NYPD Parking Hogs Finally Crossed a Line

Joanna Oltman Smith nearly broke the Internet yesterday with this photo of officers marking territory for NYPD Transit Bureau District 30 on Schermerhorn Street:

Scrawling the District 30 pecking order on public asphalt was apparently too bold a move, at least with all those people watching on Twitter and Gothamist:

Appropriating the bike lane and the sidewalk for police “combat parking” is still fine, though. It was only the artisanal parking stall paint job that crossed a line. So here we are, back to the status quo ante, with NYPD vehicles sending a message to people on bikes and people heading to the A/C and G trains about who owns the streets in this town:

Transit police vehicles at the Hoyt/Schermerhorn transit station. Photo: Google Maps
  • To suggest that we all have the responsibility to follow the law is not hysterical. It is a baseline viewpoint; the burden of justification lies with those who disagree with this assertion.

    Note that it is possible to present an argument that justifies law-breaking, mainly by asserting that the law in question is inhumane. Furthemore, mass law-breaking has created very good results in the areas of civil rights for black people, gay rights, and marijuana legalisation. And I and many other people hope that mass defiance of inhumane immigration laws will eventually result in a loosening of restrictions on entry and residence in the U.S.

    The problem is that these situations do not compare to what we as bicyclists face. First of all, even the stupidest of the traffic laws cannot be honestly described as “inhumane”, as stopping at a red light is merely an inconvenience and nothing more. Secondly, we bicycilsts do not have the numbers required to make mass law-breaking an effective strategy for achieving our ends by altering the range of debate in society. So, from standponts both moral and practical, the disobediance approach is inappropriate for our ends.

    I, too, certainly witness drivers breaking the law all the time. They blow stop signs, they roll into crosswalks at red lights, they even (as you have observed) ignore red lights at T-intersections. And you are right to note that many other drivers dislike this behaviour when they see it.

    But one musn’t make the fundamental error of overlooking the fact that driving is an entrenched part of the culture, while bicyciling exists at the margins. This makes a world of difference to perceptions, despite your accurate observation that drivers’ behaviour can be similar to that of bicyclists’.

    To wit: a driver who witnesses another driver doing something illegal may very well wish that that particular scofflaw driver be punished; but the witness will definitely not conclude that driving itself is problematic, or that cars’ access to the road should be curtailed. By contrast, a witness to a bicycilst’s illegal act will typically use that bicycilst’s misdeed as a basis for concluding just such things regarding bicycles in general.

    So it won’t do to justify bicyclists’ law-breaking by pointing to drivers’ law-breaking, because the playing field is not level. We and they are not even playing the same game. They are the mainstream actors, the hegemonic majority who dictate society’s norms; we are those who suffer the concequences of being overlooked and being left without accommodation.

    Car-based infrastructure is poured in concrete, and is defended by the majority as a requirement of their way of life and as a cornerstone of the culture. Bike-based infrastructure is ephemeral, and is derided by the majority as being an annoyance that is just in the way. Drivers face no risk of losing their infrastructure, while we face the virtual certainty of losing (at least some of) ours.

    We therefore need to be smart if we hope to alter this state of affairs. We need to play politics, and to entice legislators to take up our side on the issues. Unfortunately, given the fact that so many bicycilsts routinely and blithely scoff at the law in full view of everyone, and the further fact that even the intelligent and ostensibly thoughtful amongst us will defend this behaviour, our chance for effecting the changes in the law that we need is slim.

  • Joe R.

    Actually, I can find many instances here where obeying the law actually is inhumane, in that in places you in harm’s way. You’re breathing exhaust fumes of idling vehicles waiting at a red light. That alone will harm you even if all the motorists behaved perfectly. Second, when the light changes you have everyone jockeying around. A bike in the midst of this is like being in a stampede of elephants. If you start moving when you legally can, you often take your chances a driver won’t turn into your path, or rear end you. If you hold back and wait until traffic clears, you’re suffered yet more delay due to this traffic signal, and as a result will hit red lights further up the road you easily might have made. On top of all this, while you’re stopped, you’re very vulnerable. I’ve had things thrown at, for example. If an out of control car comes up from behind, you might not get out of the way in time. Finally, you have the issues of repeatedly starting and stopping which can lead to muscle fatigue or even pulled ligaments. You also face the same problem is you stop and end up placing your foot into a pothole you didn’t notice (perhaps because motor vehicles obscured the view).

    All of the above has nothing to do with “inconvenience”. However, gross inconvenience can also be justifiable reason for not obeying a law. NYC choose to optimize the streets for motor vehicles. That’s why we have so many traffic signals to start with. It’s also why they’re timed poorly for cyclists or pedestrians. If we were talking about delays of 10% or 20%, then yes, not obeying traffic signals falls more towards “convenience”. However, in the real world we’re often talking delays of 200% to 400% (for both pedestrians and cyclists). This means a trip which could take 15 minutes might end up taking 30 minutes to an hour if done legally. This falls into the realm of gross inconvenience. Would subway riders like it if their commute time was tripled to obey a rule which arguably didn’t even make anyone safer? No they wouldn’t.

    There’s another thing you’re ignoring also. Yes, motorists must legally stop for red lights but they have an option cyclists don’t. They can go on highways for part or most of their trip to avoid traffic signals completely. If cyclists in NYC had a similar option of bike highways within a mile or half mile, red lights would only cause a small percentage delay. There would still be the other safety issues I mentioned but cyclists could no longer justify red light running solely because it saves a massive amount of time.

    Finally, the idea that all cyclists obeying the law will get legislators to change it is patently nonsense. If anything, if this ever happened they will ask why does it need to be changed since it seems every cyclist has no problem stopping when required? Besides that, you couldn’t get even a small fraction of cyclists to flawlessly obey the law. For the reasons I mentioned above, many cyclists will just stop riding altogether given the downsides stopping at every red light presents. Decreasing our ranks hardly seems like an effective strategy, but it’s the logical outcome of what you suggest. Also worth a mention is every time legislators have tried passing Idaho stop laws, none other than the VC crowd comes out against it, with the predictable result these laws fail to pass. I personally think advocating for an Idaho stop law is a waste of time. Rather, change the infrastructure so cyclists can do 90% of their trip without hitting red lights, stop signs, motor vehicles, or pedestrians. That will have the bonus of massively increasing our numbers also.

  • Simon Phearson

    I am not going to spend the time responding carefully to these unnecessarily lengthy comments when they open with a strawman and are strung together with summary assertions unsupported by reasoning or evidence.

    So I’ll just repeat myself: drivers are unlikely to respond to Joe R.’s comments distinguishing different types of cycling infractions by generalizing that all cyclists are no-good scofflaws who should be forced to ride without the benefit of cycling infrastructure. They are unlikely to do this because they draw the same distinction themselves, about not only the behavior they see but the behavior they themselves engage in. From their perspective, Joe R.’s comment is unremarkable.

    The fact that driving culture is entrenched is irrelevant to this comparison, unless you have some plausible basis for saying that drivers feel entitled to draw a safe/unsafe distinction among infractions precisely because they’re driving. We’re not talking about behavior they don’t notice because it’s commonplace; we’re talking about a distinction that they’re perfectly aware of.

  • bolwerk

    I don’t think it is true. AIUI, police killings have been dropping, though there is some difficulty measuring how.

    What has increased is attention each police killing gets. It used to be the officer could control the whole narrative. Now cheap video phone cameras are showing that they lie a fukuvalot.

  • bolwerk

    Almost every single person who has dealt with him by now knows he’s a pushover to anyone else with entrenched power.

    I’m dreading another term of BdB.

  • bolwerk

    The main point behind the Second Amendment is the post-colonial government was hostile to the idea of a standing army. They wanted a standing navy, and we have one, but the American army has to be approved every two years.

    The idea of a standing police force doesn’t even appear to have occurred to them. The federal constitution has nothing to say on the subject.

  • Well, the good news is that you might not have to worry about that.

    The bad news is that we might be dealing with Anthony “Rip the Fucking Bike Lanes Out” Weiner instead.

  • bolwerk

    I suppose you mean he could be beaten in the Democratic primary, but I consider that remote for an incumbent who probably isn’t hated by his own party.

    The other alternative is a Republikan wins, and that’s fairly remote. Plus it’s automatically more dreadful than de Blasio winning reelection. Weiner would fit nicely in the Republikan Party though, but he seems to be a die-hard, if authoritarian, partisan Democrat.

  • bolwerk

    That whole edifice of blue wall thuggery has destroyed the cops’ own moral imperative for existing. And, in some cases, victims of police brutality arguably have moral imperative to defensively execute their tormentors. Definitely the next person who has a run-in with Danny Pantaleo or Darren Wilson would be well advised to shoot first.

    This system is ugly. It leaves fear of punishment as the only thing even keeping cops somewhat safe.

  • I wasn’t thinking about Republicans at all. I expect de Blasio to face serious challenges from many other Democrats who consider him highly beatable because they can see that he has totally lost his progressive base.

    I am guessing that Tish James (who has made stronger statements on livable streets than de Blasio ever has) will seek to appeal to that base, and that Weiner will position himself as some kind of authoritarian corrective. While Weiner’s Twitter scandals from several years ago might continue to hurt him, his outspoken hatred of bike lanes will only help him connect with anti-bike sentiment within the general public.

  • bolwerk

    I guess it’s possible, but the closest analog to that I can think of is Dinkins defeating Koch in 1989.

    I don’t think Weiner has a prayer. An anti-bike backlash is more likely to come from someone like Liu or a Vallone.

    So-called progressives are trickier to call. Hakeem Jeffries is better on police reform, but is meh on a lot of economic issues. Tish James doesn’t seem hostile to BdB.

    Regardless, de Blasio starts from an enormous advantage with incumbency. Plus he has two years to reverse his crappy poll numbers.

    (Did Quinn move to New Jersey permanently yet?)

  • Maybe you’re right about Weiner; maybe his scandal isn’t far enough in the past for him to withstand a campaign this time around. But we surely haven’t heard the last of that weasel; he’ll run at some point.

    And I am sure you’re right about Liu and Vallone. They and several others will be lining up to take their shots at the easy target that is bike lanes.

    James has no reason to express hostility to de Blasio right now. But, when it comes time to speak to the people whom he has abandoned, I don’t think that she’ll hold back in enumerating all the ways in which he has disappointed.

    Also on the hopeful side, I wonder if Ydanis Rodriguez has any designs on the position, perhaps down the road a bit.

  • bolwerk

    Weiner’s behavior seems compulsive. I actually think the cock displays are rather the least of his problems, but either way they seem to have doomed him.

    It occurred to me after I posted the most likely place to see an anti-de Blasio candidate is a Cuomo minion. But which one? Jeffries sort of fits the bill.

  • Joe R.

    I have a letter Liu sent me back in 2000 I think when I wrote to him complaining about a sidewalk cycling ticket I had received the year before. One of the things he mentioned in the letter was being an “avid cyclist”. If he runs and comes out against anything bike related, that letter goes public.

  • Alicia

    Who was your grandmother, and what date did this happen? Did you file a police report that can be publicly verified?

  • AlexWithAK

    Wow, that is patently false. Please take your made up stats and go elsewhere.

  • AlexWithAK

    I repeat my montra: I will not consistently obey laws that put me in harm’s way on my bike. It’s not even about trying to make a political statement, it’s about avoiding being struck by cars whose drivers do no respect my presence in the road. If turning right on red when it’s safe to do so allows me to get to my next turn more safely, I will continue to do so. I really don’t give a damn about “perceptions” at that point. I’d rather be alive.

  • AlexWithAK

    Hey Streetsblog, how is this comment still up? I can tolerate ill-informed blowhards commenting, but when they become abusive you really need to remove their bile for everyone’s sake.

  • Being concerned with perceptions and being concerned with preserving your own life are not only not in conflict, they in fact amount to the same thing. If you want to maximise your (and other cyclists’) chances of remaining alive, then you need to give a damn about perceptions. Because, like it or not, the public’s perceptions of us collectively will determine the future of bike infrastructure and of bike-related legal reform, and hence the future of bicyclists’ quality of life.

    Also, we must separate genuine questions of safety from mere convenience. For instance, the law which requires us to ride in a bike lane (if the street in question has one) also explicitly allows us to leave that bike lane in order to avoid a dangerous condition. What it does not allow for is the selfish attitude of some cyclists who simply choose not to use the bike lane because they’d prefer to go faster than they could in the bike lane.

    Likewise, when cyclists blow red lights, it is just a matter of convenience; there is no safety-related question here (notwithstanding some oft-repeated outlandish claims to the contrary). They are doing this simply because they would prefer not to stop, simply because stopping at red lights is an annoyance. This is bad behaviour.

    You can perfectly well make your safe right turn just before the end of the red-light period. If, after a stop at a red light, you start moving one second before the light turns green (not only to turn right, but also to go straight if conditions allow), that is still in keeping with the spirit of the law, and does not constitute bad behaviour.

    By contrast, regularly acting as though there is a separate “right-on-red” provision for bikes will only alienate and infuriate people, causing witnesses to form negative opinions about “those crazy bicycilsts”, and thereby virtually ensuring that we’ll never get this advance enshrined in law.

    We have to think strategically. If we don’t get this message (and it appears likely that we won’t), there will be unpleasant consequences.

  • Citizenrichie

    You read like a true windbag.

  • Andrew

    I disagree. Leave it up so the pure stupidity remains readily apparent to all.


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