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Opinion: NYPD ‘Safety’ Crackdown is Not About Safety at All

Here's a story about a cyclist named Lee, who got a ticket for "running" a red light.

We need to talk about whether police enforcement is really making pedestrians safer.

Call it “the crackdown at the crack of dawn.” 

A veteran cyclist is now afraid to ride in his own neighborhood because of the NYPD’s overaggressive, quota-driven ticketing that is not at all motivated by safety, but by what appears to be simply an effort to boost a precinct’s summons numbers.

My friend Lee’s favorite time to bike is very early in the morning, before most of us are even awake, when Manhattan’s streets are relatively traffic-free and the air is clean and cool.

Lee has been riding for most of his 84 years, and 10 years ago he biked across the country solo. He’s a very careful cyclist and unfailingly respectful of pedestrians, but he’s been struck by aggressive drivers twice in the last few years, luckily with only minor injuries.

At around 5:30 a.m. June 28, Lee was riding south along a nearly empty Riverside Drive when an officer of Manhattan’s 24th precinct pulled him over at 97th Street for allegedly “blowing through" several lights between 104th and 97th streets (Lee says the lights were in his favor all the way).

He pointed out to the officer that at one of the intersections he had slowed for a jogger crossing against the light and the jogger had waved him through. The cop acknowledged that he’d seen this, but still issued Lee a $190 ticket. 

Even if Lee did go through a red at 104th, it's obvious that ticketing an 84-year-old at the crack of dawn did nothing to make the Upper West Side a safer place.  

Indeed, the city Department of Transportation agrees. Several years ago, the agency ruled that cyclists should no longer be subject to red-light tickets at "top-of-the-T" intersections like the one at 104th and Riverside Drive — as long as they yield to pedestrians if present (which the cop in fact saw Lee do). But Lee was subject to that ticket on that day because the long-promised rule change still hasn't been implemented (DOT says maybe this fall, but the agency has said that before).

But let’s be real: Lee’s ticket wasn’t about making the Upper West Side safer — it was about public relations.   

As a member of Community Board 7 Manhattan, I frequently hear calls from fellow board members and the public for our two local precincts, the 20th and the 24th, to crack down on “lawbreaking” cyclists. Over the last couple of years, such calls have been focused on e-bike and illegal moped riders, although most complainants seem unable to distinguish between the two.

I usually have two responses to these demands for “more enforcement.” First, the NYPD’s limited resources are much better spent enforcing laws against what is killing and injuring the vast majority of people – drivers of cars and trucks.  

I also point out that when precincts do respond to these cries to crack down on “cyclists,” officers inevitably ticket not the most flagrant violators who truly endanger pedestrians and other cyclists, but instead pull over the low-hanging fruit, the easy pickings – like an elderly cyclist allegedly rolling through a red at a T-intersection at 5:30 in the morning.  

In so doing, the precinct accomplishes two things: One, its officer catches a “lawbreaking” cyclist without having to engage in a potentially dangerous pursuit; and two, the summons gets added to the precinct’s totals of tickets against cyclists, which precinct commanders can then point to when community members accuse them of doing nothing about errant cyclists.  

So, an 84-year-old man on an “acoustic” bike gets nabbed at 5:30 am, while operator of an illegal moped weaving at high speed through a group of people crossing the street likely won’t be stopped. Precinct representatives have told CB7 that they aren’t allowed to chase fast-moving bike or moped riders, a practice that, however prudent, surely conveys the wrong incentives. 

The 24th precinct, of course, has a history of misplaced responses to road violence.

In 2014, another 84-year-old was left bloodied during a jaywalking crackdown that the 24th initiated after drivers killed three pedestrians in the precinct over a two-week span. The following year, when motorists had killed a total of six pedestrians and cyclists the year before, the precinct started an August ticket blitz against cyclists. And this past May, after an elderly pedestrian crossing with the light in the 24th was struck by a turning truck driver, and later succumbed to his injuries, a cop at the scene told me, “Accidents do happen.” 

Far from making the Upper West Side safer, Lee’s ticket may remove from our streets a courteous cyclist using one of the most sustainable transportation modes. For the first time in nearly six decades of riding in and around New York City, Lee is now thinking twice about biking.

"I am now afraid to ride even during the hours that I normally do,” he told me in an email. “I now have a record, and for the next year and a half live with the possibility of getting a ticket of more than $1,000,” referring to the outsized fine for additional red-light violations within 18 months. “Yesterday on a short 10-mile ride at 4:30 to 5:30 a.m., I saw six cop cars along Riverside Drive and peripheral streets.”

Whether Lee actually ran a light is not the point. Police have discretion about what laws they choose to enforce and when. The NYPD, for example, almost universally does not enforce the law prohibiting "jaywalking." At the most, what Lee allegedly did was the cycling equivalent of that.

Lee got his ticket at the end of the hottest month in recorded history, brought on by our unrelenting burning of fossil fuels. The city should be celebrating, not harassing to extinction, intrepid elders like Lee who rage not just against the dying of their own light, but against the planet’s.

"I'm just sick of it," Lee told me. "I don't feel like riding. I'm going to sell my fucking bikes."

Clearly, DOT’s long-delayed rule change can’t come soon enough.   

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