NYC Bike-on-Sidewalk Tickets Most Common in Black and Latino Communities

Chart by Harry Levine and Loren Siegel. Full data, including summonses as a share of population, available on their website.

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Of all the possible ways to break the law on a bicycle, pedaling on the sidewalk ought to be one of the most sympathetic.

Yes, sidewalk biking is unpleasant and potentially dangerous to everyone involved. But people wouldn’t bike on sidewalks if they weren’t in search of something they want: physical protection from auto traffic.

A person biking on a sidewalk is just trying to use the protected bike lane that isn’t there. That’s why sidewalk biking falls dramatically the moment a protected lane is installed. When a bike rider fails to follow this law, it’s not good. But it’s usually because the street has already failed to help the rider.

All of which makes it especially disturbing that bans on sidewalk biking seem to be enforced disproportionately on black and Latino riders.

That’s the implication of a recent study from New York City. City University of New York sociologist Harry Levine and civil rights attorney Loren Siegel coded the neighborhoods with the most and fewest bike-on-sidewalk court summonses by whether or not most residents are black or Latino.

Of the 15 neighborhoods with the most such summonses, he found, 12 were mostly black or Latino. Of the 15 neighborhoods with the fewest summonses, 14 did not have a black or Latino majority.

One of the reasons for this gap may be that streets in these neighborhoods are more likely to be built like highways. Another: biking might be more common overall in these places. And local cultures might have different attitudes toward biking. But certainly, some of the reason is that police officers and court officials tend to treat people of different races differently.

Whatever the cause, this is what institutional racism looks like. Here’s how one observer described the scene in summons court for the New York Times in 2012:

Summons court — which handles offenses like public drinking, riding bicycles on the sidewalk or talking back to the cops, otherwise known as disorderly conduct — is anything but petty. It is a place where low-level offenses can lead to permanent criminal histories and lifelong encumbrances.

Reducing sidewalk biking by building the streets people actually want, with physical separation between bikes, cars, and sidewalks, obviously won’t fix institutional racism. But it’s maddening when missing infrastructure contributes to the machinery of inequality. That’s what’s happening here, and it’s just another price American cities pay when they relegate biking to the margins of our society and the gutters of our streets.

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  • Boots

    For once, I don’t think this is a case of racial profiling by the NYPD (wow!). Rather, black and Hispanic neighborhoods are simply those with the most dangerous roads. Morningside? The Bronx? Harlem? The avenues running through there are essentially thorough fares. Even Bushwick, despite the influx of “artists”, is awful for riding a bicycle–and we haven’t even mentioned Queens.

  • anon_coward

    i live in 112th precinct and i see someone bike on the sidewalk maybe once a month. not like cops are turning a blind eye here

  • scottmercer

    In Los Angeles (City of LA proper) it is legal to ride on the sidewalks. I will fight tooth and nail if they try to change this.

  • I live in Staten Island, and sidewalk biking is common to see here, even though we have relatively few cyclists compared to other parts of the city. We also have zero protected bike lanes, the few bike lanes we have are not connected…the ones near our biggest and busiest transportation hub are used as parking lots by the NYPD, and the sharrows near it have been allowed to deteriorate until you’d hardly know they were there.

  • BikingAbby

    Stopping a bicyclist riding on the sidewalk is an easy way for the police to have the authority to question someone, check for warrants and scope out the situation.

  • Glenn

    Can’t endorse your excuses for cyclists on the sidewalk (sorry), but obviously this is just stop-and-frisk by another name.

  • Jonathan Krall

    I think empowerment is also an issue. In the US, streetscapes are intimidating enough to discourage 6 out of 7 potential riders. In that environment it takes a lot of gumption, or empowerment, to get off the sidewalk and onto the street. Aggressive driving, honking, and yelling are not uncommon and are clear social indicators of disapproval. Cyclists, I think, get used to it and tend to forget how much attitude it takes to face that every day.

    In Alexandria VA, where the Del Ray and Chirilagua neighborhoods meet, it is common to see Latinos biking on sidewalks while Whites bike on the street nearby. Just stand at the corner of Mt Vernon and Commonwealth Avenues during rush hour and you can see it for yourself.

  • Matt

    I would also suggest a probably controversial explanation to potentially explain a small portion of the variability. I live in a predominantly latino community and biking slowly on the neighborhood and commercial sidewalks is something of a social activity – conversing with friends as you slowly pass them (or even stopping to chat). Biking is not seen as much as a mode of transportation from point A to point B so the bike lanes on the adjacent busy road are often ignored because they don’t allow fulfillment of the social function biking serves.

  • gonewest818

    The chart shows summonses by precinct, and the underlying report also has summonses as a share of population.

    The missing chart is “summonses by share of bicycle miles travelled in the precinct”. In other words, there could be dramatically more cyclists in certain precincts and if that’s true, a completely even-handed police force in would result in more summonses in the more cycling oriented communities.

  • G

    It would be interesting to see the rates of summonsing of black and latino cyclists vs white ones in each precinct. I wonder if the rates are disproportionate in either kind of precinct.

  • WoodyinNYC

    Of course there’s racial profiling involved. A few years back, my ultra-white self was on the sidewalk, where I’d parked my bike, not ridden it. A muscular guy came up and told me to “Get off the sidewalk because they’re going to be giving out tickets.” Oh.

    As I observed, what he meant was that “they” — the cops, uniformed and plain-clothes like the one who befriended me — were going to do a ticketing blitz of bicycle messengers.

    Those ticketed were mostly blacks of course, riding on Sixth Ave where there was not and is not a bike lane of any kind. I doubt if many white cops warned black bicyclists to avoid the police action.

  • Boots

    The racist part of all this is that neighborhoods with mostly non-white people tend to only get complete streets once white people actually move into them (gentrification)! The elites in the DOT don’t really care that the streets in poor hoods are dangerous to bike on, but your incident, doesn’t prove anything (you yourself said “I doubt if”..). Furthermore, despite the fact that well-to-do white people have started riding bikes for non-recreational purposes in recent years (this is a good thing), the vast majority of bike riders in NYC or any major city are lower-income and/or not white. Just based on numbers alone it’s statistically more likely for a non-white person to get a ticket while using a bicycle. Combine that with the fact that the most dangerous roads go through lower-income, non-white parts of town, which leads to people riding on the sidewalk, and it’s obvious that more non-whites will be ticketed for riding on the sidewalk. I am NOT denying the NYPD’s racism–this case just doesn’t illustrate it.

    If this article could prove that, in the same neighborhood, non-whites were likely to receive more sidewalk tickets per capita than whites, then we could talk about racial profiling.

  • Boots

    Ideally, bike lanes should be wide enough so that people can have conversations in them. Nonetheless, given the small size of NYC sidewalks (especially after R. Moses came in and gave large parts of them to motor vehicles), I’d say biking two abreast on the sidewalk is an anti-social activity. The polite thing to do would be to get off and walk your bike along the sidewalk. You still have your bike so you can get somewhere quickly, but you can enjoy talking to your friend. I should reveal my bias and say that seeing grown men riding BMXs on the sidewalk makes me want to scream.

  • User_1

    I live in Long Beach, CA. I’ve tried for ages to get the city to map out the area that is deemed to be illegal to ride on sidewalk in LB. The municipal code makes it hard for the common citizen to figure out where exactly it’s illegal and where it’s OK. It would seem a map would be far better for many people to follow exactly where they can’t ride on the sidewalk, but there doesn’t seem to be much desire in pushing for something like that. Sure would be nice to see this on a map rather than ” 200 feet from business that is servicing the known public in the radius of 3 blocks and is open on both Sunday and at least 3 other days during the week, with Mondays as an option.”

    Any stories of people pressing the city to get a map to convey the legal areas for riders to legally ride on the sidewalks?

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