Cyclists are legally allowed to ride outside of bike lanes in the city when they see fit and yet countless cyclists continue to be cited by the NYPD for this so-called offense. Dan Connor, 29, is one those people. He received two tickets in just over two weeks. One of the officers jotted down “Failure to use bike lane” on June 18, while another wrote, “Fail to use bike lane when present” on July 3rd.
The inconsistency in naming the alleged offense is not surprising, since riding outside a bike lane is not illegal if a rider deems the bike lane unsafe… for basically any reason. Connor, an avid cyclist who commutes daily from Greenpoint to Chelsea, posted a YouTube video detailing the many bike lane obstructions he often comes across and gave this account of the tickets:
Turned onto 1st Avenue heading north, waiting for a safe moment to merge over to the left side. Pulled over at 12th Street. Explained to police officer a) that bike lane is unsafe b) I had just turned. (Ticket #1: 6/18/2013)
Southbound on Chrystie at Rivington. Traffic was blocking the lane at Houston, so I took to the center of the street since I was going to turn left at Delancey anyway. Cop also pulled over someone at the same time for avoiding the same traffic obstruction by riding on the sidewalk. He told the sidewalk cyclist that he should have pulled into the street to avoid the traffic. I explained that’s what I did and the COP agreed but said he had to ticket me anyway for not being in the bike lane because it’s ‘not his job to interpret the law.’ (Ticket #2: 7/03/2013)
Connor says he will “absolutely” fight the tickets. “For me it’s about the principle.” And there’s a good chance that he’ll get them dismissed.
“Cyclists are not required to ride exclusively in bike lanes,” explains defense attorney Mark Taylor to ANIMAL. “They are free to bike on any street without a bike lane unless specifically prohibited,” adding that the “actual law gives a cyclist broad discretion to be outside of a bike lane when they believe it necessary for their own safety.”
Taylor pointed me to Title 34 of the Rules of the City of New York Section 4-12. It states:
(1) Bicycle riders to use bicycle lanes. Whenever a usable path or lane for bicycles has been provided, bicycle riders shall use such path or lane only except under any of the following situations:
(i) When preparing for a turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.
(ii) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, motor vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, pushcarts, animals, surface hazards) that make it unsafe to continue within such bicycle path or lane.
Notice how the language of the law specifically says “including but not limited to,” effectively ensuring lots of leeway for cyclists who deem a bike lane unsafe. According to this statute, a slower cyclist would be reason enough for another cyclist to ride outside of the lane. A lane blocking pedestrian, a ubiquitous occurrence in the city’s network of bike lanes, would also give a cyclist legal cause to ride outside of it. Or an oil slick. Or a pothole. Whatever.
Additionally, there’s a provision in that same statute that says “Bicyclists may ride on either side of one-way roadways that are at least 40 feet wide.” That means that cyclists riding on virtually any major avenue in Manhattan–even the ones with the fully protected bike lanes–would have the full discretion to choose whether they want to ride in the bike lane or not.
Ticketing cyclists for riding outside the bike lane has sparked numerous debates, a hilarious viral video from Casey Neistat and lots of media coverage. Much of the discussion has echoed a claim that the law is ambiguous due to Section 1234, a statute in New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law that doesn’t mention the safety provision the city law does, expressly allowing cyclists the option of riding outside the bike lane if they deem the conditions unsafe. But that bit of state law is superseded by 34 RCNY § 4-12(p). The “RCNY” stands for Rules of the City of New York” and is the same mechanism that allows NYC to make it illegal for drivers to make a right on red within the five boroughs, even though it’s allowed everywhere else in the state.
So, why does the NYPD–arguably one of the “worst offenders” when it comes to bike lanes–still issue tickets? Mark Taylor has a sound theory. “Officers assigned to give tickets to cyclists will give out tickets to cyclists. It makes no difference to them if the ticket is thrown out by a judge. As long as they hand out the tickets they are staying out of trouble with their superiors.”
Sadly, those same superiors are also the ones issuing dubious marching orders.
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.