The Bicycle Uprising: Remembering the Midtown Bike Ban 25 Years Later

Editor’s note: This post, the first in a five-part series by Streetsblog contributor Charles Komanoff, recounts the activism that saved and rejuvenated bicycling in New York City 25 years ago. Future posts in this weekly series will place the “bike ban uprising” in the historical context of cycling advocacy. Activists are planning a September 28 bike ride and forum to commemorate and celebrate the events of 1987, and Streetsblog readers are invited to participate and contribute.

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You can sit at your computer all day long and you’re never going to get anything done in terms of bringing down a government. What happens is when people got up and went into the streets. — NY Times Cairo correspondent David Kirkpatrick, interviewed on Fresh Air (NPR), July 18, 2012, A Reporter Looks at Where Egypt May Be Headed.

The Revolution of 1987

Twenty-five summers ago, something remarkable unfolded on the streets of New York City: Bicyclists by the hundreds and even thousands took to the avenues in a series of tumultuous demonstrations — part protest and part celebration — that galvanized bike activism.

The demonstrators encompassed the entire spectrum of NYC bicycling in the mid-to-late 1980s: daily bike commuters, weekend recreational riders, bike racers, cycling sympathizers, and bicycle messengers (who in those days were a powerful presence in Midtown traffic and who spearheaded the mid-summer actions). These disparate constituencies joined to resist a mayoral edict banning bicycle riding in the heart of Midtown Manhattan: on Fifth, Madison and Park Avenues from 31st to 59th Street.

The Midtown bike ban would operate from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, clearly targeting the bike messengers whom the tabloid press and other opinion-mongers held responsible for the city’s rampant traffic chaos and danger, but infringing on everyone’s right to ride and declaring open season on the city’s hardy but beleaguered bicycle community. Flanked by his police and transportation commissioners, Mayor Ed Koch stood on the steps of City Hall on July 22, 1987, to unveil the ban, which would take effect six weeks later, at the start of September, once signs had been posted and the legal niceties disposed of.

The outrage propelling the bicycle demonstrations was predictable enough. Singling out cyclists, a small part of the traffic stream, was ludicrous from a pragmatic standpoint and indefensible from a moral one. Moreover, targeting vulnerable, working-class bike messengers qualified as scapegoating and class warfare. The celebratory aspect was perhaps more surprising, as well as more enduring, for the summer of bicycle protest became an outpouring of frustration, hope and joy: frustration that cycling and cyclists had been maligned for so long; hope that other New Yorkers might stand with us; and the joy that explodes when any marginalized group pours into the streets on its own terms.

We had our terms indeed. Once or twice each week at around 5:30 p.m., the end of the messengers’ workday, masses of cyclists, usually half a thousand and occasionally more, spread across Sixth Avenue and paraded the three miles from Houston Street to Central Park South. Our stately pace, perhaps five mph, 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. As we streamed up Sixth Avenue, cries of “What do we want? Our streets back!” reverberated through the glass canyons, alternating with “Join us! Join us!” Before long, riders were holding signs and banners lampooning the mayor — “Koch Can’t Ride” — and calling on New Yorkers to “Clear The Air: Cyclists and Pedestrians Unite!”

There were other actions too, most notably one at lunchtime in which cyclists snaked through the East 40s and 50s on foot to make the point that a midtown cycling ban would lead to sidewalk gridlock. It didn’t take long for the demonstrations to spill from the streets and into the media. Just as the rarity of lethal cyclist-pedestrian collisions in the early 1980s seemed to stoke press outrage when one occurred, the seeming incongruity of gritty bike messengers stopping at crosswalks and demanding safe streets and clean air ignited waves of coverage. Their prior unpopularity aside, the cyclists were photogenic and made good copy. Soon, each day’s Post, Daily News, and Newsday were plastered with pictures, columns and news stories reporting not just the latest protests but the treacherous conditions confronted by NYC cyclists and the “sweatshop of the streets” in which the messengers toiled. Before long, columnists were quoting cab and truck drivers who regarded bike messengers as fellow working stiffs, and occupational hazards like “dooring” entered the city’s cultural lexicon. The lack of both workers’ compensation for messengers and safe bike lanes for everyone who ventured onto city streets on two wheels became concerns for many New Yorkers and, in the minds of some, issues to be remedied before trying a draconian bike ban.

In late August, a New York State Supreme Court judge invalidated the ban on a technicality: the city hadn’t published official notice. The 45-day notice period meant that the ban couldn’t take effect until mid-October at the earliest, and City Hall threw in the towel. Press accounts credited the lawsuit, which had been mounted by Transportation Alternatives, but what gave the suit its legal standing and political currency was the “velorution” in the streets. Not only had Mayor Koch lost the battle of public opinion to the bicyclists — over 600 letters defending them poured into City Hall — but bicycling in New York City had acquired a human face, one that was exuberant, passionate and justice-seeking. Out-maneuvered in the streets and mocked in the media as Goliath beset by bike-riding Davids, the mayor who had entered politics as a liberal reformer quietly renounced his own handiwork.

Next week: The Rebirth of Transportation Alternatives

  • Inspiring!

  • Anonymous


    Moreover, targeting vulnerable, working-class bike messengers qualified as scapegoating and class warfare. 

    Well . . . are we going to just hang out to dry our Asian and Latino brothers on this? 

    http://www.amny.com/urbanite-1.812039/pols-call-for-crackdown-on-electric-bikes-1.3834870 

    “It’s scary enough when you have a regular bike breaking laws, but it is scarier when you have an ebike coming at you,” [Councilman Garodnick] said at a news conference. . . . Under Garodnick’s bill . . . first-time penalties for ebike riders who cross red lights [would double] to $900.http://www.thirteen.org/metrofocus/2012/07/a-crackdown-on-electric-bicycles-coming-from-two-directions/ 
    “We have seen a clear proliferation of e-bikes [electric bikes] all around New York City,” said Garodnick in a phone interview. “They are deceptively fast, dangerous and illegal. . . . We want to create the proper economic disincentives.  At a minimum, we need to double the fine.”

    At the Afghan Kebab House on Ninth Avenue, chef Muhammad Chaudry said that mostly Asian restaurant deliverymen rode the e-bikes.“Chinese, Korean, sushi restaurants, they use them,” he said, adding that the bikes are very popular in China. The New York Times also reported last year that the electric bikes were widely used by Chinese immigrants delivering take-out.
    Raj Kumar, the manager at Basera Indian Cuisine on Ninth Avenue . . . said he didn’t see a reason why they should be illegal. “We need to get food to people quicker.  We’re in that business.”
    At the Afghan Kebab House on Ninth Avenue, chef Muhammad Chaudry said that mostly Asian restaurant deliverymen rode the e-bikes.“Chinese, Korean, sushi restaurants, they use them,” he said, adding that the bikes are very popular in China. The New York Times also reported last year that the electric bikes were widely used by Chinese immigrants delivering take-out.

    So to recap, Garodnick has to do something about these “deceptively fast, dangerous and [now] illegal e-bikes. But has he done anything for the people killed by actual fast, dangerous vehicles. 

    I mean, when I read this shit. I get sick to my stomach.  I cannot stand Republicans.  I think they’re full of shit on most issues.  But, this is one instance, of actual unnecessary regulations burdening small business owners.  But, I don’t hear them speaking up (it cannot be because these small business owners tend to be ethnic). 

    But seriously, could you imagine such an unjust, stupid, pointless, regulation, disproportionately burdening UES liberal jews?  Or Park Slope brownstoners?  Or Chelsea gays?  No.  Because such a law would be defeated by their respective political constituencies.  But ethnic restaurant owners, one of the undoubtedly best parts of NYC’s multi-ethnic tapestries, get the shaft . . . and we pat ourselves on the back for our delayed bike share. 

    Michael Rogale was killed while walking on the sidewalk by an SUV that drove onto the sidewalk.  Not a single person has gone to jail. Or even fined.  
    http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20120426/downtown/downtown-community-mourns-ups-worker-killed-by-suv-on-beekman-street 

    Garodnick: We want to create the proper economic disincentives [so people won’t ride e-bikes].  

    Where the fuck are our “economic disincentives not to kill people with our SUV’s”!?!?!?!  

    It’s the abject hypocrisy + suboptimal public policy + scape goating poor working class ethnics = makes me sick.  JSK is on-board with e-bike ban too . . . but I suppose even she must pick her battles. 

  • safecrossings

    Who was the Commissioner then?

  • NT

    What was funny was how long some of these relic signs remained standing.  Many of them stood until ’97 when I interned at the NYCDOT Bike Office and made a point of getting the agency to finally take them down.

  • Ben Kintisch

    Great story and yes inspirational! Hooray for bike freedom!

  • BKLYN Critical Mass this Friday 7p Grand Army Plaza & Williamsburg Bridge. BikeNYC UNITE & ORGANIZE!

  • Sadison

    So, was critical mass an outcome of this or did it predate/postdate the ban?

  • Anonymous

    IN many ways Crit Mass came from these protests, and from earlier East River Bridge access protests – Bklyn Br in 1980 or 81 when a cable snapped and the Koch/QBoro around then when the path was closed.

    But, even earlier, in the 1970’s, Bike For A Better City was attracting several thousand rider protests in midtown.  BFBC was run by Barry Benepe (yes, father of Adrian Benepe), and the movement morphed into Transportation Alternatives.

    Many “graduates” of these 1970-80’s NYC street protests went on to create Critical Mass rides and pro-bike planning and political actions in cities across the country.

    And, we can thank Mayor John Lindsay for opening Central Park to bikes in 1966 (or was it closing Central Park to “cars” on Weekends and Tuesday nights) for leading the Baby Boom generation cyclists, and their just slightly older co-conspirators like Benepe, to think that they could actually have a bigger impact on City Hall and the state DOT’s. 

    Let’s not ignore the great damage that Robert Moses self-inflicted on the national highway program when he rammed his expressways across the Bronx and Brooklyn and opened the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (1964) without installing the bike/ped paths it was designed for.  Moses was so over-the-top that federal environmental and planning laws were passed to reign in the post WW II Auto Uber Alles national transportation policy.  Unfortunately, we are still trying to correct many of those errors. 

    Funny coincidence, Ed Koch, as a Congressman in the early-mid 1970’s, was a strong sponsor of pro-bike –  pro-urban federal transportation legislation.  The midtown bike ban was Koch operating at his “management by imperial whim” worst, but he could also move forward with good things too.  Those are another story.

    The unique feature of Critical Mass rides is their regular repeating monthly presence, but New York City of the 1970’s and 1980’s kicked off the first mass movements of cyclists taking the streets since the Great Bike Boom of the 1880’s-90’s.  Critical Mass followed.

  • LN

    I was there, blocking 5th avenue together with the entire diversity of the bike community – perhaps the first time we fully came together for a cause.

  • Anonymous

    @6672c51b50de5876a910167284ca28e5:disqus DOT Commish then was Ross Sandler, noted environmental attorney.

    @b62f92f479ca821cdc4aec9a49780664:disqus I have to question your recollection. First, we (TA) fought like crazy to get all of the signs taken down after the ban was struck down. We didn’t want drivers to have any greater “license” to bully us in traffic. It took a month or two, IIRC, for the very last ones to be taken down. Second, cyclists were scouring midtown to find a sign to take down for their own mementoes, and what DOT didn’t remove, we would have scavenged.

    @Brownstone2:disqus Thanks for that history. Some of it will be in the 2nd installment, next Tues. Are you sure Barry Benepe was involved in Bike for a Better City? The New Yorker magazine, in a 26-Sept-1970 Talk of the Town piece by Rick Hertzberg, had BfBC founded by Barry Fishman and Harriet Green. Benepe could have been involved, of course. He was a co-founder of TA and will appear in Part II. As for Critical Mass, of course NYC demonstrations may have been antecedents, but I think its origins largely lay elsewhere. Let’s discuss another time.

  • NT

    Komanoff: The bike ban signs that were leftover were located pretty high up on the lamp posts.  You’d have to look up to see them and they definitely would have been beyond the reach of the average souvenir hunter (unless they had a crane!) 

  • Anonymous

    Charlie,  you are correct about Bike For A Better City,
    Barry Benepe was just one of the co-conspirators, and possibly not even a leading one, but his is the name that sticks in my head.  But since you remind me, I do recall Barry Fishman and Harriet Green.

    I am trying to remember if we did Crit Mass style bike lifts during BFABC rides, or during the Mid-town Bike Ban rides – or not at all?
    If you can remember the 60’s the 70’s and the 80’s, you weren’t there.  😉

  • “Streets back,” and “Koch can’t ride” were two of the loudest memorable chants during 1987’s demonstration rides. Despite, as I recently read Ed Koch participated in one of the first early seventies Transportation Alternatives riding demonstrations, “Koch can’t ride” was poetry. It had a beat. Those rides were fun and the New York City Police need to feel reminded of how much fun they allowed to happen. 

  • Battleofthebikeban

    RSVP to the September event here: http://www.facebook.com/events/451306484904260/?context=create

    And follow us on Twitter for the next Bicycle Uprising: https://twitter.com/BicycleUprising

  • Davewyman

    Although I live in L.A., I’ve been in NYC for about two weeks. As i usually do, I shipped one of my bikes from L.A., and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed pedaling all over town.

    I didn’t know about the bike ban story. Wish I could ride Friday, but I’m heading home the day before.