a bike lane. That’s because there isn’t one. Look for yourself:

A note about bike lanes: I actually do use them when they’re available. That’s despite the fact that few people respect them. They are parking lots, sidewalk extensions, food cart highways and trash cans, but rarely are they what they are designed to be: safe passage for those two-wheeled unicorns you’re seeing more and more of around our city’s streets. Cars, including police cars, are constantly parked in them; pedestrians wander in and out of them, or simply stand in them, at will, without any kind of reprimand or corrective action from police officers; cars swerve in and out of them to overtake other cars; finally, they are so narrow as to make avoiding opening car doors nearly impossible without also risking running into traffic in the car lane.

And yet I still use them, because that is what NYC has put forth, and I try to respect the designated areas of all transportation options, when I can do so safely.

2: Remaining in the street put myself at greatly increased risk of being hit by a bus or car, or running into a car’s opening door.

This particular corner and section of street comes with lanes going both directions that are overburdened trying to accommodate large city busses, parked cars that further squeeze the available room, and the regular slog of traffic.

Still, if there was a bike lane, I would have taken it, though I imagine it would, much like the 5th Ave. bike lane in Brooklyn, pose serious risks to the integrity of my bone structure.

3: I rode slowly and carefully on the sidewalk, with flashing lights on my bike.

I did not race through. I was cognizant of the fact that a bike on the sidewalk was unusual, and that I would need more time to respond to people.

I never do this on a crowded sidewalk because that would simply not work. This sidewalk was nearly empty. It had a comfortable width.

4: This is a waste of police resources.

Are there not murders, rapes, assaults and robberies in Brooklyn that these officers could have been trying to prevent, rather than wasting their time writing me a ticket for a contextless law that I “broke,” without risk to anyone on the sidewalk, in order to avoid serious injury to myself?

5: Is it expected I should risk significant injury to myself to obey a law applied in a street layout offering no safe option for obeying that law?

I’m supposed to choose the risk of getting brained because this city cannot provide a bike lane, rather than slowly and carefully navigating my bike through a nearly empty sidewalk?

As far as I can tell, no one in NYC respects traffic laws. In many cases, if people followed the letter of the law, we’d have worse gridlock and even grumpier New Yorkers. In my case, I’d have a greater chance of ending up in the hospital if I mindlessly followed laws that put me at risk.

Now let’s get to the weakest point of my argument, beyond the fact it sounds a bit like a big bout of whining.

What you or other critics might and most likely would say is: Get off your bike, and walk it if you can’t use the street safely.

And though I do indeed do that when the sidewalk fails to offer a safe riding option (for me and pedestrians; I hate collisions as much as anyone), I would say in response: Why have a bike at all, then?

Seriously, I didn’t buy a bike to walk it around the city. I bought that thing to get moving.

What stands out to me is the absolute lack of any kind of context in the application of this law. If I was speeding down a sidewalk, I would expect to receive and understand receiving a ticket. If I was riding the wrong way on a street (something numerous bicyclists do that drives me crazy), I would expect to get a ticket. What I don’t expect is to be punished for protecting myself, without putting anyone else at risk, from an inadequate infrastructure.

NYC has a long, long way to go to accommodate bicycles. They are a third form of transportation that, despite being in existence for who knows how long, is being treated as if it is some exotic, dangerous beast. For careful reflection on this, read these essays: a) and b)

Treating bicyclists as I was treated will deter people from riding bikes at all. The city fails to provide safe, consistent and adequate infrastructure for bikes to get around the city. The result? Those of us riding — those of us who love the exercise and freedom of movement enough to engage the risks of it — have to make up a way to do it on our own. That’s what I was doing: protecting my safety without threatening anyone else’s. Yet the city chooses to punish people who try to respectfully survive that environment.

So, does NYC need more people in more cars in increasingly crowded roadways? More people on crowded, increasingly expensive subways? Fewer people getting health-improving exercise (clearly a cause dear to you)? That’s what you get when the NYC police force treats bicyclists as a dangerous intrusion, when in fact they are a blessing that brings healthier citizens, a cleaner environment and a safer traffic flow.

Bikes are not the enemy. Reckless behavior is.

Some context is in order. Some understanding. Some flexibility.

And make more and better bike lanes. Please.

NYC Bicycle crash statistics (only three months of 2011)
New York state DMV 2011 summary of motor vehicle/bicycle crashes (pdf)
New York state DMV 2011 summary of pedestrian/motor vehicle crashes (pdf)
NY DMV summaries of crashes landing page
Paying a Price for Sidewalk Cycling

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