EYES ON THE STREET: Broken Bike-Lane Enforcement on Sixth Avenue

For a cyclist forced into traffic, Dylan said it all in "Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues": "The cops don't need you and, man, they expect the same."

The Sixth Avenue protected bike lane, blocked by car after car on Nov. 5.
The Sixth Avenue protected bike lane, blocked by car after car on Nov. 5.

On Nov. 5, I tried to get two cops to take their duty to enforce Vision Zero seriously. It did not work out so well and showed the brokenness of our enforcement system.

I was riding up Sixth Avenue in the 40s — in what is supposed to be the protected bike lane. When I hit 48th street, I found eight cars blocking the bike lane — at least two taxis idling and other cars just sitting there, presumably while their occupants waited on the line at the popular Adel’s Famous Halal Food on the sidewalk. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of a mixed chicken and lamb plate with spicy rice any day, so I understand the long line.

At the corner, an ice cream truck was just parked in the bike lane. Again, big fan of ice cream. Not a fan of blocked bike lanes.

About a half-block further uptown, I came upon two cops sitting in the parking lane in a police SUV. I generally don’t stop for these things and mostly avoid even talking to drivers or police. But the set up seemed too egregious that it would have been difficult for reasonable officers to ignore. Plus, I was already rolling with my trusty GoPro (a bike-mounted video camera) so I wanted to see what they’d do. I approached the cops politely.

An officer rolls down his window to speak to Jeff Novich on Nov. 5.
An officer rolls down his window to speak to Jeff Novich on Nov. 5.

“Can you go back there, while I’m standing here, and go and ticket all five or six of those vehicles back there?” I asked, pointing at the green paint leading to headlights. 

“What kind of cars?” one cop asked me.

“They ain’t cops, if that’s what you’re asking,” I replied.  

“We got it, you can go ahead,” motioning me to move along.

I insisted that I wanted to see what would happen. I had been through this before several other times. When I’d asked officers to summons illegally parked drivers, they’d politely say, “Sure thing!” Then I’d bike off knowing full well they weren’t going to do it. This time I had a few more minutes to spare.

The cops actually put their phones down and got out of the SUV. But they said that they were from a different precinct, explaining that cops from one precinct apparently can’t write traffic tickets for vehicles that are in another. So, they claimed, had no power to ticket any of the parked drivers who were forcing a stream of cyclists into dangerous traffic on Sixth Avenue.  

What?!

The friendly officers — they were nice and helpful, I’m not being sarcastic — said all they could do was politely ask drivers to leave.

“If they don’t leave, it’s still up to them,” one cop said. 

That’s just nutso.

Still, the cops approached each driver and told them they were blocking the bike lane. An Uber driver must have been on the food line and ran back to his Chevy Suburban when the officers approached it, but quickly returned to the line.

The motorists’ response was pretty much the standard one when you ask someone to do something, but you have zero leverage. The drivers just waiting for food ignored the request, while the two taxis moved to the other side of the street.

A driver with New Jersey plates said to the officer, “I’m just waiting for my food.”

The officer parroted her response back to me.

“They’re on line,” the cop explained. “They’re on line getting their food.” (As if being on a food line is a legitimate reason for endangering the now dozens of cyclists who had ridden through that stretch.) 

Apparently the “just a sec” defense is too powerful for the NYPD.

“They’re leaving,” the cop added.

One driver in a bike lane is enough to cause a cyclist to die. There were six cars there when we left.

The officer dons a mask before approaching the illegally parked motorists.
The officer dons a mask before approaching the illegally parked motorists.

The whole experience was infuriating, but mostly because it’s so expected, rote and depressing.

What I didn’t realize, at least in that moment, was that I, a lowly Citi-Biker, apparently had more enforcement power than those officers. You see, we both can go and beg drivers, “Please don’t park in the bike lane.” I’ve done this many times. But I could also submit a 311 complaint to Taxi and Limousine Commission for the illegal activity of the cab drivers and that would yield a summons. 

My point here is that the NYPD shouldn’t be in charge of this crap — but it is. And when the cops should be a little tougher and demand drivers not endanger people, they literally, by city policy apparently, are not able to do so.

Bike lanes should be “self-enforcing”  — with concrete, bollards and no parking — so that these conflicts can be avoided. When that’s not available, bike-lane enforcement should be automated or at least handed over to people who will do the job.

We can all agree that cyclists shouldn’t have to beg police to beg drivers not to put hundreds of cyclists in danger.

Jeff Novich (@jeffnovich) is a product manager at ClassPass in New York City. An app he originated, Reported, enables citizens to snap photos and report vehicles blocking a bike lane or crosswalk and then submits the complaints on the user’s behalf to the city’s 311 system.

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