Sidewalk Biking Enforcement and NYC’s New Criminal Justice Reforms

The City Council just passed a package of bills — collectively known as the Criminal Justice Reform Act — encouraging police officers to issue civil instead of criminal summonses for “quality-of-life” offenses like possessing an open container of alcohol or littering. Sidewalk biking wasn’t one of the offenses included in the bills, but a reform NYPD made to its enforcement of sidewalk cycling appears to have served as a proof of concept for the rest of the package.

Photo: Seth Werkheiser/Flickr

Spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the legislation aims to reduce NYPD’s issuance of criminal summonses that have disproportionately penalized communities of color for minor offenses. By issuing civil instead of criminal summons for transgressions like public urination, possession of an open container of alcohol, littering, excessive noise, and violating park rules with civil penalties instead of criminal summonses, the intent is to reduce the severe impact of enforcement.

While council members had initially hoped to eliminate criminal penalties for these offenses altogether, the version of Intro 1057-A passed today requires NYPD to develop guidelines dictating when to apply civil or criminal summonses for each offense. The bill states that the City Council has “concluded that criminal enforcement of these offenses should be used only in limited circumstances.”

A major impetus for the reforms is the disproportionate impact that enforcement of those five offenses has carried in communities of color. Sidewalk biking has historically been enforced in much the same wayA 2014 study showed that from 2008 to 2011, 12 of the 15 NYC neighborhoods where police issued the most sidewalk biking summonses were majority black or Latino.

“There’s been inequitable enforcement of cycling on the sidewalk,” said attorney and bike law expert Steve Vaccaro. “They haven’t been going after senior citizens on the Upper West Side the same as they go after young black men in East New York.”

Subdivision “b” of Section 19-176 of the city’s administrative code levies a maximum civil penalty of $100 for biking on the sidewalk. But subdivision “c” spells out a misdemeanor variation when someone bikes on the sidewalk in a “manner that endangers any other person or property” — and that carries a maximum penalty of 20 days in jail.

Those charges are often dismissed in court, but taking time off from work to appear in court is especially burdensome for low-income New Yorkers. Failure to pay fines or show up to trial for a criminal summons can result in jail time for the offender. An open warrant for failure to appear in court can also be a barrier to employment.

While the City Council legislation doesn’t address sidewalk biking enforcement, summonses have already declined significantly since 2014. That year the city began issuing most sidewalk biking tickets as moving violations.

The city issued 21,187 criminal summonses for sidewalk biking in 2013, according to data compiled by the NYPD. That number declined more than 80 percent to 3,845 in 2014, according to the Criminal Court of the City of New York’s annual reports. The number of moving violations increased only marginally in the same time frame. Full data from 2015 is not yet available.

The shift in enforcement of sidewalk biking violations appears to have been a model for both the NYPD and the City Council in developing today’s legislation.

In January, when NYPD officials testified on the original proposals, Mark-Viverito cited sidewalk biking as an example of how changing guidelines can lead to a shift in officers’ enforcement practices. “We know that the policy has graduated, you know, in terms of the enforcement for biking,” she said.

At the same hearing, Elizabeth Glazer of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice also cited the shift in sidewalk biking enforcement as a model for the legislation. “Adding options to police officers will permit them to calibrate their response to the offense that’s in front of them and to lighten the touch where that’s appropriate,” Glazer said.

  • Vooch

    pedestrian zones Which will be expanding everywhere

  • ahwr

    I’m probably more with Ferdinand on this one. 95 degrees makes for a fun bike ride. Assuming I’ve been eating well (potatoes are a great pre ride food on hot days) and have salty snacks in my bag.

  • Joe R.

    Most of my sidewalk riding tends to be along arterials which are cut for repaving. Those generally have 15 or 20 foot sidewalks (and they’re completely empty at 3 AM when I might be riding on them).

    You might be right in general if we’re talking about places which are functionally hazardous 100% of the time, like the QB bridge. I never studied the problem much to be honest.

  • Joe R.

    Yeah, I was thinking of him here. He’ll take a day off from work to bike to Philadelphia on a 90+ degree day. On the flip side I don’t think he deals too well with cold.

    I actually had a job where I was out on hot days doing some physical work. I coped by drinking lots of water but I never found it pleasant.

  • ahwr
  • Joe R.

    Ah yes, Woodhaven Blvd. (which turns into Cross Bay Blvd. further south) That’s a car sewer if ever there was one. Surprisingly, I was OK riding on most of it en route to the Belt Parkway greenway but I finally gave in and took the sidewalk two blocks before the overpass above N. Conduit Avenue. The cars were just coming too fast and too close.

  • bolwerk

    I don’t really think any politician did anything that had much if any effect on crime, if that’s what you’re referring to.

    If Giuliani had any effect, it was probably counterproductive.

  • I’ll never understand this. I crave hot weather, the hotter the better. I have ridden on days if 100 degrees, and loved it.

    I take all my vacation days based on the weather. After a prolonged and frustrating cool spell in May, the debut of the first appearance of high 80s has led me to take yesterday, today, and tomorrow off, just to ride all day. I grooved around Queens and Brooklyn yesterday, and am currently on a Bolt Bus to Washington, with my bike in the cargo hold. I hope to explore that town in the glorious heat approaching 90 degrees. This will be my first chance to bike in Washington.

  • A kindred spirit!

    Before I saw this comment, I responded to another comment just to note that I have taken yesterday, today, and tomorrow off from work on account of the weather.

    I am on my way to Washington on the Bolt Bus. Let’s shoot for 90!

  • bolwerk

    I think the safety problem with ahwr’s point is that it ignores how most people will behave. Most people aren’t going to want to walk their bikes just because someone (a sign?) tells them to. If they have a bike in hand and a destination in mind, they’ll want to ride to it if they can. So we’re back to where I started: the prima facie decision people will make will be between riding in dangerous conditions that will not get them in legal trouble or in choosing safe conditions that will get them in legal trouble.

  • Simon Phearson

    I’m not sure I understand why this spot is being cited in this discussion. Can’t you ride on the sidewalk legally there? There seem to be signs directing you to do just that, and I (along with many others) do just that without incident all the time.

  • bolwerk

    I think one thing that really gets me about it is how the highway overhead stunts my ability to hear cars creeping up behind me.

  • Vooch

    LOL – true

  • Simon Phearson

    Telling a cyclist to walk on the sidewalk when the street isn’t safe is like telling a pedestrian to drive when they want to get to a place where the only connections provided are unsafe streets without pedestrian infrastructure.

    It’s not “sadistic” to tell cyclists to walk, as such, but it’s important to understand that when they walk, they’re not cyclists any more. What is sadistic is telling a cyclist that the only way they may use a stretch of road as a cyclist is to put themselves in danger. That is precisely what all of those UES anti-bike-laners are intending to do, when they block bike lanes. And that’s what you’re doing, when you say that a cyclist who isn’t safe on the street should just walk on the sidewalk.

  • bolwerk

    It’d be better to just mark the places it should be categorically illegal (and when). I can understand that on Midtown streets.

    In much of the city, cyclists can yield to pedestrians in quiet sidewalks and bans can be limited to crowd conditions.

  • Miles Bader

    In Germany, pedestrians are expected to notice the slightly different color brick and stay out of the bike lane

    In Japan the majority of bicyclists ride on the sidewalk, and there are almost no such separate bike lanes (it’s an idea that’s gained some traction in recent years, but the actual number of such lanes is still infinitesimal). And many places in Japan have a vastly higher bicycle modal share than NYC will probably ever have.

    And for most part, there’s no problem.

    Japanese cyclists are hardly perfect, but maybe NYC bicyclists are so crazy and rude that it wouldn’t work in NYC …. but I”m going to go out on a limb here, and guess that the NYPD hasn’t put a whole lot of work actually studying the issue or establishing a convincing factual basis for these regulations…

  • bolwerk

    …NYC bicyclists are so crazy and rude that it wouldn’t work in NYC…

    I don’t even think that is true anymore. I think there was a period, around a decade ago, where cycling was taking off and cyclists didn’t quite know what they were doing, but cyclist-ped relations are overall pretty good.

  • Alicia

    I live in a community which has no restrictions on sidewalk riding, but occasionally someone will complain about me doing so. That is almost always an elderly man or woman.

  • Alicia

    I have ridden in 100 degree weather, and although I might enjoy the ride, I would have liked it better at 70-80 degrees.

  • Joe R.

    Same here. Actually, my personal preference for cycling is high 40s to mid 50s. That’s warm enough not to need gloves but cool enough so you don’t sweat at all if you dress properly. If the humidity is low (which sadly usually isn’t the case for NYC summers) I’m fine up to about 70 or so. Anything over that starts to be unpleasant. I can and have tolerated riding in 100 degree weather myself. Didn’t really enjoy it. First thing I did getting home was hop in the shower, then crank up the A/C.

  • AMH

    Either would be better than the current practice of marking bike routes on pedestrian pathways and then posting signs telling cyclists to dismount.

  • GM

    “the legislation aims to reduce NYPD’s issuance of criminal summonses that have disproportionately penalized communities of color for minor offenses.”
    How about instead of trying to reduce issuance in communities of color, try to increase issuance in communities of no color?

  • Bernard Finucane

    One solution is to wear a hat.

  • SSkate

    Wish I knew, and the city council database search only seems to go back to 1998. I’ll bet though that Noach Dear was involved, as he had it in for cyclists and skaters back in those days.

  • ahwr

    http://www.nytimes.com/1986/08/20/nyregion/new-target-for-police-bicycle-messengers.html

    James Richards, bicycle messenger, rode down a sidewalk on the Avenue of the Americas yesterday on his way to a delivery. Suddenly, Police Officer Edward Tighe ordered him to dismount.

    ”You can’t ride on the sidewalk,” the officer said. ”You’re being issued a summons.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/31/nyregion/neighborhood-report-new-york-up-close-will-new-law-put-brake-on-sidewalk-war.html

    Like existing laws, the new law bans cyclists from riding on sidewalks, but it also allows police officers to confiscate bikes, which are released after administrative hearings. If cyclists over 13 create a “substantial risk of physical injury to another person,” they can also be fined $100, up from $40, and may now face jail time, up to 20 days.

  • neroden

    Agreed. This is the problem. Easily 10 million drivers’ licenses need to be permanently revoked, I’d guess. Another 20 to 30 million need to go back to drivers’ education before they have a license reissued.

  • Mark Feldman

    Most of the bikers on the sidewalk here in NYC are messengers and their bikes are motorized and they are not going 6mph.

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