NYPD Bike Enforcement Carries High Price in Communities of Color

Brownsville Bikes
Business at Brownsville Bikes suffered when NYPD started targeting sidewalk cycling on the block. Photo via Google Maps

Editor’s note: Stephen filed one last story before wrapping up his tenure at Streetsblog earlier this month. Here it is.

The New York Police Department hands out a lot of tickets to cyclists — in fact, for years the number of sidewalk cycling tickets outpaced the number of speeding tickets local precincts gave to drivers.

Bike tickets are not distributed evenly among the city’s population. A report published last year found that the neighborhoods where the most sidewalk cycling tickets are issued tend to be neighborhoods where most residents are black or Latino.

When those tickets are criminal violations that require a court appearance, the personal cost of the citation can quickly escalate. Ignoring the ticket can lead to a warrant, and appearing in court may require a full day away from work, causing lost wages.

Uriah Wickham, 58, bikes from Brownsville to work in Midtown. A few years ago, he was pulled over with other cyclists who briefly used the sidewalk on Sands Street to get around a construction zone. “I was given a summons to go to court. I had to take a day,” Wickham said. “The judge said to go home. But I did lose my day of pay.”

This type of ticketing can also have a ripple effect. Cleveland Smillie (a.k.a. Jah Hammed), 63, has owned Brownsville Bikes, the neighborhood’s only bike shop, for 30 years. A few years ago, he said, officers began cracking down on sidewalk cycling near his storefront. It decimated business, since people were worried they would get ticketed if they did anything even slightly wrong as they approached the store.

Kenneth Graham recently stopped at Brownsville Bikes to get a fender added to his bike. “I ride everywhere. I got it because I don’t want to take the bus. I’m tired of buying MetroCards,” said Graham, 30, who lives in Canarsie and started cycling a few months ago. A side benefit: He’s quickly dropped from 300 pounds to 255 pounds.

Graham hasn’t been stopped by police on his bike yet, but he came close recently. He was biking on a quiet walkway in Howard Houses — like most public housing projects, it’s a super-block without through streets — and quickly attracted the attention of police. “It seemed like they was chilling until they see my bike come through the walkway,” he said. “I just got off the bike, so they didn’t bother me.”

R. Charles Bryan, who regularly bikes between Cypress Hills, where he lives and works, and Harlem, where his mother lives, has a strategy to avoid police stops. He hasn’t changed his behavior on a bike, but he has changed what he wears.

A few years ago, Bryan was sitting on his bike while stopped on the sidewalk a few blocks from his mother’s home to talk with someone. Bryan, wearing a hoodie and sweatpants, wasn’t moving; his feet were on the ground.

That’s when a pair of officers came up from behind him and gave him a ticket for riding his bike on the sidewalk. Bryan says that’s just one of roughly two dozen times he was stopped for biking infractions in the course of about five years.

Another time, he biked to his father’s house in Flatbush, changed into sweatpants, and biked back on the same route an hour later. Police stopped him for riding outside the bike lane and told him he fit the description of a suspect on the loose. After he sat on the curb for 45 minutes, Bryan says, the officers let him go but changed their story, saying they only pulled him over because neighborhood residents were complaining about cyclists.

“They didn’t even give me a ticket,” Bryan said. He found he would get stopped by police most often not in lower-income areas like East New York, but in gentrifying neighborhoods like Harlem.

A couple of years ago, the pattern snapped into focus. “If I was biking and I was in a wife beater and shorts, I’d be more likely to be stopped, to be harassed, to be told I had run a red light,” Bryan said. “But if I was wearing spandex shorts and a biking jersey and a helmet, they’d tip their caps to me and say, ‘Keep going.'”

“I’m very, very aware of a uniform that I need to wear,” he said. “It’s really just the uniform of money.”

Bryan has suggested to his friends that they change what they wear while biking. Not all of them follow the advice, and some have chosen to blow off sidewalk biking tickets, reasoning that it’s not a serious offense. “Next thing you know, they have a bench warrant. It can be so detrimental for such a small issue,” Bryan said. “I don’t think that should be illegal. I definitely don’t think it’s something that should merit a bench warrant or anything of that nature.”

There is clearly bias at work in NYPD’s treatment of sidewalk biking and similar offenses. Many of the city’s political leaders agree with one of the avenues Bryan suggested to address the problem: They say sidewalk riding needs to be reclassified.

Earlier this year, the City Council began to look at decriminalizing minor offenses like sidewalk cycling, an idea Police Commissioner Bill Bratton later said was “crazy.”

Nevertheless, under Bratton NYPD has shifted the majority of sidewalk cycling tickets out of criminal court. Last year, the department began issuing most sidewalk riding tickets as moving violations. Other violations, however, including jaywalking, remain criminal infractions.

Last month, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and civil rights attorney Norman Siegel released a report calling for the decriminalization of minor offenses like bicycling on the sidewalk, among other changes [PDF]. “Unpaid summons for bicycling on a sidewalk or drinking an open container of alcohol in public should not result in an arrest and a permanent criminal record,” they wrote.

Brewer, who was on the City Council when it criminalized sidewalk cycling that endangers person or property, is now effectively seeking to undo that vote, Crain’s reported.

“They don’t pay the fine, they end up with a warrant and someone comes knocking on the door,” Brewer told Crain’s. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid. We don’t want people to end up with records for the rest of their lives for little, little offenses.”

  • Linda

    Where is this a phenomena prevalent enough to make this assertion, I find it truly hard to believe and not indicative of my experience, and it got so many thumbs ups… Just one contrary example, these days dozens, up to hundreds of NYC teens and young adults riding critical mass style every week in a variety of neighborhoods (outer boroughs in areas usually not covered by people that write about these things, hence the importance of this article) on their PK Rippers and the rest. Point is, people do not want NYPD up anywhere and I would welcome seeing evidence that it is a factor, by race or any other factor, in people not biking.

  • walknseason

    Linda I agree with you broadly for sure – and that was my first point, that the [often white-dominated, upper-middle-class] livable streets activists don’t write about PoC in outer boroughs or anything.

    Driving while black, which is a death sentence in much of the country, I feel is slightly less of a deal in NYC because police don’t care about car deaths/violations – and if you bike while black you are super visible in all ways.

    In my experiences in Bedstuy, Fort greene and other places, there are super liberal progressive communities of color that one might *think* (not saying its fact) are against bike lanes and removal of parking. My thoughts were on WHY that is…

  • Joe R.

    Two things were really disturbing. One, the fact that the author had “connections” (i.e. his wife) meant he didn’t have to endure yet another night of imprisonment. Those who didn’t weren’t so fortunate. Two, the NYPD come off as no better than overseers on a plantation. Their treatment of their charges is appalling, from turning up the AC on the prison bus to having unsanitary conditions in the holding cells. Doesn’t anybody monitor this stuff? Jails aren’t supposed to be country clubs but this kind of treatment is inexcusable in 2015.

    We’ve created an oppressive police state via incrementalism. Just like the lobster who doesn’t realize the water is too hot until it’s too late, we’ve gradually taken freedoms away from people. We need some brave politicians who will say enough is enough, and repeal these awful laws. They don’t enhance “quality of life”. All they do is give the NYPD an excuse to harass minorities, and now whites as well, particularly whites on bikes. In fact, I’ve read a number of times if a white person wants to know how the NYPD treats blacks, they just need to ride a bike. Obviously not entirely true, but it should be enough to make any sane white person realize we’ve gone too far. This isn’t policing. Broken windows is itself broken. Time for Bratton to go. Time to get a police commissioner who understands that the police need to be respected by the communities they serve.

  • Linda

    Hear ya, ok, it is your sentiment.

    Night Riders Tonight 730 pm Bedford and Eastern Pkway

  • Todd Drezner

    Walknseason, you may be interested in a documentary I’m working on about the intersection of streets and race, both historically and in a couple of current stories in different cities. You can see a trailer at http://intransitmovie.com if you’d like.

  • Myra Hill

    Nicole Kidman was knocked down by a cyclist riding on the sidewalk to capture a photo of her. Of course the cyclist got a ticket. Riding on the sidewalk is worse than riding on the street. Not only there is a possibility to knock down pedestrians, pedestrians can also knock down cyclists. Bicycles are vehicles. So they belong on the street unless you are a child 12 and under.

  • walks bikes drives

    I don’t know why you think a road bike requires a foot in the pedal. I commute on a road bike and have pedal clips (clipless just wouldn’t work with work shoes) and if I am on the sidewalk, neither foot is on the pedal, period.

    But you seem to get my point exactly. Sidewalks, to me, are a total last resort.

  • walks bikes drives

    Ah, the viaduct idea. We can all dream, right? Maybe one day.

    But if a blanket ban makes cycling off-limits to a cyclist who is not comfortable riding in the street, honestly, so be it. I am comfortable riding on the street, I do it every day. When I put my son in his bike seat on the back of my bike, I walk the bike on the sidewalk until I get to Central Park or the Hudson Greenway.

    I am still, and will always be for, a ban on sidewalk riding in Manhattan and other similar areas. To get the inexperienced riders riding, lets make the infrastructure available. Go full 8-80 on the streets, including cross streets and avenues. But stay off the damned sidewalk.

    Think of it this way- I want to know my toddler son can stand on the sidewalk and stare at a leaf that fell from a tree and not worry about a cyclist running over him. I want an 85 year old grandmother to be able to stand on the sidewalk and not have to worry that someone on a bike is going to knock her over and need another hip replacement. Sidewalks are pedestrian infrastructure. They should stay that way. It is the STREETS that need to be safe for biking, for all riders.

  • walks bikes drives

    Very few curb cuts on Fifth on the park side. Coming down from 110, the only ones you’d probably have to actually slow down for are the transverse crossings- 96, 85, 84, 79, 66.

  • guadelupe

    That’s because no one in LA walks. People in cars stare at you like you’re a martian/murderer if you walk through their neighborhood. It’s different in a city like NY with sidewalks jammed with pedestrians.

  • Linda

    Depends on neighborhood, in salient ways just like this article points out.

  • Ian

    Won’t someone please think of Nicole Kidman?

  • A lot of work is being done to debunk the myth that “no one in L.A. walks”.

    A Salon article dealt with this, as did the recent episode of “Adam Ruins Everything”.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VoXNbhtDPE&feature=youtu.be&t=16m48s

  • Joe R.

    A guy from LA I used to correspond with regularly went for lots of long walks trying to lose some weight. I can’t imagine he was the only person in LA who walked.

  • guadelupe

    Of course–to all three of the replies–it’s an exaggeration to say “no one walks…:” but (1) I did feel stared at often when I was there, in certain neighborhoods and (2) I probably should have just talked about it in general re: the safety of biking on sidewalks no matter where. I ride my bike every day, have for 50 years, so I speak from the side of loving to ride. I also once accidentally hit someone (not on the sidewalk, but that’s not the point) and it is amazing and horrifying to discover how intense the impact is for a pedestrian when a bike hits them, even if traveling at a slow rate. It’s no joke, and they do not belong on sidewalks, where it’s more crowded and where pedestrians do not expect to have a high impact vehicle coming at them.

  • I just want to point out that I agree with you there; I am not in favour of sidewalk bicycling being allowed. Pedestrians are entitled to that space.

  • Joe R.

    The problem here is you’re making the mistake a lot of people do by assuming the worst possible outcome every time someone cycles on the sidewalk. A more rational approach is to look at the likelihood of a bike-pedestrian collision. On a sidewalk which is near empty most of the time, the likelihood is just about zero. With a very crowded sidewalk, the likelihood is higher but still not that high. On sidewalks with usage levels in between these extremes, the likelihood is somewhere in the middle.

    You never make laws based on an outlier, and that’s exactly what we have here. Cyclists have a vested interest in not hitting people. As such, they’re going to ride on sidewalks in such a manner as to make sure this doesn’t happen, making collisions exceedingly rare. Most of the reckless riding I’ve seen on sidewalks is done by either delivery people or children. In the case of the former, there’s a financial incentive to ride like that but this could easily be fixed by requiring that we pay delivery people by the hour. In the latter case, children are actually allowed to ride on sidewalks despite the fact they probably are more dangerous to pedestrians than most adult cyclists. And then you have the fact that it’s only bikes ridden by adults which these sidewalk cycling laws ban. To be consistent you should also ban child cyclists, other than maybe those on tricycles, electric wheelchairs, mobility scooters, Segways, skateboards, roller skates, hoverboards, basically any wheeled vehicle capable of going more than walking speed. I might still fundamentally disagree with the law if that were done, in that these contrivances represent a very minor danger to people, but at least the law would be logically consistent. When you just single out bikes ridden by adults, but not the other things, it’s sort of like having a law which says no blacks in parks. It’s inherently biased.

    That said, I will agree that banning bikes (and all the other wheeled contrivances I mentioned) on crowded sidewalks probably makes sense even if the actual hazard is low. The reason here is crowded sidewalks are already stressful. No need to add to that with a bunch of wheeled vehicles weaving around pedestrians. However, a blanket ban even on empty sidewalks can’t be justified.

  • Simon Phearson

    Someone could drive down a street in midtown without causing physical harm. But it makes the street unpleasant for people walking and biking. That’s reason enough to ban it.

  • Andrew

    How encompassing do you define harm?

    It should certainly include the delays imposed on pedestrians who feel the need to stop, slow down, or divert in order to avoid an actual or perceived threat.

  • neroden

    This is why it’s time to liquidate the NYPD completely.

    When you’ve built a corrupt, abusive secret police… you can’t “reform” it. You have to DESTROY it.

    Start a real police force and assign them to break up the NYPD gang by arresting all the crminals in it.

  • neroden

    The NYPD conspiracy to park automobiles on the sidewalk and encourage others to do so, should be considered a criminal conspiracy. It’s absolutely ridiculous. Sidewalk parking has been illegal, like, forever, because it’s *dangerous*, but the NYPD refuses to do anything about it and even allows people who DRIVE on the sidewalk to get away with it! Seems like criminal conspiracy to me.

  • neroden

    I’m not sure making it legal will help with the corrupt NYPD, who have a record of making up phony charges which don’t even exist when they want to harass people.

    What we need is for criminal NYPD officers, ones who are committing false arrests while encouraging their buddies to commit crimes, to go to *prison*.

  • neroden

    Right now, your toddler has to worry about an AUTOMOBILE running over him on the sidewalk and the NYPD saying “Just an accident, no criminality suspected”. Read Streetsblog archives…

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