Location: SE corner of Houston Street and Sixth Avenue
Time: Friday, Sept. 28, 6:30 p.m.
Dozens, possibly hundreds and maybe thousands of cyclists will parade up Sixth Avenue on Friday, Sept. 28, in an unpermitted ride, commemorating a watershed moment in New York City bicycle history — the 1987 defeat of Mayor Ed Koch’s proposed daytime ban on bicycles in Midtown Manhattan.
With a much anticipated (and delayed) bike sharing program, a cyclist-friendly Department of Transportation (DOT) and a strong and expansive network of bike and pedestrian activists, the era when cyclists were considered an inconvenient wrench in the works of city traffic has been somewhat obscured. Twenty-five years ago, city cycling was mostly equated with bike messengers, whose daring riding patterns were as erratic as those of taxi drivers and who were often blamed for traffic snags and accidents.
In July 1987, Mayor Koch announced on the steps of City Hall that bicycling — by anyone — would outlawed on Fifth, Madison and Park Avenues from 31st to 59th Streets during the weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The response was an unprecedented wave of direct action that many veteran cycling activists say helped pave the way for the increasingly bike-friendly New York of today.
“When the ban was proposed, some cyclists met at the park [on Houston Street and Sixth Avenue], from there they rode the streets and shut them down, but they were stopping at red lights,” said Keegen Stephen, a volunteer with Time’s Up!, the bike-centric environmental advocacy organization that was formed immediately after the defeat of the bike ban, and which organized this Friday’s anniversary ride.
Stopping at red lights, something bike messengers aren’t prone to do, was very significant, recalls Charles Komanoff, now a famous name in the “livable streets” movement, who was president of the once scrappy, now powerful advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives at the time of the bike ban.
“Our stately pace, perhaps five miles per hour, was slow enough that passersby could look past our bikes and see our bodies and faces. Walkers and joggers could join our ranks. We were slow enough that we could and did stop at red lights. Letting foot and auto traffic cross at the green was a stroke of genius. It certified cycling as city-friendly and kept the police from using ‘blocking traffic’ as a pretext to bust the permit-less rides,” Komanoff wrote on Streetsblog.
While the protest rides began with a handful of messengers and activists, including members of the New York Cycle Club, National League of American Wheelmen and the politically conscious bike shop, Bicycle Habitat, they quickly transformed into massive actions with thousands of cyclists in tow.
“Transportation Alternatives’ membership increased ten-fold during the bike ban. It really galvanized the cycling community. It was an attack on a certain marginalized class of the bike community [bike messengers], but when the city chose to pick on them, the rest of the cyclists came to their defense,” said Stephens.
As it turns out, the bike ban was defeated in the courts that August on a technicality — the city hadn’t published official notice — but shortly afterward, the united bike activists made some other big wins.
In 1988, activists overturned a ban on biking a long stretch of Henry Hudson Drive during morning hours. In 1989, they got the Port Authority to allow cyclists on the southern path of the George Washington Bridge.
In 1988, the idea of cycling as an environmental strategy began to capture the public’s eye, after James Hanson, a climatologist at NASA, publicly blamed global climate change on fossil fuels. A solidarity between the cyclists and environmentalists was put into action in 1990. After the city announced plans to hand the Queensborough Bridge bike lane over to automobiles, bikers participated in a series of direct actions in which they took the bridge, and dropped a banner that read: “CLEAN AIR NOW” and “JUST ONE LANE.”
While the resistance to the bike ban may have been the impetus behind the boom in New York’s cycling activism, it was also part of a growing movement across the country. In fact, the “Battle of the Bike Ban” ride on Sept. 28 coincides with the 20th anniversary of the founding of Critical Mass in San Francisco. Critical Mass, the monthly ride in which huge groups of cyclists (often quasi-legally, or illegally) take over entire streets in a show of their numbers, is now popular in 300 cities, including New York. As the “Battle of the Bike Ban” anniversary ride is expected to be, modern Critical Mass rides almost always go unpunished by authorities and are often supported by police escorts. But when it began, Critical Mass was a decidedly radical animal that often resulted in confrontations with the police and arrests.
It’s those rebellious beginnings that eventually helped lead to the formation of bike lanes, the rise in commuter cycling and a political culture where alternative-transportation advocates generally have a seat at the table.
As evidence of the changes that have taken place, a DOT spokesperson said, “The number of commuter cyclists has doubled over the last five years and quadrupled in the last ten. Accident rates among cyclists have gone down by three-quarters, despite this growth, proving that there is safety in numbers. The DOT has worked to accommodate this growing number of riders with more than 280 miles of bike lanes installed over the last five years. Following these and other significant infrastructure improvements and safety enhancements for all road users – bikers, pedestrians and motorists alike – our streets are the safest they have been since record keeping began.”
On Sept. 28, cyclists will remember a much different time in transportation history as they cruise up Sixth Avenue in mass, head up to Central Park and turn back down Fifth Avenue to Cooper Union’s Great Hall, where they’ll screen “Fifth, Park and Madison,” a documentary about the bike ban. However, Stephens said the ride isn’t just about commemoration, but is motivated by a need for perpetual advocacy and a spirit of not letting one’s guard down.
“I’ve been watching the NYPD ticketing cyclists at an intersection in Union Square. Meanwhile, on that same intersection, a pedestrian was killed by a truck two months ago and they’re not investigating that death. It happens all over the city — the NYPD just does not take accidents seriously,” said Stephens, who also said that New York’s biking infrastructure still leaves a lot to be desired.
“We have a crazy mishmash of bike lanes right now. A lot of cyclists I know only go places where they can use bike lanes, so often they’ll find that they can’t go uptown or across town because a bike lane just ends. There are plenty of examples across the country that are better. Washington, D.C., has protected bike lanes. If we had protected bike lanes like D.C., then pedestrians wouldn’t walk on them,” Stephens added.