Judge Rules Against NYC Critical Mass

February 16th, 2010 by hughillustration

Critical Mass, NYC

The NYC Critical Mass has been besieged for years by a police crackdown, well documented in the film Still We Ride. In response to the massive ride that took place during the 2004 Republican Convention, the cops tried to impose a rule that required groups of 50 or more cyclists to acquire a parade permit. That rule was challenged in court in 2007, and today the judge in that case delivered his decision:

A federal judge in Manhattan on Tuesday ruled that the City of New York did not violate the constitutional rights of cyclists by requiring them to file for parade permits when they rode in groups of 50 or more. The ruling is a blow to organizers of the Critical Mass bike protests in Manhattan.

The judge, Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York, said that he was sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ concerns and acknowledged their inconvenience. However, Judge Kaplan said the parade regulations and their enforcement by the New York Police Department did not violate the Constitution.

As an example of how stupid this ruling is, imagine trying to enforce a 50 rider limit in Amsterdam — or anywhere in China and most of Asia, for that matter. It would be impossible, since there are thousands of cyclists on the road at any given time. Or how about Bike to Work day? Will the cops enforce a 50 rider limit that day as well?

What’s happening on the last Friday of the month around the world is not a really a parade — it’s the eruption of Amsterdam-like traffic patterns onto streets that were once the exclusive domain of motorized traffic. The angry motorists, the police crackdowns, the faulty judicial rulings — these are all just birth pangs of a new kind of city, coming into existence right before our very eyes.

One day a judge will rule that motorists need a parade permit to block traffic with their disruptive “traffic jams.” Until then, there will continue to be popular movements that challenge the illogic of city planning in our time — and those movements will continue to be leaderless, permitless, spontaneous, celebratory and uncontainable. Welcome to the future!

14 Responses to “Judge Rules Against NYC Critical Mass”

  1. james says:

    The ruling affects “groups of riders”. Critical Mass is an organized event, and in SF, it seems to be calculated to cause as much disruption as possible. Indeed, at least in SF, many Critical Mass riders seem hell-bent on causing as much blockage as possible. They are a menace to pedestrians, motorists, and other bicyclists. I’d like to see SF police spend some time clearing pedestrians and bicyclists from illegally crossing streets and blocking traffic.

  2. tom says:

    While you’re free to publish your opinions as much as the next guy, the bias in your ‘journalism’ is tragic. Also, leaderless? Really? Oh, that just doesn’t fly. Even flashmobs have leaders, they’re just anonymous to avoid responsibility.

    (Aside: Also, having never been to your site before, I see the header graphic shows CM riders with flowers. You should change those to bike locks and chains and accurately portray them threatening motorists with them.)

  3. Money Jungle says:

    I’d like to see the SFPD arrest more reckless drivers, because drivers kill people not pedestrians. I would also like to see the EPA come down harder on automobile owners in urban areas for their part in the abundance of greenhouse gasses from their (over) use.

  4. Tom, it sounds like you’re confused about the distinction between blogging and journalism. But thanks for acknowledging my free speech rights — I try to make good use of them, and I hope you do the same.

    It’s true that flashmobs have leaders. That’s because they are complex, one-time events. Critical Mass requires no leadership or organizing whatsoever — it happens on its own like clockwork on the last Friday of each month, 18 years and counting. No one plans the route in advance, it is decided on the fly, with total strangers cooperating spontaneously. I know that might sound crazy, but you should join us some time to see how easy that is.

    I don’t see the menace that James is talking about (Tom also). A menace would injure or harm someone. Critical Mass is more of a disruption. There’s an inconvenience factor to be sure, and we thank you for waiting. But we’re not a danger or a threat to anyone. No one is waving bike locks or chains around, so just relax. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

    Thanks for you comments!

  5. sarah says:

    cyclists are not the problem here.
    motorists are not the problem here.
    assholes are the problem here- and it seems assholes move around on any number of wheels.
    unless we can get past this unilateral blame game and deal with each other on an individual basis, there will be no ‘share the road’.
    the word sharing implies mutual respect, and as long as we insist upon applying kneejerk stereotypes upon both camps there is no respect.

  6. Jym Dyer says:

    =v= The Times blog entry isn’t written very well. The Times has over the years been rather good about the fact that Critical Mass is not an organized event, so I trust they’ll fix it when crafting it into an actual news article.

    The NYPD attempted to declare it an organized event in 2004, solely their pretext for harrassing participants was that organizers needed a permit. That bogosity was shot down in Federal court. (So, you know, screeching “nuh-uh” in blog comments is just a waste of time.)

    They cooked up this “50 participants” rule after that Federal decision. The rule was challenged in a suit filed by the Five Borough Bike Club, which has nothing to do with Critical Mass. Bike clubs in NYC have been having 50 or more people in organized rides without permits since the velocipede craze of the 1870s, after all. Judge Kaplan’s decision ignores this fact.

    =v= The NYPD, of course, continues to harrass CM even when less than 50 people are involved.

  7. james says:

    hughillustration — there’s a lot of yelling at motorists that happens. I’ve been yelled at both in a car, and on a motorcycle, where a bicyclist actually made a motion as if he were going to charge me and knock me over bodily. I’ve been sitting in my car, waiting for CM to pass, as riders passed trailing a burning strip of material, dropped and left in the street to burn. Bicyclists stand in front of cars to block traffic over the course of several light changes. I’m all for raising awareness of those around you. Cars don’t wait for me as a pedestrian in a crosswalk, but neither do bicyclists. Motorists can be terribly unaware of what’s around them, but the bicyclists need to obey traffic laws as well. They tend to be a rather smug, self-rightous lot.

  8. John Henry says:

    Maybe you should get off the bikes and take the street with feet

  9. drooderfiets says:

    =v= The NYPD, of course, continues to harrass CM even when less than 50 people are involved.

    I don’t understand how you can be arrested just because you cycle. Is that linked to any complaint?

  10. Nero says:

    “right to peacefully assemble” I’m pretty sure that the NYC ruling violates that constitutional right.

  11. UltimateSteveo says:

    Critical Mass is not about sharing the roads. The current Critical Mass movement in San Francisco seems to attract a large number of juvenile, selfish, and down-right angry individuals. I love bikes and support riding as a preferred method of transportation, but many of these people apparently have an agenda of anarchy and violence. I’ve experienced some form of either being yelled at, my wife has being yelled at, having my car kicked, spit at, or witnessed absolute disregard for the law at every unfortunate CM event I’ve had the displeasure to be stuck in. You’ll get no pity from this cyclist if the day comes that your participants are hauled off in buses, bikes confiscated and donated to those who chose to ride them responsibly. Don’t get me started on the dregs of suicidal bike messengers whining about automobile traffic… have you considered sharing the crosswalks with those slower, clearly annoying pedestrians? I assure you that no respectful and peaceful riders will be arrested for simply riding their bike in a group, this is specifically targeted to allow enforcement to reduce the indigent, anarchist, Che loving, cyclists that are causing problems. IMO, Critical Mass is an organized mechanism seeking to exact revenge on the average automobile driver, nothing more.

  12. Thanks for your comment, UltimateSteveo. I’m happy to publish negative comments like this, so long as the language is reasonable and there are no threats.

    One thing I think you have wrong is your characterization of the type of people that ride on Critical Mass. I have been riding with Critical Mass for almost 18 years, I am personal friends with hundreds of them, and I have had conversations with thousands of random people on the ride over the years. The “selfish” and “angry” types you’re mentioning are such a tiny minority that they are hardly worth mentioning. If you come out with us some night on your bicycle, I think you will meet nice people who love their city, who are not out to ruin anyone’s night, and who have a real sense of humor about themselves and what we’re doing on Critical Mass.

    I’m sorry to hear that you had some bad experiences while stuck on the ride. I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but there are many of us — including the folks who started this ride and have been involved for years — that make a habit of confronting this sort of bad behavior when we see it (which isn’t often).

    I don’t own a car, but I do borrow cars from time to time (and now I use CityCarShare). On two occasions I have been in a car on the last Friday when Critical Mass rolled by, and I got nothing but good energy and hi-fives from the other riders (none of whom recognized me, so far as I know). It might have helped that I did not try to ram my car into the midst of the cyclists, and that I was cheering them on from my car window. Maybe you could try that next time you encounter us?


  13. Please follow the current CM related happenings in NYC at http://criticalmasspanic.blogspot.com/ to see what harassment occurs these days, how police attempts to control or shut down the ride succeed and fail, and why the court ruling seems totally irrelevant given the size of rides in the winter.

    Ride Safer

    M.Y. N.Y.C.

  14. boz says:

    It’s funny how short people’s memory is in a place like SF, where the average resident has lived there only 5 years. Is Chief Gascon an old-timer? I mean this is exactly, precisely the rhetoric that we heard 13 years ago. And all of the funny things we did at the time would still work — the legal version of Critical Mass, in which everyone just rides around and obeys traffic laws would still be a very appropriate response. Especially given commenters like those at


    who all seem very “concerned” that massers be more law-abiding. Great! Go for it! They’ll see how that turns out…

    One thing, though, Hugh – the cops can arrest many more people at once. SFPD has a century of experience in mass arrests, and just because each one leads to a nice settlement with its victims doesn’t stop them from persisting with this tactic.