Why the bicycle riders?

In Leo Rosten’s classic, “The Joys of Yiddish”, it is said that, at a rally in Nuremberg, Hitler was delivering a long and detailed harangue about the perfidy of the Learned Elders of Zion. “All of  the world’s  problems” he screamed “are the fault of the Jews”.

“Yes” replied a disembodied voice from the audience, “the Jews and the bicycle riders!”

Hitler looked stunned, “The bicycle riders” he asked puzzled, “why the bicycle riders?”

The voice responded, “Why the Jews?”


Here’s “why the bicycle riders”:

Early one morning, I watched an urban daddy-type with a stroller attempting to cross a commercial street. Traffic was virtually non-existent, and the light was with him. Cautiously, he looked every way traffic could legally approach him, saw none, and stepped off the crosswalk, only to have his child nearly hit by a speeding cyclist going the wrong way and against the light. The three year old started crying, while the father stood in stone shocked stunned silence, his eyes bulging and his mouth gaping open. The cyclist broke the silence and sneered “thank you for your courtesy”, and sped off. The father turned three shades of purple and shouted something concerning the cyclist’s family and possible sexual preferences, which the child, no longer in tears, happily repeated again and again.

The cyclist perfectly exemplified the spirit and attitude of “Critical Mass”.

From my perspective as a pedestrain (disclosure: while I own a car, I use it only for the twin pleasure of moving it everyday from one side of the street to the other and expending my meagar disposable income on the exorbitant insurance), one of New York’s greatest problems is the willful disregard by everyone of the city’s traffic regulations. In New York, red lights are considered merely an advisory opinion. Half of the city’s traffic problems could likely be solved if motorists, and others, learned two fairly simple rules: (1) red is for stop, and (2) green is for go. The great advantage of universal compliance is that it creates the presumption that if one merely follows the rules, you will be safe. But, in the little slice of life I just described, “urban daddy” followed the rules, to nearly tragic results. And so it is every day.

 While NYC traffic rules are disobeyed by all factions, no segment of the population’s  flaunting of the rules is so universal as that displayed by bike riders. If motor vehicles behaved in the manner of the average cyclist, New York would look something like southern Lebanon after a visit by the Israelis. Pedestrians violate the rules all the time, mostly at their own peril. Motorists also do so, but nearly always feel guilty about it (and almost never drive on the sidewalks). But bicyclists do so and are proud of it. They brag of their nobility.

“Critical Mass” is the perfect symbol for the arrogance of those on two wheels. Hundreds of cyclists gather to “spontaneously” live according to their own rules, running stop signs and red lights, tying up traffic, delaying emergency vehicles, and forcing pedestrians to the sidewalks, lest they face near certain serious injury.

Until 2004, the City’s disgraceful response was a shrug of the shoulders. Then “Critical Mass” did something stupid (I use this word only in the context of what they’d already been doing; in reality, everything “Critical Mass” does is stupid). They decided to hold one of their events during the Republican National Convention. This was too much for the Mayor, who faced with such idiocy (and disrespect for his adopted party displayed by someone other than himself), responded exponentially in kind, suddenly engaging in mass arrests. The courts correctly and laudably ruled that the City’s crackdown, at this juncture, and only at this juncture, was based not on safety concerns, but rather on political content, and therefore impermissible. Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Screw Magazine, Critical Mass deserves our thanks for clarifying, enshrining and protecting our glorious First Amendment rights. But, surely, I am not the first to notice that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Screw Magazine are otherwise considered unspeakable in polite company.

The repressive crackdown on the First Amendment should not obscure the larger issue. Critical Mass is not a protest rally; it is an act of mass civil disobedience. Moreover, unlike the non-violent civil disobedience of a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, it is civil disobedience with an element of reckless endangerment, if not depraved indifference. There is no First Amendment right to tie up a large percentage of the City, and subject many to unwarranted risks, without warning, for the purpose of  flaunting your non-existent moral superiority.

Everyday I watch bicyclists in this City almost literally trample the rights of others as they perform their own little solo versions of “Critical Mass”. In addition to these spontaneous outrages, cyclists also have their own lobby, “Transportation Alternatives” (TA), which deserves special mention. TA pretends to advocate for all non-motor vehicular modes of travel, and has done some good work on behalf of pedestrians and riders of mass transit, but when the interests of these groups clash with those of the cyclists, as they did during the battle over locating the bike and pedestrian lanes on the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, TA can be downright snotty. The TA magazine’s coverage of the Brooklyn Bridge issue reeked of contempt for those who walk, as does the behavior of cyclists on the Brooklyn Bridge. If I stood for a year at the bicycle stop sign on the walkway, waiting to cross over without being maimed, and received a quarter for every cyclist who stopped as required, I would still not be able to purchase a cone at the ice cream shop in the Fulton Ferry Landing lighthouse.

Of course, the answer is not to crack down on “Critical Mass”, the violations of law committed at “Critical Mass” “rides” should not be treated any differently than those violations by cyclists committed everyday with something resembling impunity. Norman Siegel is right. “Critical Mass” should be treated exactly in the manner of the everyday cyclist.

Book ‘em Dano!