Will This Year’s “Operation Safe Cycle” Make Anyone Safer?

The Park Row bike lane by City Hall, full of illegally parked vehicles as usual. Photo: Keegan Stephan

Yesterday NYPD showed New York that police do actually enforce the speed limit on local streets. Check out the radar guns on Broadway. Today the department is showing the city that cyclists get tickets too.

NYPD’s “Operation Safe Cycle” is a two-week enforcement campaign targeting “hazardous violations that create a danger for pedestrians and cyclists.”

Usually, when the NYPD embarks on these bike ticket blitzes, you’ll see police focus on the most inane and harmless transgressions, like cycling through red lights at T-intersections with bike lanes, where motor vehicle traffic and bike traffic don’t conflict. Equipped with cheat sheets that included non-existent infractions, cops have been known to hand out tickets that don’t stand a chance in traffic court. It created the impression that traffic enforcement in New York is about the appearance of “evenhandedness” more than the prevention of violent injuries and deaths.

Will this time be any different? As always, devoting limited resources to bike enforcement is bound to yield really poor bang-for-the-buck compared to speed enforcement or failure-to-yield tickets. And the very act of marketing a special operation targeting cycling — as opposed to consistently enforcing laws that keep everyone safe on the streets — doesn’t inspire confidence.

At least NYPD’s communications seem to be improving. The “Operation Safe Cycle” notice says police will be focusing on motorists obstructing bike lanes as well as cyclists for “failure to stop at a red light, disobey a traffic signal or sign, riding the wrong direction against traffic, riding on the sidewalk, and failure to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.” That’s clearer than a cheat sheet with bogus bike infractions.

But there is simply a huge degree of discretion available to cops when it comes to bike enforcement. Blowing through a red light with lots of pedestrians in the crosswalk is illegal, and so is stopping to check for cross-traffic and pedestrians before proceeding safely through a red. It’s a lot easier to hand out tickets to safe riders who may not be following the letter of the law than to rule-breakers who are actually putting other people at risk.

Unfortunately there’s no data to help people evaluate what police do during these episodes of stepped-up bike enforcement. All we have are stories.

Anecdotally, on my way to work this morning I didn’t see any police cruisers hanging out in the Flushing Avenue bike lane, pulling over cyclists for riding through T-intersection stop lights. So at least one of the usual tell-tale signs that NYPD is up to some mindless bike enforcement was not in evidence today. Then again, if police are handing out tickets to drivers obstructing bike lanes, that’s tough to tell too.

What have you seen out on the streets today? Send your experiences to tips@streetsblog.org.