AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

The perils of "biking while black" came into sharp focus this month.

The other night, I was at a small party where I brought up the idea of bicycle registration. Should bicycle owners, I asked the man next to me, be required to register their bicycles with the police?

His answer was a firm and unequivocal yes. In his opinion, bicycles should be registered so that their owners could be held accountable for their actions and any injuries they might cause.

Then I told my friend about the situation in Fort Lauderdale, where a no-fee bike registration law was implemented in 2003, requiring every bike owned by a city resident to be registered with the cops. There, the program has been touted not as a means of holding cyclists accountable for crashes or law-breaking, but as a theft-prevention measure: according to the Florida city’s website, “a bicycle registration program is vital to the safety and well being of every resident in our community.”

In practice, I told the pro-registration guy, it seems the requirement is enforced in a heavily lopsided manner against the city’s African American residents. According to the Miami New Times, the Broward County public defender has accused the Fort Lauderdale police department of unconstitutional racial profiling in enforcement of the ordinance, and the paper’s investigation in late 2013 revealed that 86 percent of the 460 citations issued over the previous three years were issued to black people. (Just 31 percent of the city’s population is African American.) Cops, the article alleges, use the registration ordinance as a convenient excuse to stop people suspected of other crimes. When issuing citations for unregistered bikes, they impound the vehicles, leaving people without transportation, sometimes miles from home.

When New Times followed up on the story this month, they found the number of tickets had gone way down, but the percentage that went to African Americans had actually gone up, to 93 percent. “We've still got a law that's only being used in black neighborhoods,” Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein told the paper. East of Federal Highway, in the affluent and mostly white part of town, officers wrote only one citation for an unregistered bike. The police department declined to comment to New Times about the numbers.

I pointed out to my friend at the party that this type of selective enforcement of bike laws is hardly confined to Florida. In New York, where we live, biking on the sidewalk is against the law in every part of the city, but the ordinance prohibiting it is applied wildly unevenly. A recent study from a City University of New York professor found that 12 of the 15 neighborhoods with the most sidewalk-riding summonses were predominantly Latino or black, while 14 of the 15 with the fewest summonses were majority white.  And as someone who lives in a majority-white neighborhood where lots of people ride bikes, I can tell you for sure that if the NYPD wanted to write a good chunk of tickets to white people riding bikes, they could do it in an afternoon around the corner from me.

Meanwhile, in the nation’s virtual public square, Facebook, a hateful page called “Black People with Bikes That Aren’t Theirs” recently came to light. As Streetsblog L.A. reported, its creator claimed the page wasn’t racist, and that, “All Im [sic] trying to do is make people laugh.” Astonishingly, the page (which has since been taken down by Facebook for violations of the site’s policy) featured pictures not only of random children, but also of well-known Washington, D.C., bicycle advocate Veronica Davis on a bike most assuredly her own. As she told Streetsblog L.A., “The ignorance of this page is astounding.”

Astounding, yes. But the implicit bias behind its “humor” is unfortunately common, which is why the bicycle-registration law and similar ordinances are so problematic. People on bicycles are seen as marginal by definition in most parts of the country. People of color on bicycles are further marginalized and seen as inherently suspicious. And this country has a long history of using laws like the bicycle registration ordinance to harass African American people.

My tough-on-bikes friend at the party is a middle-class white man. Before I told him about the disparities in enforcement of biking ordinances in Florida and New York, it had quite literally never occurred to him that racial profiling of people on bikes might be an issue. From the perspective of white privilege occupied by myself and my friend, it’s easy to say, “be tough on rule-breaking bicyclists” or, “let’s require licensing and registration of all bikes.” But what happens in practice can be a grave and sometimes dangerous distortion of justice.

That’s why people like myself, who are in favor of strict enforcement of traffic laws in general and who believe that bicyclists should also obey the rules, need to be equally mindful of equitable behavior by officers of the law. Holding people on bikes accountable for their actions is not a bad idea. But that principle can’t apply to just certain people on bikes.

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