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Night of the Living Bikelash

June 11, 2015

While the New York City bikelash has been dead for quite some time, there are outbreaks every now and then, like some sort of horror-movie zombie that refuses to stop crawling long after the hero has hacked it to bits with a machete. The most recent has been the mini — and it is very mini — hysteria over the pending Citi Bike expansion on the Upper West Side. Ben Yakas at Gothamist has a good rundown of some of the more ridiculous claims:

“Our street is a very narrow one,” Joanne Aidala argued about a dock slated to be placed at West 78th Street near Columbus Avenue. “There are mothers with strollers, and there are young children walking around.”

Tom Valenzuela, who lives near a proposed site on Central Park West between 67th and 68th Streets, hit upon the core of the complaints: “There are so many safety concerns here,” he said of that location. “I have witnessed many near-misses between bike riders and pedestrians in that area. There will be way too much combat between Citi Bike riders and pedestrians.”

These kinds of arguments were completely ridiculous in the spring of 2013 just before Citi Bike’s launch. Now, with millions of trips logged since then, they’re absolutely absurd. Think about it: in the two years since bike sharing began in New York, hundreds of people have been killed on city streets… by drivers. Thousands more were injured. Those weren’t near-misses, they were actual hits.

All of that is a long way of saying that while it may seem worthwhile to ignore some of the more fanciful or ignorant claims about bike share, highlighting them does provide a valuable lesson, should the powers that be care to learn from it. Citi Bike is Kryptonite to bikelash. It renders it completely powerless, and exposes anti-bike sentiment as nothing more than a paper tiger.

So come on, DOT. Get stuff on the ground. And stop worrying about the haters. There’s nothing you can do to stop the tabloids from squeezing a little more blood from the bikelash stone.

Le Festival Go vélo Montréal, Part 1: The Tour La Nuit

June 9, 2015

Last month I had the pleasure of attending Le Festival Go vélo Montréal, an annual celebration of biking put on by Vélo Québec. While the festival lasts for an entire week, I was in town just long enough to participate in its two main events: rides on Friday evening and Sunday morning involving thousands upon thousands of riders.

The one that kicks the weekend off is the Tour la Nuit, which, as the name implies, is a nighttime tour of the city. A 21-kilometer ride on car-free streets, it’s short and stress-free enough that it attracts all kinds of people, from hardcore sports cyclists to young kids and everyone in between. And I do mean everyone. Over 15,000 people take part.

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A sea of riders on Av du Parc.

It’s almost hard to call the Tour La Nuit a bike ride. “Party” is probably the more appropriate term. Costumes aren’t required, but scattered throughout the throngs of riders are people who truly dress for the occasion.

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In the event of a bike crash, the inflatable frog also acts as a flotation device.

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Hula man.

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Propeller head.

Even Bixi, Montréal’s bike sharing service, gets in on the act. Twenty-four-hour passes (normally $5 CAD) are only $1, and 72-hour passes (normally $12 CAD) are only $2, making it easy for people to take out a bike for the ride, late charges be damned.

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Shiny garlands not included in Bixi membership.

The ride sets off at 8:15 PM, just as the sun is going down. If you’ve never seen 15,000 riders head off into a pink-hued Canadian sunset, you’re missing out.

Being a father, one of the things that struck me most about the ride was the number of kids who participated in the ride, either on their parents’ bikes or on their own. It was truly a sight to see. The pictures can’t do it justice, but there were easily more kids at this ride than at any other comparable bike event I’ve seen, such as Bike New York’s Five Boro Bike Tour or Boston’s Hub on Wheels.

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Towed.

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Thumbs up.

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Little guy.

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Proud mama.

I spoke with Suzanne Lareau, the president and CEO of Vélo Québec, about her organization’s efforts to attract children and families, specifically through the Tour La Nuit and its companion event, the Tour de l’Île. “Our goal is to encourage cycling,” she said, matter of factly. To that end, the Tour La Nuit is free for children 12 and under, and just $15 for kids 13 to 17. Adults are $25.50, although fees vary depending on when participants register, Vélo Québec membership, and other promotions. Compare that to the $92 Five Boro Bike Tour registration fee or the $50 fee for Hub on Wheels. 

A few years ago, only children 6 and under were free. About 2,000 kids participated in the Tour La Nuit, still an impressive figure. But making it free for kids under 12 doubled the number of children from one year to the next to about 4,000. And their ranks continue to grow. Free registration for kids, and low prices for teens and adults has yielded tremendous returns for Vélo Québec. “It’s special,” Lareau told me. “When families do this, they realize they can do more, ride more.” Not surprisingly, kids return with their parents year after year.

A 21-kilometer ride takes some people an hour or less, although there are rewards to taking it slow. The real action during the Tour La Nuit comes, of course, during the darkness. The streets of Montréal become a sparkling galaxy of blinky lights, glowsticks, and reflective bike gear. Clarence at Streetfilms captured some of the magic of the 2014 Tour La Nuit in this film, but there’s truly nothing like being there. Think about being this kid, riding through the city at 9 or 9:30 PM — or even an hour or two later! — on streets that are normally off limits to anyone without a driver’s license.

Many thanks to Vélo Québec for bringing me to Montréal for this year’s Festival Go vélo, and to Clarence Eckerson, Jr. of Streetfilms for connecting me with the organization. I’ll have more on the Tour de l’Île and my general impressions about Montréal and its reputation as one of North America’s best biking cities in a future post. For now, feel free to check out my Flickr album from my weekend biking around the city.

Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Trolley

June 3, 2015

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Via Discovering NYC, here’s an 1898 DeKalb Avenue trolley with bicycles mounted on the front and back. Something to consider when people wonder why the MTA doesn’t put bike racks on buses. The demand has been there for a long time!

The Return of Kidical Mass NYC

April 23, 2015

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Kidical Mass NYC is back for 2015! Join us for our first Brooklyn ride of the year this Sunday, April 26th. The ride starts at 10 AM from 3rd Ave and DeGraw inside of Douglass Greene Park. We will ride on city streets — kids can ride on sidewalks — with bike paths to the Brooklyn waterfront. Our destination is Jane’s Carousel in DUMBO.

This is a beginner, all-ages ride, so kids on their own bikes, kids in cargo bikes, and people who just want to have a fun leisurely ride are welcome to come.

For more information and to RSVP, please check out the Kidical Mass NYC Facebook page. And if you’re in Queens or Upper Manhattan, you can join up with our other Kidical Mass NYC chapters on Saturday.

Is Your Bike Safety Idea Any Good?

April 6, 2015

Let’s say you’re an inventor or entrepreneur and have a new product that you think will “change everything” about the future of bicycle safety. Or perhaps you’re a writer for a website that relies on click bait and figure that promoting a story about “the Modern Safety Solution Cyclists Have Been Begging For,” will drive a lot of traffic. Here’s a helpful flowchart to help you decide if you’re actually on to something or if you’re just wasting everyone’s time. (Click to enlarge.)

 

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Unhappy Birthday

March 12, 2015

Via Park Slope Neighbors, here’s an ignominious claim to fame from the people who brought you the bikelash: the Prospect Park West bike lane lawsuit was filed four years ago this month.

PARK SLOPE, BROOKLYN, March 9, 2015 – The misguided lawsuit challenging the New York City Department of Transportation’s 2010 redesign of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West marked its fourth birthday this past Saturday, March 7th, to little notice and even less effect.  There was no party, no cake or gifts, and no one bothered to send a card.

Yet while thousands of people ride in the bike path every week, and the combination of road diet and lower speed limit have largely rendered the highway-like speeds of the old PPW a distant memory, the citizens of New York City are still on the hook for the costs of defending a lawsuit that few people realize still looms.

“There are children riding their bikes on the Prospect Park West bike path today who are younger than the lawsuit aimed at pushing them out into the street to mix with cars and trucks,” said Eric McClure, co-founder of Park Slope Neighbors.  “We don’t know if this sets a record for dragging out a frivolous lawsuit, but surely it sets a record for dragging out a frivolous lawsuit against a bike path.”

Sadly, one of the two plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, Lois Carswell, passed away last October, and the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Jim Walden, has moved on from Gibson Dunn to start his own firm.

“It’s almost as if the lawsuit has taken on a life of its own,” said McClure.  “We’re not sure who the lawyer is, or which firm is representing the plaintiffs, or who the plaintiffs even are at this juncture.  No one knows when the next hearing might be.  If any of the so-called ‘Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes’ or ‘Seniors for Safety’ are still paying attention

Right on Green, Part 2

March 1, 2015

Right on Green, Part 1 can be found here. And since people liked disclaimers in the last post, here are two more.

1. I don’t know if the officer who ticketed me was lying.

Let me say that more clearly: I am not calling the cop a liar. Now, I can cite some moments where it seemed like the officer wasn’t telling the truth — telling me that the other cyclist saw me run a red light, only to have her shout “NO!” as she rode by, for example — but was he actively lying? Only he knows. What I do know is that the officer didn’t see what he said he saw. I turned right on green and couldn’t have been coming from the direction the officer said. Period.

2. This took place in the 78th Precinct, but it is not about the 78th precinct. Inspector Michael Ameri, the former Commanding Officer of the 78th, was a true leader on street safety even before Vision Zero became official city policy. Captain Frank DiGiacomo, the current Commanding Officer, has continued to make great strides in those areas as well. While there are clearly a lot of problems with the NYPD when it comes to the departments relationship with bikes and smart enforcement, this is about one officer, not one precinct

Anyway, on with part two.

On Monday, February 9, 2015, over one year since I received a ticket for a red light I could not have run, my hearing was held at the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Traffic Violations Bureau in the Atlantic Center in Brooklyn. Readers from more civilized parts of the world might wonder why, in a country that prides itself on due process and swift justice it takes a year or more to have your day in court, so to speak. It might be fun to imagine that it’s because the police flood the courts with bogus bicycle tickets for things that aren’t illegal — which I’m sure doesn’t help — but it probably comes down to something far more American: lots of people contesting all sorts of tickets and not enough resources to process them all.

I was aided at my hearing by Steve Vaccaro, an attorney who’s better known for his work achieving real justice for people with far greater problems than an imaginary bicycle offense. Ticket hearings aren’t normally his thing, and he accompanied me to the DMV as a favor from one friend and fellow advocate to another.

When the hearing began, the administrative law judge explained that in order for the ticket to be upheld, “clear” evidence of the violation had to be established. This gave me quite a bit of confidence — after all, I had more than enough evidence to, if not prove things beyond a reasonable doubt to someone who wasn’t on 5th Avenue that morning, then at least show that the cop’s claim was rather thin.

Then the judge let the officer begin. “Tell me what happened,” he said.

There was something about those instructions from the judge — “Tell me what happened.” — that struck me as odd. It wasn’t “Tell me your side of the story,” or “Tell me your version of events.”  Maybe I was reading too much into it, but if the judge’s job was to be neutral, telling the officer to explain What Happened didn’t fill me with too much confidence.

There’s no need to rehash what the officer said he saw. It’s all in the first post. The officer ran through his version of events, reading off a small piece of paper on which he had written his testimony. Then it was our turn.

Steve questioned the officer about the position of his car, what he saw, and all the rest. And then he submitted the following evidence on my behalf:

The Monday after I received my ticket, I asked my daughter’s teachers if I could take the sign-in sheet from Friday, January 31st, knowing it would come in handy at my hearing. The ticket the officer wrote me was time-stamped with 8:44 AM. I signed my daughter into her classroom at 8:30, so a sheet bearing her name, my signature, the date, and the time, was the best evidence that I was on Lincoln Place before I was ticketed.

A note about the evidence: Even though my hearing was classified as a “bike/skate ticket,” every piece of evidence I submitted was labeled as “Motorist.” “Motorist Map 1,” “Motorist Map 2,” etc. I know people like to argue that bikes ought to be subject to the same rules as cars, but come on! The bias is woven right into the nomenclature of the system! Justice is supposed to be blind, but in traffic court she wears driving goggles.

After I explained what happened, one of the judge’s questions was simple, if a tad unrelated to whether or not I had run a red light. He wanted to know if I had a seat on my bicycle for my daughter. Now, he could have just asked this question in order to paint a picture, but the more likely explanation — at least one closer to my experience of explaining my car-free lifestyle to relatives or friends who live in more car-dependent cities — is that he actually couldn’t quite imagine that people actually transport their children to school six whole blocks by bicycle. Honestly, if I had been on trial for running a red light in a car in the same location, can you imagine him asking, “Do you have a car seat for your daughter?”

Another of the judge’s questions involved whether I had taken the photograph before or after I had allegedly run the red light at Lincoln Place and was stopped by the officer. I told the judge that I took the picture before I was ticketed. As I explained before, I came around the corner, saw the woman and her bike stopped next to a car with flashing lights, stopped to take the picture, and then continued on my way before being chased down and stopped four blocks away.

The judge then asked the officer if could it have been possible that I ran the red light after I took the picture. You might want to recall that the standard for upholding the ticket, in the judge’s words, is establishing “clear” evidence that a violation had occurred. So empty your head of all other thoughts and read the next part.

The officer said that he couldn’t be sure, but that it might have been possible that I saw him pulling someone over, took the picture, and then went around the block before running the light. Essentially, in such an incredible scenario, whether I was coming from Lincoln Place or 5th Avenue the first time around would be irrelevant. It’s an amazing claim, especially when you consider that such a route would look like the map below. (Remember, the Chase Bank on 5th is where I saw the ticket sting.)

circleroute

Think about that for a second. According to a theory posited by this officer of the law, it is entirely possible that on a cold January morning, I saw a ticket sting going on, snapped a picture of that ticket sting, and then went seven tenths of a mile out of my way up a hill and then down again, only to ride northbound on 5th Avenue and run a red light directly in front of an active NYPD ticket sting I already knew was happening. (Go back and read disclaimer number 2 in my first post and ask if that sounds like something I’d do. It’s not something anyone would do.)

That the implausibility of this idea went unchallenged by the judge did not give me hope.

The other big question was how to explain the 14 minutes between the time on the sign-in sheet at my daugther’s pre-K and the time written on the ticket. This isn’t as big a mystery as the missing 18 1/2 minutes on the Watergate tapes, and I had a perfectly logical explanation. My typical routine was to sign my daughter in when we walked in to school and then get her settled. That process usually lasted around seven to ten minutes. Add four to seven minutes to that, and you essentially have the time between me leaving pre-K and the cop writing the summons, which, as I explained previously, was delayed because I initially refused to give him my ID.

Now one player in this drama is conspicuously missing: the woman in the striped scarf who had been ticketed right before me. You may recall that the officer told me that she told him that I ran the red light, and that when he asked her as she rode by us, she screamed out “No!” You may also recall that thanks to the Transportation Alternatives bike ambassadors, she and I were able to get in touch and that she volunteered to come to my hearing to testify on my behalf. Well, this would be the perfect part of the story for her to burst through the doors of the hearing room, raise finger in my direction, and loudly declare, “Your honor, that man DID. NOT. BREAK. THE. LAW.”

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. My work schedule, a busy family life, and just the general passage of one whole year meant I simply didn’t have time to go the full Perry Mason and line everything up perfectly in preparation for this hearing. To be honest, I also felt guilty asking another person to take off of work to come testify on my behalf, especially when I thought there was a better-than-good chance that the ticket would be thrown out.

One thing that came up during the hearing was the issue of me not providing the officer with my ID immediately when I was stopped. If you recall, the driver threatened me with arrest. He also threatened the woman who he had stopped before me with arrest as well, but she provided him with a cellphone picture of her passport to avoid a trip to the precinct. The officer brought this up, saying that he had remembered our encounter quite well due to this fact, and in fact it was what caused him to remember so many other details of my alleged red light offense.

The judge, however, explained to the officer that he can not arrest someone for not providing an ID. Now, it can result in a trip to the precinct to verify someone’s identity, but not  having ID is not an arrest able offense. Who knows what the officer was thinking when this was explained to him, but from my perspective he seemed genuinely chagrined.

Finally, it was time for the judge to render his decision. Despite some of the stranger moments, I actually felt like there was at least a small chance that Steve and had thrown some shade on the judge’s requirement that “clear” evidence of a violation be established.

Well, as you’ve probably guessed if you’ve read this far, I lost.  (“I got a bogus ticket, the judge knew right away it was bogus, threw it out and asked the cop what the hell he was thinking” certainly wouldn’t have taken two blog posts to explain.)

The judge said that there was enough evidence to conclude that a violation had occurred. “Clear” evidence of a violation, at least in this case, simply meant, “The cop said so.”

I was ordered to pay $190 and told that I must not run a red light again through July 2015, a time limit that began from the moment of my alleged violation, or it would be recorded as a second violation. And, this being New York, you simply don’t want multiple red light violations.

Now, being told that I must not run a red light “again” when I hadn’t run one in the first place stung. But what also hurt was the sense that this officer’s experience was validated. Whether he actively lied or simply based my ticket on something he thought he saw out of the corner of his eye, neither exactly meet the standard one would want our police officers to live by as they enforce order on our streets.

But what also concerned me was the sense that I had everything going for me — some pretty good evidence, the help of a lawyer, the ability to take a few hours off of work — and I still lost. People who can not afford the time off of job, who don’t have a friend who feels like doing a favor, and who may be more intimidated in even as low-stakes a setting as traffic court… there’s not a lot many of the people who find themselves unfairly ticketed by the NYPD can do. And $190 is a lot of money for people who actually need to rely on a bicycle for transportation.

I want to be clear: My experience does not rise to the level of the Greatest Injustice in New York City. It’s an interesting story — I hope! — that brings up some troubling questions for how committed the average NYPD officer is to targeted, smart enforcement using rigorous standards in the Vision Zero age. It gives rise to this question: “If this, then what?” If this officer nailed me for a violation that didn’t occur, then what actual violations did he ignore that could have made the streets safer without wasting everyone’s time with a fourteen-minute traffic stop and an afternoon at the Traffic Violations Bureau?

Hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you’ll consider the question as we move forward in our efforts to make America’s Best City for Cycling live up to the honor.

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