Cycling History

Bike Wars: The New York Midtown Bike Ban 1987

midtown_bike_banIn 1987 the streets of New York were in gridlock. Nose-to-tail traffic inched its way through highways and byways, belching exhaust fumes. Through this semi-static chaos sped the bike messengers, zipping and nipping through tiny gaps, switching lanes, jumping intersections, and generally arousing the ire of car drivers. Worse, cyclists had been responsible for 640 pedestrian injuries and 3 deaths in New York during the previous 12 months. A statistic that was waved around while conveniently ignoring over 15,000 pedestrian injuries and 285 pedestrian deaths caused by automobiles in the same period. On July 22, 1987, Ed Koch, the New York Mayor, flanked by police and transport commissioners, stood on the steps of City Hall and announced an experimental 90 day ban on bicycles on Fifth, Park, and Madison from 31st to 59th Streets to operate between 10 am and 4 pm, Monday to Friday, and to begin from 31 August subject to legislative rubber stamping.

Seven years earlier in a fit of visionary enthusiasm after he’d visited Peking, as it was then known to the Western world, Koch had installed barrier separated bicycle lanes between Greenwich Village and Central Park. A few months later they were removed, made unusable by pedestrians, street vendors, and street litter and victim to the pro-automobile lobby, despite Department of Transport evidence that there had been fewer accidents and increased cycle use on 6th Avenue.

Removing bike lanes was one thing, but banning bicycle use was another. The New York authorities and Koch had apparently forgotten that the roads that car users relied on had been a direct outcome of the Good Roads Movement, a cyclist inspired national political movement that had successfully campaigned for better roads before the automobile had even been invented. The response among the cycling community was swift. Bike messengers, who rightly felt themselves unfairly scapegoated and targeted for a situation that wasn’t of their making, quickly organized a protest ride, six of them cycling abreast slowly down 6th Avenue to Central Park forcing traffic to slow down behind them. But it was not only the messengers who were outraged by the proposed ban. Leisure cyclists, commuters, club riders, indeed anyone who used a bike, recognized that a successful ban in Midtown Manhattan would not only be unfair, inadvisable, and ineffective, but was potentially the thin end of the wedge as a precursor to wider cycling bans in the city.

Key to the development of a movement protesting the ban was the involvement of Transport Alternatives (TA), a New York bicycle advocacy group that had been founded in 1973 dedicated to reclaiming New York’s streets for the bicycle. With over a decade of campaigning experience it was TA who were able to exploit their political contacts, challenge the edict in court, publicize the protest rides, and provide a link between formerly disparate groups in the city’s cycling community. At the forefront were the messengers, with Steve Athineos, a 31 year old cycle courier with communications training, showing himself a vocal and articulate leader. At 49 East Houston Street, the shop premises of Steve Sollman where you could buy bars and original Automat machines, the protestors printed flyers, pamphlets and banners.

Over the next weeks mass protest rides took place along 6th Avenue from Houston Street to Central Park South, a distance of three miles. Setting off at 5:30 pm or thereabouts each ride typically saw some 500 riders fill the street as they slowly paraded at five miles per hour waving banners and signs and chanting slogans. Crucially the organizers decision to let foot and auto traffic continue to have priority when lights were in their favour prevented the police from using a charge of blocking traffic as a pretext to stop the rides, while demonstrating that cycling was not intrinsically inimical to the flow of pedestrians or vehicles. The protests and subsequent traffic jams and chaos quickly caught the attention of the press who carried stories not only of the protests but also of the conditions that cyclists faced. In September 1987 a New York Times interview with Pierre Jacob, a 22 year old messenger rider, highlighted the conditions urban riders faced. Those who ride in cities and towns today will recognize Jacob’s experience of 27 years ago.

As Mr. Jacob approached midtown, the traffic became heavier. Instead of riding in the bike lane, on the left side of the street, he wove through the traffic into a middle lane, steering on the white line between the cars and buses. To avoid a mirror jutting out from a stopped truck, he quickly lowered his left shoulder.

”We can’t ride in the bicycle lane when we want to go quickly because it’s not possible to go with the speed of traffic,” he said.

”The bike lane is just too dangerous because someone could be pulling out,” he said. ”Like that,” he added, motioning to a white truck pulling out into the bike lane from a parking spot.

”When you see a lot of messengers swerving and ducking, it’s got nothing to do with being fancy or showing off,” Mr. Jacob said. ”It’s actually safety. It’s something you have to do.”


On 31 August 1987 Judge Leonard H. Sandler of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan halted the ban due to be implemented the following day. Sandler argued that with an unresolved court case in progress the City could not issue summonses to bicyclists until Acting Justice Edward H. Lehner had delivered his verdict. Lehner had himself issued a previous order restraining the city from issuing summonses to riders until he could rule on the suit, to which the City authorities had responded by filing an appeal, the act of doing so automatically releasing them from the restrictions of Lehner’s order. By issuing his own order Sandler had effectively restored Lehner’s order freezing the law’s enforcement.

On 9 September 1987 Justice Lehner issued his 11 page ruling, overturning the ban on a procedural technicality, stating that:

”The court concludes that because it was not enacted in the form of a regulation, with publication and notice as mandated by the New York City Charter, the ban is invalid.

Here, a decision was made to regulate conduct affecting a significant segment of the population. Although the public was informally notified of the ban approximately a month before the effective date of the order, legal enactment required its formal adoption as a regulation. The formalities for such adoption not having been complied with, the ban is unenforceable.”

Koch and the City authorities were not impressed. “This victory for the bike riders, in my judgment, is very short-lived and foolish,” opined the mayor, adding that, “We don’t want judges to be running the City of New York or its agencies.” While Phyllis Arnold, a corporation counsel who had helped prepare the City’s case argued that, ”the Charter authorized the imposition of the ban by the posting of signs, without the need for publication and filing,” Stuart Gruskin, the lawyer for the Association of Messenger Services who had filed the suit, reminded the New York City Executive that, “the city can’t do something like this without getting input from the people. They forgot that this is a democracy.”

Koch indicated that the City would begin the process of either appealing Lehner’s decision, beginning the legally required notification period, or both. In the event the authorities bowed to public pressure, letting the issue quietly slip and ultimately taking no action to ban bicycle use in New York or to appeal the ruling. Instead they changed tack, and in December 1987 began the process of introducing legislation to enforce new licensing requirements on commercial cyclists, an act fairly and squarely aimed at the cycle couriers and the messenger companies who had forced the City to back down over the proposed ban. Arguably the proposed licensing bill was not such a bad thing. It would make commercial cyclists accountable, require them to hold liability insurance, and allow police and the courts to track repeat offenders guilty of traffic violations and take appropriate action.


If the cyclists had won their fight against the City in 1987, little changed in reality. Streets remained congested, pedestrian and cyclist casualties remained roughly the same for many years. Perhaps the most significant legacy of the Midtown Bike Ban was the renewed energy of the cycling advocacy groups who successfully campaigned to open up other banned areas such as Henry Hudson Drive, the south path of the George Washington Bridge, and the Queensboro Bridge. Today TA and other groups such as Time’s Up continue to campaign for safer streets for all and better provision for cyclists in New York’s transport infrastructure. Monthly Critical Mass rides beginning at Union Square North, Manhattan, continue the tradition of 1987, as hundreds take to the streets en masse to promote cycling and remind everyone that cyclists are legitimate road users.

More recently New York has sought to encourage cycling by expanding its network of cycle paths and lanes, introducing a city bike hire scheme, and providing increased facilities for bicycle parking. Where protected cycle lanes have been introduced pedestrian and cyclist casualties have dropped dramatically. Coincidentally motor traffic speed along the 31 miles of road that currently have a protected cycle lane has actually increased.

This is all to to the good, but what hasn’t changed in New York and elsewhere are attitudes to cyclists and cycling. In 2014 Irving Schacter, a 75 year old New York Cycling Club member, died while running in Central Park when he was struck by a 17 year old cyclist. A few weeks later Jill Tarlov was hit and killed by a cyclist when she was walking on the west side of Central Park. Press reaction condemned what they saw as the menace of fast-riding cyclists with no respect for pedestrian safety. In March 2015 Councilman Rory Lancman appeared to go back on his support for legislation introduced in August 2014 which makes it a misdemeanour to strike a pedestrian or cyclist who is crossing the street with the light in their favour at a crosswalk. His reason, the arrest rate of 20 drivers, including a school bus driver and six Metropolitan Transport Authority drivers, who had killed or injured pedestrians on crosswalks since the legislation came into force was too high. In a subsequent hearing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked by Senator Marty Golden,  “If it’s an accident, it’s an accident. Do we need to arrest these people, and is that necessary?” The Senator somehow managing to completely ignore the fact that the drivers had failed to comply with New York traffic laws by not giving way when they were required to do so. As de Blasio pointed out in his reply:

“… what the law dictates is that if there is serious injury or fatality, and if the officers on the scene determine that it was an avoidable injury or fatality, they are obligated to pursue an arrest. If the officers determine that it was unavoidable, meaning something happened that no driver could have possibly foreseen or responded to in time, they have the option of giving a summons. So this is a new law with a clear standard. It is a stricter standard than that which existed previously, and that’s for a reason, because people were being killed and grievously hurt in all sorts of instances and there wasn’t a clear enough legal consequence.”

In fact the legal consequences of killing someone while driving a vehicle are so negligible they are virtually non-existent. In the overwhelming majority of cases where a sentence is issued it is for a secondary consideration such as negligent driving, failure to give way, or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, rather than for causing the death of another. On 8 January, 2006, Thomas Harland, 14, Maurice Broadbent, 61, Dave Horrocks, 55, and Wayne Wilkes, 42, were killed when a car skidded on black ice and ploughed into a group of cyclists riding along the A547 road in North Wales. At the subsequent court case it was revealed that both front tyres and the near rearside tyre of the Toyota Corolla driven by Robert Harris, 47, were bald. Harris was handed down a fine of £180, £60 for each offending tyre, and given six penalty points on his licence. Put another way Harris was fined £45 for each life lost. The maximum penalty under British law for driving with a defective tyre is £2,500 per tyre, while the crime of careless driving can carry a penalty of up to 18 months imprisonment.

To return to New York it’s useful to look at the most recent available statistics for traffic casualties. In 2013 motor vehicles injured 12,769 pedestrians and 3,884 cyclists. A further 177 pedestrians and 12 cyclists were killed in motor vehicle collisions. By contrast there were just 316 pedestrian injuries and 1 pedestrian death caused by cyclists in the same period. Yet it is cyclists who often bear the brunt of public outrage and negative attitudes. Perhaps this is because the majority of motor traffic accidents go largely unreported, or do not attract high profile media attention. Underlying this may be a deeply held social attitude to the automobile. As the Assistant District Attorney of the Bronx, Joe McCormack, pointed out in 2012, “There are times where the factual situation that is presented to us doesn’t rise to a crime. And it’s important to realize that the reason it doesn’t rise to a crime is that society has made that decision that it doesn’t want it to be a crime.” It is a sobering thought. When employers, organizations, and individuals can be held accountable for accidental or culpable death or injury in so many other situations it seems that the practical, ubiquitous motor vehicle is somehow exempt.

This is not to say that cyclists are not guilty of failing to adhere to traffic regulations or always ride sensibly and safely. They do not. Jumping lights, riding on pavements, failing to make the proper signals, weaving from road to pavement and back again, riding on pedestrian only footpaths, and riding the wrong way along streets, are all behaviours exhibited by cyclists that frustrate and anger drivers who react to cyclists as a maverick ‘out-group’ who break the social and legal norms governing road use. And cyclists can also be a risk to others. As Hindy Schachter made clear after her husband’s death, cyclists:

“… are also potential predators. One careless move on a bike and we can take down a runner, a walker, a child skipping along. As we want car drivers to be alert to our rights, so too we must act to protect the rights of other people.”

Cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians are not mutually exclusive groups. We all have to share limited public space and busy urban environments and if you are a cyclist then you’ll also be a pedestrian at times and the chances are very high that if you’re an adult then you’re a driver too. Regardless of where you stand on the bike versus car divide the reality of today’s world is that urban environments will only become more congested, more densely populated, with greater demands on resources and space. Infrastructure and laws will have to change and, importantly, so will attitudes. As cyclists we can start by obeying the rules of the road and convince drivers that we are responsible road users who are worthy of respect and consideration. As drivers we can do the same, remembering that a moment of inattention, frustration or impatience can have devastating effects on the lives of others. Perhaps it’s also time to end the idea of a ‘bike war’, to stop antagonising the very group we wish to earn acceptance from by clogging up the roads in mass protest rides that prevent other road users from pursuing their legitimate journeys. What’s needed is better advocacy for cycling, better education for drivers and cyclists, and better infrastructure that allows us all to move from A to B safely and quickly in the manner we wish to make the journey, whether by foot, car or bicycle.


3 comments on “Bike Wars: The New York Midtown Bike Ban 1987

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