The NYPD Has Been Ticketing Cyclists for a Totally Legal Activity

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Just last week I was walking to my office in Downtown Brooklyn when a police officer handed me a brochure titled “Getting to Zero: Tips for Sharing the Street,” which outlined the most important elements of Mayor de Blasio’s plan for Vision Zero, what he calls his initiative to reduce traffic deaths and injuries to, uh, zero by the year 2024. The pamphlet touches on what it means to be a responsible pedestrian, driver, and cyclist, and is full with the kind of imperatives that are kind of obvious, sure, (“pause & wait before you turn” and “slow it down”), but which seem to bear repeating based on the fact that most people don’t follow them! The instructions for cyclists mainly revolve around things like “going with the flow” aka don’t salmon up the wrong way of a one-way street, and staying out of blind spots, all of which are important—crucial, really—steps to not dying on your bike. And as someone who walks, drives, and bikes in this city, I find de Blasio’s commitment to transportation safety to be a worthy focus of the administration’s attention—not least because ever since his plan was implemented, traffic deaths and injuries have dramatically decreased.

And yet: Despite how great it is to read the uplifting statistics and think about how great it will be when New York City is just one giant transportation utopia, there are other signs that things are not as positive as they appear. What kind of signs? Oh, the kind where we find out that beyond just handing out pamphlets to pedestrians in DoBro, police are also helping realize Vision Zero by ticketing cyclists for totally legal activities. Turns out “utopia” is just another way of saying “police state.”

Well, ok. That’s maybe a slight exaggeration, but also, as the Brooklyn Paper reports today, “police in Park Slope lead the city in issuing tickets for a law that does not exist.” That’s right, cops in the 78th Precinct, which covers Park Slope, Prospect Heights, and Prospect Park, wrote over 150 tickets for cellphone use to cyclists in 2014. The problem is that biking while texting or talking on the phone is not illegal.

The Brooklyn Paper spoke with Steve Vaccaro, a pro-cycling lawyer, who said that this type of ticketing “means that hundreds of people are paying money they can ill afford… Many people bike because it costs less than a MetroCard or a car, and here they are getting hit with summonses when they’re not even breaking the law.”

And even though a spokeswoman for the NYPD defended handing out these types of tickets to cyclists instead of just motorists, it’s pretty clear that this practice is not widespread and that cyclists in the 78th Precinct are being specifically targeted. How clear? Well, while the 78th Precinct handed out 151 of these tickets last year, the precinct that handed out the second most (the 84th, which covers Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn) only handed out 15. Others in Brooklyn handed out as few as one or even no tickets for cycling while on the phone.

So why the disparity? The Brooklyn Paper credits the 78th Precinct’s commitment to Vision Zero, as well as its popularity as a place for cyclists—those Prospect Park bike paths are pretty great. I’d also like to point out that the neighborhood has been home to one of the most high-profile traffic deaths of the last few years, that of 13-year-old Sammy Cohen-Eckstein, whose tragic death on Prospect Park West remains a rallying cry for traffic safety advocates, and helped result in the lower speed limits on city streets. A memorial to Sammy still stands at Prospect Park West and 3rd Street, mere feet from where he was killed.

But, of course, most traffic deaths and injuries are caused by cars and other motor vehicles—not cyclists. This doesn’t need to be an either/or situation—drivers and cyclists should all be held accountable for illegal behavior that endangers the lives and safety of this city’s residents. But there’s still something wildly frustrating about the fact that cyclists are targeted for legal activity while cars and trucks continue to break the law by blocking bike lanes and speeding down residential streets at will.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen