The relationship between bike riders and police officers in New York is historically rocky. Riders have a reputation for flouting traffic rules — sometimes that's deserved, sometimes merely perceived — and cops have struggled to understand which bike laws can and should be enforced. As ridership increases, especially after the delayed-but-inevitable launch of bike share, the road will only get rockier.
"There's a lot of friction between the cycling community and NYPD," says Rich Conroy, director of education for the Bike New York advocacy group. "A huge proportion of our officers live in the suburbs, and they drive in and they just have what we call a 'windshield perspective.' "
If anyone knows this friction well it's Conroy. Earlier this spring the Midtown Community Court in Manhattan began to sentence delinquent cyclists to a rider education course. Conroy conceived the class, based on similar ones he read about elsewhere in the country, and now teaches it once a month for about an hour and a half. His presentation is a prepared survey of city and state traffic laws, with some tips on riding safely.
"We also talk about rights," Conroy says. "You belong here. You have a right to be on the road and a right to your own safety."
Unlike some bike advocates, Conroy sees two sides to the behavioral coin. Sure some cops target riders unfairly and need a primer on the true hazards of riding, but Conroy thinks cyclists bear equal responsibility to behave respectfully on the road. Conroy recently spoke with Atlantic Cities about the court-appointed class, bogus bicycle laws, and the growing tension between cops-and-riders in New York.
"Maybe there's a reason why you got a cop and a judge who doesn't like cyclists," he says. "We don't want people to be anti-bike, but we think that cyclists do have some influence over how they're perceived in the community, and we're blowing it."
What types of violations get someone ordered to your class?
There's kind of a gap between what we'd like to see happen and what is actually happening. In New York City, I think there's four types of violations that really bug the non-cycling community. Those are running red lights, riding the wrong way, riding on the sidewalk, and the last one would be not using lights at night. In several classes we've taught, I've only had one person for running a red light. And that's just routine in New York City for cyclists. I've had no students in there for riding the wrong way. ...
I'm not sure how the officers who are doing the ticketing are being trained. We've seen a few "riding in the bus lane" tickets. I look at that and say really? It probably is against the law, but I don't think anybody gets upset about that. We had a fair number of "not riding in the bike lane" tickets. The law on that is problematic. The law in an nutshell says you have to ride in a bike lane but you don't have to ride in a bike lane.
That does sound problematic.
If you look at the wording, what is says is cyclists must ride in a usable bike lane — and that word "usable," how does that get interpreted? — where one is provided unless unsafe conditions exist. And it enumerates what those may be but it also says it's not limited to these certain conditions. It's very clear that cyclists are allowed to leave the bike lane if it's blocked by a vehicle or pedestrians using it. If there's unsafe conditions. If a cyclist needs to make a turn at an intersection that's on the opposite side of the road.
I think what the officers are seeing is they get a tip sheet from NYPD that says you have to ride in the bike lane. I also know the court initially was using a tip sheet that said that. I sat down with them and said this is what it really says. I think most of these bike lane tickets need to be thrown out, but they aren't.
In the Times profile of your class it seemed like some of the attendees are a little resentful of having to be there.
Most of the other groups I've seen, people were a little more laid back. But this is a problem. When you get a ticket that looks a little bit bogus and the judge upholds that ticket, and then you have to go to a class where some guy lectures you about the bike laws, it seems ridiculous. We've kind of, in some ways, got the worst of all possible worlds: a bike community that routinely breaks traffic laws, and enforcement that tends to misapply the law and write tickets for things that aren't against the law. The cyclists end up being hostile to the whole idea of enforcement in general and nothing changes. So this is a work in progress.
Maybe there should be an overhaul of the way we police bike riding in the city?
The change needs to come from the policing, yes, but also the bicyclists themselves. There is kind of a mentality here: what's the big deal, I'm on a bike, it's not that big a deal if I break the traffic laws. So already you're primed to be resentful when somebody stops you for a red light ticket or something. We have mouthpieces for cycling in New York City who consistently toe the line that it's no big deal if cyclists break traffic laws. When that's what cyclists are hearing and reading it's problematic. I think we need to figure out a way to work constructively with NYPD to improve officer training, to maybe get more officers out on bikes. I also think, from our part, the class, if it could work better, would help produce some cultural change on the cyclists side.
Do you ride a bike in the city?
Every day. Pretty much.
As someone familiar with both the streets and the laws, are there any particular ones you think need to be revised to help bikers?
I would like to see the rule about mandatory use of bike lanes simply go away. … It is confusing. What is a "usable" bike lane? I think officers who aren't experienced at cycling and don't ride around much in the city aren't going to understand that a bike lane that's striped right next to parked cars, in what we call the Door Zone, is really dangerous. You can get killed by a car door that opens up suddenly. I think cyclists should be allowed to ride in the traffic lanes or the bike lanes regardless. That's one law I'd like to see changed.
What about running red lights?
Some cyclists I see on certain blogs are saying the laws should change to allow cyclists to stop at a red light then proceed through if it's clear. It's called the Idaho Stop. Idaho's the only state in the country that allows cyclists to treat a red light like a stop sign. I don't think Bike New York is too keen on that revision. I have students in this class that say I know how to run a red light safely. Well everybody thinks they're good judges of when it's safe to break the law.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.