Charles Komanoff


Komanoff op-ed, "City riding hard on cyclers' freedom"

New York Newsday
Charles Komanoff, an economist, lives in lower Manhattan.

March 31, 2005

My wife and kids spent Purim at a Greenwich Village synagogue. I celebrated the holiday in a sausage joint near Union Square, hiding from the police.

Just outside my one-man shul, on 17th Street, dozens of bicyclists were being arrested for riding without a permit, in what the cops call a "procession."

The so-called procession is the Critical Mass bike ride that takes place on the last Friday of every month, starting in Union Square Park and meandering through the city for an hour or two.

I had been riding near the front when I saw patrol cars blocking Fifth Avenue ahead. I turned around only to see the cops spreading a giant orange net on Broadway, behind me. I was trapped in the middle of the block when a fellow cyclist grabbed my arm and walked me and my bike into the sausage place.

Safe for the time being, I envisioned my family at the synagogue, re-enacting Queen Esther's rescue of the Jews from the evil Haman of Persia. Life's little ironies: Haman built a 50-cubit gallows to hang the Jews, and this Jew narrowly escaped a 50-foot net the NYPD had strung to snare another embattled minority - New York cyclists.

Haman has become more touchy of late. Almost a hundred Critical Mass rides took place in New York City without incident after the rides started in the mid-1990s. But during the Republican National Convention last summer, demonstrators on bikes showed up in much larger numbers than usual for a Critical Mass ride, infuriating the police and, apparently, the mayor.

Although the rides have gone back to business as usual, the police haven't. With each successive ride, more cops have shown up, the nets have been brought out sooner and more riders have been hauled to jail.

The city has revved up its legal assault as well. Just before last week's ride, the city sued to forbid Time's Up, an environmental group that helps publicize Critical Mass, from telling anybody about the rides. Apparently freedom of speech, in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's New York, is no more secure than freedom of the streets.

So these rides must be a terrible threat, right? Well, maybe they are. Twelve times a year, we fill 10 blocks at a time with living, breathing people instead of faceless metal boxes. Who knows where that might end?

Seriously: What is the city's problem?

It's not traffic congestion, no matter what the city says. In the worst case - there are 1,500 bicyclists, and a driver arrives at an intersection one second after the front of the ride - he or she might wait out three light cycles, a one-time delay of five minutes.

Of course, the average delay is far less, and the vast majority of drivers experience no delay at all. In the crazy context of New York traffic, Critical Mass isn't even a flea bite.

Yet the NYPD is spending a fortune deploying troops and equipment - including helicopters! - against a few cyclists who just want to ride in the streets, as the law clearly permits.

But don't try citing the law to Asst. Chief Bruce Smolka, the top cop assigned to suppress the ride, unless you want to spend a night in jail. Smolka has said in court that, while any number of cars may legally occupy a street, if an equal number of bicycles show up, they need a permit. From him.

"The roadways are designed primarily for [motor] vehicles," Smolka has testified, ignoring a century's worth of clear-cut law that grants bicycle riders the same rights as motor vehicle operators.

Why does Smolka have such a thing about cyclists? Why did Haman hate the Jews?

The media describe Critical Mass as a protest against cars and petroleum, and so it is. But more importantly, like Purim, it's about freedom: a once-a-month chance to escape from the metal cage and get around under your own power.

And freedom, as we all know, has many foes.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.