Charles Komanoff


Komanoff op-ed, "Cops should ease up on the bike rides"

New York Daily News
Tuesday, October 19th, 2004

Drivers don't get arrested for interfering with traffic. Some huge SUV may be blocking a bus or slowing an ambulance somewhere upstream, but no driver is ever expected to justify his presence in the road.

But let a bunch of bicycle riders show up together, filling a few blocks with nothing more lethal than their bells, yells and sweat, and the NYPD lunges into action. In August, a police dragnet at a mass bike ride through midtown landed 264 cyclists in jail. On a September ride, police turned their wrath on the bicycles themselves, sawing the chains from 40 and taking them into custody.

These Critical Mass rides, as they are known, have been happening once a month for the last five or six years in New York without this kind of interference. Now, however, the cops and Mayor Bloomberg, apparently galvanized by the security worries during the Republican convention, have decided that Critical Mass is an attack on law and order. The next ride is slated for a week from Friday, and it's a good bet there will be the same kind of overreaction.

But Critical Mass is not an organization, and its participants are there for all kinds of reasons. It is nothing more than a bunch of people on bikes, just as "traffic" is just a bunch of people in cars.

The rides originated with handfuls of bike commuters seeking camaraderie and safety on their evening ride home. As cyclists experienced the power of numbers, these initial happenings grew into monthly "organized coincidences."

Drivers want to be the only people on the road, but cyclists like having other cyclists around. For good reason: Bike-safety specialists have documented that cyclists are safer where there are more of them - their larger presence compels drivers to take notice of them.

There are no Critical Mass rides in Denmark or Germany, because they are not needed; in those countries, cyclists' right to the road is enshrined in law and behavior. In U.S. cities, Critical Mass rides are virtually the only time cyclists can relax in the safety created by their numbers.

Every hour of every day is a cars-and-trucks Critical Mass in New York. So why is a bicycle version such a threat?

I'm kidding, of course. Critical Mass is indeed subversion. But in a world filled with automotive pathologies, from oil wars to obesity, this is the kind of subversion we need.

Komanoff is an economist and a bicycle commuter.