Scenes of Mindless Bike Enforcement From “Operation Safe Cycle”

NYPD’s bike ticket blitz, a.k.a. Operation Safe Cycle, is halfway through its two-week run. The department has promised to target “hazardous violations that create a danger for pedestrians and cyclists,” but the accounts pouring in from readers suggest that police haven’t raised their game since the last flurry of bike enforcement. While it’s tough to get a comprehensive picture of NYPD bike citations, readers report a lot of fish-in-a-barrel ticketing activity and flat-out bogus summonses. No one has written in to tell us about NYPD nabbing a wrong-way cyclist who just went through a crowded crosswalk.

A reader photo of NYPD issuing tickets on Houston Street today.
NYPD issuing tickets on Houston Street, where cyclists entering the Hudson River Greenway have to choose between biking on the sidewalk and mixing it up with cars and trucks in a dark tunnel.

Upper West Side resident Howard was biking north on Eighth Avenue at about 3:30 p.m. Monday with the green light at 38th Street when officers pulled over him and two other cyclists to issue red light tickets. “The three of us looked at each other, and we had no idea why we were being stopped,” he said. “I am sure this light was not yellow, not red, but green.”

Howard said that since he got a red light ticket over a year ago, he has made sure to stop at all lights, and the officers seemed to know what they were doing was a waste of time. “They were apologetic. They said this was the mayor’s initiative and they are obligated to enforce it,” he said. “There’s enough going on wrong in this city. There are enough bikers going the wrong way and being hazardous. They don’t have to stop innocent people.” (This isn’t the first time cyclists say they’ve gotten tickets for not running a red light.)

Midtown streets do have potential for cyclist/pedestrian conflict, but the same can’t be said of the Hudson River Greenway near West 36th Street, where on Monday a reader spotted officers ticketing cyclists for proceeding against the red light at the NYPD tow pound driveway. At this location, it is drivers, including the NYPD’s own, who are the source of danger to greenway users.

Yesterday, the same reader spotted Manhattan South Task Force officers stopping cyclists on the quiet sidewalk along Houston Street between the greenway and Washington Street. This is a critical greenway access point, especially with nearby Clarkson Street currently torn up. To avoid using the sidewalk, cyclists would have to ride on a road that runs beneath a building, is usually shrouded in darkness, with a bike lane sandwiched between two car lanes and often used by turning trucks. Staking out the sidewalk makes for easy ticketing.

Just a few blocks north, West Village resident Dan saw a taxi cut off a cyclist in the bike lane at Hudson and Charles Streets. The cyclist went around the cab, which then accelerated in front of him. Turns out the cab was an undercover police vehicle. The police officer inside the taxi then got out and stopped the cyclist to issue a ticket. “It all seemed rather excessive,” Dan wrote.

Reader David Dartley also saw an officer in an unmarked car issuing red light tickets on Monday at First Avenue and 36th Street, a location where he’s seen similar red light stings in the past.

As always, in the course of this bike ticketing, police are blocking bike lanes all over the place:


Streetsblog has asked NYPD’s public information office about the types of summonses issued during Operation Safe Cycle and how much manpower the department is devoting to ticketing cyclists. We have yet to receive a response

  • Joe R.

    The issue is that it’s highly route dependent. I don’t have any greenways local to me other than the really short ~ 2 mile segment of the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway (which actually ends up being no faster than surface streets due to being more circuitous and having a number of sharp curves). It’s easy to believe stopping at red lights increases your journey time by only 20% if a significant portion of your journey involves greenways or bridges. You may also have decent light timing for the non-greenway portion of the route. I’ve been on streets where letter of the law riding means you’re literally stopping every block or two. Maybe not by you, but it seems there are quite a few situations I encounter where lights are timed so the next one goes red right after the one in front of you goes green.

    That being said, I only tried it the one time. The annoyance was enough for me to immediately relapse to a less strict interpretation of traffic code.

    Yep. Even a 20% delay is a lot if you’re on a fairly long trip. For a 2 hour round trip that represents an extra 24 minutes you’re on the road. That’s certainly very significant given that I’ve heard commuters rightly complain when 3 minutes are added to their train schedule.

  • It’s obviously so that stopping at red lights makes your trip longer. If I blew red lights, I could average 15 miles per hour rather than 10, or 50% faster.

    So, then, your argument is that you shouldn’t have to follow the law because it’s inconvenient? Lovely. Can anyone wonder why we’re seen as arrogant?

    Look, I am by no means a “law-and-order” person. I am on the far left politically. I work in criminal defence. I understand that most of what we call “crime” is just the natural and healthy response of oppressed people to intolerably unjust conditions.

    Breaking the law because the law is morally repugnant is something that I fully support. This can apply to laws placing limits on a person’s sovereignty over his/her own body, to laws restricting the free movement of people, and to a few other types of laws.

    But the law requiring bicyclists to stop at red lights does not rise to this level. The refusal to follow the law just because it cramps your style is just bad citizenship.

  • Joe R.

    A bike obviously has big advantage over transit in that wait times are zero and you can literally park almost anywhere. That partially makes up for the suboptimal infrastructure. Nevertheless, my point isn’t designing just for me. If we get average speeds for bike trips close to cruising speeds then suddenly it’s a much more attractive mode for everyone, not just just people riding around at night. The places with high bike mode share got this way by designing streets to minimize journey times by bike. Let’s take a good example. Right now I can go from my place to Manhattan, door-to-door, in about 40 minutes via the local bus and subway combo for most of the day. This includes average waiting times. The distance is roughly 10 miles. In theory, I could ride this distance is less time than that with suitable bike infrastructure. In practice the trip would take well over an hour, even passing red lights when possible, due to traffic conditions, lousy roads, etc. So bike isn’t even on my radar. It’s not even on my radar for shorter local trips due to lack of bike parking, and heavy enough local traffic as to cause severe delays. In the end, you don’t need to design for me but rather for those who might want to bike for errands during the day, but won’t now because it’s too slow or too unsafe. Do that, and I’ll benefit also. I’ll use my bike for errands. I’ll also use the bike infrastructure for my night recreational rides.

  • wait weenie

    “Following the law isn’t even a guarantee you won’t get a ticket”

    That’s why this crackdown can’t seriously be about changing cyclists’ behavior, unless that means getting them to stop riding bikes. Using the NYPD to conduct this sort of crackdown with the stated goal of improving safety is a farce. It’s like picking a hammer as the right tool for brain surgery. They don’t even know the law. Cyclists who are actually dangerous seem to be entirely absent from the dragnet.

    First there’s the ridiculous over reaction to the game of capture the flag on the Brooklyn Bridge and now this ‘safety campaign’, what an embarrassment.

  • Joe R.

    You said your commute is about 10 miles each way. This means you’re fine giving up 40 minutes each day, 3 hours, 20 minutes a week, 173 hours (over 7 full days!) a year because the state can’t properly engineer traffic controls or pass reasonable laws. I fully support stopping at red lights all the time. However, I also fully require in order to do so that lights never, ever go red if there’s no cross traffic. If they do, then the state screwed up big time, and I shouldn’t have to waste minutes or hours of my life. In essence, this is effectively restricting the free movement of people by needlessly delaying them. At some point, when trips become overly burdensome timewise when they inherently don’t need to be those trips stop being made.

    People surrender some of their autonomy in the name of order when they allow themselves to be governed. Governments in turn have a moral obligation to govern in the least intrusive way possible. That especially includes any measures to ensure safety on thoroughfares. It should be only as restrictive as necessary for safety and not a bit more. Signals never go red on railways unless there is an actual conflict. It should be no different on roads.

  • lop

    lights never, ever go red if there’s no cross traffic.

    A lot of lights in the city used to be like that. They had to change them to computer controlled variable timed lights instead because there are too many cars most of the day so that traffic flow is better without the sensors or pedestrian actuators turned on.

  • lop

    too slow or too unsafe

    Biking can be slow, and people will bike. But it has to be safe, and it has to feel safe, and it has to be comfortable. It doesn’t have to be fast, or at least not what you consider fast.

  • wait weenie

    I don’t buy the argument that cyclists who pass lights are bad citizens. If only cyclist why obeyed the law 100% were out on the street, how many do you think would still be out there? I don’t think giving up commuting by bike would make me a better citizen. Because that the option. It’s not simply a matter of red lights ‘cramping my style’. It makes a significant portion of my cycling an unrealistic option, not less convenient. I ride my bike to go places, and I think that makes me a happier person, makes the city a better place, and that the negative impact of my Idaho Stops is miniscule. It’s the moral equivalent of jaywalking. Jaywalkers aren’t bad citizens even though they *break the law* for their own convenience.

    Additionally, I do find the automotive dominance of our society, especially the extent to which it infiltrates this city, to be morally repugnant. I’m not saying my passing red lights is an act of rebellion against that, just figured I’d throw that out there.

  • By “free movement of people” I clearly meant migration, where people are imprisoned for migrating, due to laws that put unreasonable restrictions on this practice. I certainly did not mean situations in which people are merely inconvenienced. You cannot seriously be conflating the two. My delay of 40 minutes a day due to stopping at lights is not a human rights issue.

    I agree that restrictions of any kind should be no more intrusive than necessary in order to achieve the desired goal — which may be mere safety, but which may well be other ends, such as promoting public health, pollution reduction, or some other public good. And it’s true that stop lights, as they pertain to bicycles, don’t come close to meeting this standard. That’s why the law needs to be changed so that bicycles are freed from that obligation, and can proceed after a stop.

    Timer-driven stop lights could conceivably revert to sensor-driven stop lights when traffic fell below a certain level. But this would tend to promote unsafe speeds on the parts of autos; so I’d prefer to keep the stop lights as they are, and apply them only to cars, as they were intended, while giving us bicyclists the Idaho stop.

  • Joe R.

    Timer-driven stop lights could conceivably revert to sensor-driven stop lights when traffic fell below a certain level. But this would tend to promote unsafe speeds on the parts of autos; so I’d prefer to keep the stop lights as they are, and apply them only to cars, as they were intended, while giving us bicyclists the Idaho stop.

    I fully agree that speeding autos with sensor-driven lights are a major problem but speed cameras which operate 24/7 eliminate that.

    I’d love to change the laws but in the meantime I’ll bet there’s a lot we can do infrastructure-wise to make traffic signals far less burdensome on cyclists. Sensor driven lights at off-peak times, and lights timed closer to cyclist speeds at other times, would go a long way towards fixing the problems. So would more non-stop bicycle infrastructure.

    My delay of 40 minutes a day due to stopping at lights is not a human rights issue.

    I could certainly frame it that way. That’s 40 minutes more a day you’re breathing in pollutants which are known carcinogens. In essence, that state is statistically reducing your lifespan with the current set of laws/infrastructure designed for autos. While it may not be on the same level of human rights violations as imprisoning people for migration, the combination of delay plus negative health effects is in effect a restriction on free movement. It’s one reason I rarely ride during the day. I know I’m probably losing more minutes of my life than the exercise is gaining me due to the pollution.

  • My riding also makes me a happier person. When my best friend died a few years ago, it was the constant riding that helped me turn the corner and get back my emotional stability after that trauma. Indeed, I haven’t stopped regularly riding; it was then that I began riding all year.

    And I also find that the City is a better place; there is absolutely no place I’d rather be on a hot summer day than New York.

    So it is indeed a question merely of convenience. Speaking as someone who also bicycles everywhere (commuting to work, pleasure riding throughout the City, trips to Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut), I can state categorically that stopping at red lights in no way makes any of this unrealistic.

  • wait weenie

    Stopping at all red lights would most certainly make my regular commute unrealistic. I can’t leave point A until a certain time, I have to be to point B by a certain time, and then the reverse. I would have to move, change jobs, or pay for additional child care in order to commute by bike and stop at all red lights.

  • Joe R.

    It still needs to be at least as fast as what most riders would consider “fast”. That might be a roughly 10 mph or better average speed. Right now a lot of bike routes in the city don’t come close to meeting that criteria, assuming the rider is following the law to the letter. Also, I think every bike rider has a limit to the number of times they feel comfortable stopping on a journey. That’s really a bigger criteria than average speed. If a person has to stop 20 times on a 3 mile trip, chances are good they’ll choose another mode. The real key is keeping bikes in motion most of the time. They even use the saying “bikes flow like water” when designing for them in other countries. So yes, while safety is the primary criteria, people don’t ignore speed entirely. Every rider is perfectly willing to trade some but not much speed for safety if need be, but good bike infrastructure shouldn’t require such tradeoffs. Remember most of the things which tend to make bike routes slower, like automotive cross traffic, also tend to make them less safe. Typically, when you engineer for safety, speed also benefits.

  • lop

    You can often find a route with less stopping, getting it down to 5-6 times in three miles is tolerable, most are short and half cross traffic anyway.

  • Sounds like more of a driver problem than a bike lane problem, so I don’t see the point of eliminating the bike lane.

  • The design places cyclists in a vulnerable position, hence design problem.

  • Maybe explicitly permit cycling on the sidewalk in that area.

  • Liz Patek

    Agree the placement of this ‘bike lane’ is horrible. To place cyclists between two lanes of motor vehicle traffic about to enter what is basically a highway (and without without physical separation) puts cyclists in an unsafe position.

  • Matthias

    Trying to cause a crash is not the right way to go about that.

  • JK

    Does anyone know if DOT, the community board, Trans Alt or anyone else is championing a redesign of this greenway access at Houston Street? The median bike lane under the St John’s building is worn away, and mainly ignored by trucks. Then, after avoiding being run down in the dark tunnel, cyclists using the lane can be stuck in a very scary spot as they are sandwiched between cars exiting Pier 40 and turning left onto the highway, and cars going straight into Pier 40. It is a scary mess and matter of time before a cyclist is killed here.

  • VanDyne

    The photo caption states

    “NYPD issuing tickets on Houston Street, where cyclists entering the Hudson River Greenway have to choose between biking on the sidewalk and mixing it up with cars and trucks in a dark tunnel.”

    This caption makes it seem as if there are only 2 choices. The third and LEGAL choice is dismount and walk your bike on the sidewalk. That’s why it’s called a sideWALK. There is ABSOLUTELY no excuse for a cyclist to RIDE their bike on a sidewalk.

  • walks bikes drives

    Ideally, there would be a combination of sensor and timing. Some parts of the day, when the sensors detect heavier traffic, lights are switched to timed, and back when not needed.

    Another thing DOT should change is their light timing is to the speed limit. If the speed limit is supposed to be an actual limit, why don’t they time the lights BELOW the speed limit. Instead of switching all of the light timing to 25mph as the new law goes into effect, time the lights to 20mph. People can still go up to 25 if they want, as it is the limit.

  • Joe R.

    Ideally, there would be a combination of sensor and timing. Some parts of the day, when the sensors detect heavier traffic, lights are switched to timed, and back when not needed.

    That’s exactly what I want. Between rush hours and especially between about 8 PM and 6 AM, traffic is light enough in much of the city that it would make sense to go on sensors. Everyone benefits if the sensor technology is done right. Cyclists and motor vehicles get mostly greens on arterials, and they only wait a short time on side streets. Pedestrians can pretty much cross as soon as they get to the corner as the sensors will detect them and give them the walk signal for as long as they need to cross. There will be far fewer needless delays for everyone but safety will still be ensured.

    And yes, lights should be timed at most a bit below the speed limit during the times of day when traffic is too heavy for sensors. This might be about 22 to 24 mph in 25 mph zones, 17 to 19 mph in 20 mph zones. The latter is actually really good light timing for most cyclists. Even 12 or 13 mph cyclists should be able to ride 10 or 12 blocks at least with 17 mph light timing before hitting reds. If they’re only on the street for that long, they could conceivable not hit any reds.

  • wronged biker

    I just received a ticket for running a red light on my bike on an almost deserted Flushing Avenue near the Navy Yard on a Saturday. The ticket is $278. It is the same fine as running a red light in a car. Good thing that I didn’t have my Driver’s license on me because the cops said it would count as points on my license. This is outrageous! Although the law states that a bike is the same as a car, it is not… It is human powered and weighs 2000lbs less, By that city’s logic, wheelchairs should also be treated the same as motor vehicles and should not be allowed in sidewalks and bikes shouldn’t be allowed in bike lanes if they are the same as motor vehicles. You must be licensed to drive a car, but not a bike, so how can you be ticketed and fined the same. This is unbelievable! If you go by the letter of the law then children should be ticketed also for riding a tricycle on the sidewalk, skateboarders and rollerbladers should also be ticketed also for running red lights, because in the eyes of the law these are also the same as motor vehicles…what’s the difference with a bike, they have wheels and are human powered. I blame the politicians for all of this…the NYPD is just following the ridiculous orders of the lackey superiors. I hope theyre realizing they are ticketing mostly upstanding tax paying voting citizens who I’m guessing are as incensed as I am at this political theater. I generally support the NYPD and City for the broken windows policy, but I don’t see this as the same thing. I have now lost faith in this administration for the petty pandering to special interests which will blow over after they determine that blitz should end and in the mean time I’m out $278 of my hard earned money.

  • walks bikes drives

    You are out $190. See Steve Vaccaro’s post on the DMV surcharge.

  • walks bikes drives

    By the way, all of the enforcement I have seen has been against mostly recreational and commuting cyclists. I have yet to see an officer stop a delivery person. On all of my years in the city, the only times I have ever had any close calls with a cyclist as a pedestrian has been with delivery riders. And I have several of them a year.

  • qrt145

    Just to be pedantic: the law has an explicit exception that allows children under 14 years of age to ride bikes on the sidewalk. Also, the law has a quite detailed definition of what it means by “bicycle” which excludes wheelchairs, kick scooters, roller skates, unicycles, tricycles, and even pennyfarthings. (The definition says it must have at least two wheels and be driven by a chain or belt.)

    That hasn’t stopped the NYPD from issuing unsubstantiated tickets for unicycling on the sidewalk, though.

  • walks bikes drives

    Sadly, the sensor situation is not realistic as cost will hinder it. Also, I don’t think sensors are good enough yet to sense bicycles and pedestrians. My understanding is they are the same technology used for red light cameras, which are magnetic sensors imbedded in the asphalt that pick up the magnetic signature of a car or truck.

  • lop

    I don’t know how reliable they are but I have definitely seen sensors on the road for bikes. Other places they are expected to use a pedestrian actuator if they want a green.

  • Joe R.

    Actually, modern signal sensors are based on cameras and digital image processing:

    The ones based solely on magnetic sensors embedded in the pavement are going the way of the dinosaur. In the not too distant future, even cars may not have enough ferrous metal to trigger those, so we’re going with cameras, ultrasonic/radar sensors, etc.

    The nice thing about this technology is not needing to dig up the street. It can be installed relatively cheaply. In fact, typically the cameras pay for themselves very fast in terms of cumulative time savings.

    There’s little reason in this era we should have timed signals only. They cause huge inefficiencies in terms of time and traffic capacity.

  • Joe R.

    Can we please stop with the absolutes? More mature societies have nuanced shades of gray, not absolutes. It’s this childish “you’re either with us or you’re against us” absolutist philosophy many people in the US adhere too which causes much of the rest of the world to rightfully hate us. There are plenty of places in the world where bicycles and pedestrians share space uneventfully. The three key factors are to ride slowly (i.e. 5 to 10 mph) when the sidewalk has people on it, ride as close to the curb as possible, and to not expect people to get out of your way. A bike riding on the sidewalk is by definition an interloper. Therefore, the onus is 100% on the cyclist to go around people, slow or stop as needed so people don’t have to change speed or direction, etc. If a cyclist does all those things, then they should be allowed on the sidewalk. A bike being slowly ridden on the sidewalk is no faster than most electric wheelchairs/scooter but a heck of a lot more manueverable. I don’t know about you, but I would rather share the sidewalk with a cyclist carefully going 10 mph or less than with some 300 pound senior citizen who can barely see or hear operating a scooter at the same speed.

    Your statement should have been more like “There is ABSOLUTELY no excuse for a cyclist to RIDE their bike recklessly on a sidewalk, or to ride on a sidewalk at all if parallel bike infrastructure exists.”

    I personally just about never ride on sidewalks. It’s much slower than street riding for one thing. I only do so in rare instances where the parallel road just isn’t safe to ride on, and then for only as long as that condition exists.

    Walking a bike is not the answer if you’ll need to be on the sidewalk for many blocks. It’s not really a good answer at all because a bike being walked takes twice the space of one being ridden, and the pedals can easily clip people. It’s also occupying space on the sidewalk for 2 or 3 times as long as it would if it were being ridden.

  • walks bikes drives

    Where? Here in NYC?

  • lop

    It’s not for many blocks it’s for one block.

  • lop

    How reliably do the cameras pick up bikes and pedestrians?

    The benefits may outweigh the costs but they can’t ever pay for themselves if they don’t produce revenue.

    Loop sensors have their problems but they are or at least can be conductive not magnetic, so you don’t need iron, aluminum is fine, and you don’t dig up the road you just need to make a cut in it, a much smaller operation.

    The inefficiencies come from disparities in per lane traffic levels. As those reduced as traffic levels increased NYC turned off the dumb sensors (and pedestrian buttons) it had at thousands of intersections citywide because they couldn’t work part time. There are limited hours where timed lights are reliably not needed, where they would cause problems at worst only occasionally, and few travelers at those times to benefit, so a system just based on time of day would benefit few for the cost.

    Unnetworked sensors are as much a dinosaur technology as time lights. Just having a sensor at one location doesn’t help during the day. You want a networked centrally managed solution to manage traffic as part of a large system, not just improve throughput at one single intersection. And guess what, midtown is a testbed for that sort of system. It can be expanded, and maybe at night you could make use of the system to leave the light green on one street until cross traffic appears, but it’s not clear you’d want to without installing speed cameras.

  • Bolwerk

    For that matter, let’s stop conflating car and bike bad behavior. Cyclists can reasonably make a mistake without a gargantuan risk that someone will get killed. A driver has no room for error.

  • Bolwerk

    If cameras are being turned on bikes and pedestrians, they’re being used wrong.

  • VanDyne

    Sorry Joe R. but I disagree. And so does the law. It’s illegal to ride a bike on NYC sidewalks. And that IS an absolute.

  • Just to be clear — it’s illegal except where specifically indicated. Some examples of legal sidewalk riding are: the Brooklyn entry to the Williamsburg Bridge; Flatbush Ave. south of Ave. V; the spot where St. Nicholas Ave. crosses Amsterdam Ave.; several small bridges (Third Ave., Willis Ave., Washington).

    But the point is that an adult nay not ride on the sidewalk, unless this is specifically provided for. We can argue that there should be more places where sidewalk riding is allowed; but we don’t have the right to take it upon ourselves to go ahead and do it wherever we like.

  • Joe R.

    Except it’s not an absolute. There are the exceptions Ferdinand mentioned. And it’s legal if you’re under 14. If the law were sane it would be legal all the time under the conditions I wrote.

    You’re using a great example of a really, really awful law which never should have seen the light of day to justify your absolute viewpoint. The problem here is free societies don’t make laws against something unless that something is demonstrated to be dangerous most of the time by studies. Sidewalk cycling doesn’t even remotely fall into that category. You and others may sometimes find it personally annoying. I find lots of things annoying, but I’m not asking legislators to make laws against them. That’s the slippery slope which ultimately leads to totalitarian societies like North Korea. Maybe that’s where you should be if you feel it’s a good idea for the state to try to engineer order or safety, except it’s been tried and failed miserably every time. In a free society we accept a certain amount of chaos in return for a set of laws which is only as restrictive as it needs to be. Since you seem to love absolutes, there’s absolutely no reason for a blanket prohibition on sidewalk cycling. It’s safe 99.9999% of the time. People like you are dangerous-extremely dangerous. Unfortunately in a free society you’re free to speak. I’m also equally free to show others how wrong your type of thinking is as it can only eventually lead to one thing. Today it may only be sidewalk cycling but eventually the law will catch up and you’ll find lots of things you formerly could freely do prohibited in the name of “safety” or “order”. Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

    You might want to read this since you seem to think laws against things you find annoying are good things:

    First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

  • lop

    But then you have all those cars turning in front of you when you cross west st, you may end up needing to put in a separate light phase for bikes and turning cars.

    Better would be to throw up some jersey barriers on either side of the bike lane. There are two travel lanes before that block, so one turning lane for each direction, let cars go straight from one or the other, and a jersey barrier protected bike lane shouldn’t mess traffic up too horribly. Just make sure it’s narrow to start so cars never try to use it.


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