It was the 18th birthday of Critical Mass last Friday, old enough to vote. The ride started in San Francisco in 1992. It has been going on in NYC for nearly as long, despite the baffling and hostile approach of the NYPD towards the ride in recent years.
Around 7pm 40 cyclists gathered at the new and improved Union Square as the light faded from the sky. A good crowd, many new faces. Some visitors were from LA, where they have a thriving mass ride scene, and a handful of friends of the late Andrew Wolf, a Brooklyn cyclist who was run down in broad daylight by an 18-wheeler in Canada last week. After much socializing, light distribution and information sharing regarding NYPD harassment of cyclists, the participants gathered round to hear a few of Andrew's friends speak about who he was, and what we have lost in his death. It was moving...emotionally. The mass itself stayed put.
Meanwhile, dozens of NYPD officers including Transportation Chief James Tuller lurked nearby, occupying newly installed pedestrian and bicycle areas reclaimed from automobiles on 17th Street by the DOT. Plenty of scooters, a few interceptors, a shiny new SUV created a safely mechanized environment for the biological agents of the Bloomburg hypocrisy machine. At least one or two undercover officers on bikes kept mostly to themselves, frequently checking their iPhones and wondering why the hell the ride had not left yet.
After much debate by the professional anarchists in the group, everyone agreed to disagree and the mass was off, after the traditional symphony of bike bells. Moderate voices of the radical cadre appeared to win out, so instead of making the provocative opening move of "walking it out", the mass rode one block up Park avenue, turning onto 18th street then turning again down 3rd Avenue. Obeying all lights and keeping themselves confined to the right lane, cyclists broke up into several groups down the avenue and did little to affect the slow pace of Manhattan traffic. The motor-loving police created a bit of an impediment to the other motorists, hoping to taste the freedom of cars, guaranteed by so many advertisements they had seen on TV.
The cyclists enjoyed lungful after lungful of tax-payer provided carbon emissions from the tight escort of scooters. Unfortunately for the future oncologists of NYC, the bulk of NYPD scooters were confined to the rear of the pack, as civilian auto traffic prevented them from getting into the mix of the ride.
At one point on Bowery near Houston, an FDNY emergency vehicle's wailing sirens failed to clear cars from the road, where the mass took it upon itself to move to the sidewalk. There cyclists waited for a few more minutes, while the NYPD scooter officers slowly realized that they too should move out of the road. A few motorists followed suit, and the ambulance eventually got through, where it turned the corner only to be blocked by more cars.
The ride proceeded south, turning east on DeLancey, feigning a dash for Brooklyn, but then made a right heading further south. Veering towards Chinatown as auto traffic became more dense. The snarl of cars meant the mass was about the only moving thing on the road, and riders decided to head up the riders felt a sense of joy that they had enjoyed the right to the street for so long. A false sense of respect and security properly instilled in the cyclists, NYPD jumped on the opportunity to train the rookies on the ride in how to make up laws and write tickets after the group opted to utilize streets with bike lanes, such as 5th avenue and 9th street.
Many cyclists on a day-to-day basis often exit bike lanes to pass obstructions such as double-parked cars, delivery trucks, pedestrians, vendors, joggers, construction, other cyclists, and of course, NYPD vehicles. The reason everyday cyclists do not receive tickets for this, aside from the fact that there is no law requiring one to stay in the bike lane, is that it apparently requires a half-dozen NYPD officers to issue such a summons. NYPD vehicles parked on 9th street blocking half the street, while the mass stopped in solidarity on the other side, well within the 3' lane designated for cyclists. This proved a dangerous spot nonetheless as car traffic had to merge into the bike lane to get around the pile of scooters.
In his comically-over sized uniform, the fresh-faced, lanky Officer Anthony half-heartedly explained to the cyclist (selected by his superior officers) that he had observed them riding out of the lane for the past 3 blocks. A handful of other cyclists stood by to help clarify the laws that are written, but to little avail, as most of the officers present appeared to be deaf and anti-social, refusing to make eye contact. After a debate lasting about 15 minutes the ticket was issued, and most of the mass rode off to attempt to salvage the evening at the waterfront.
Most of the NYPD officers involved in the ticketing stuck around for 45 minutes or so to monitor 5 cyclists who decided to hang out on 9th street. The mood lightened a bit when poor Officer Anthony attempted to start his scooter, only to hear it whining in ignition instead of promptly purring into oil-gobbling movement. He and a few other cops couldn't help but crack a smile as cyclists pointed out the nonsensical nature of their work. The scooter eventually came to life, and Officer Anthony was able to join his comrades when they regrouped at Union Square, where they were debriefed and hazed into stoic conformity in for next month.