With bike lanes coursing through the city, a bike share program in the works, and cyclists cruising to and from most every corner of the naked city, it is hard to imagine that just twenty five years ago, a New York City Mayor proposed banning cycling in Midtown Manhattan.
On July 22, 1987, Mayor Koch stood on the steps of City Hall flanked by his police and
was clearly an attack on bike messengers, who were being scapegoated in the press for the dangerous
and congested streets of NYC. Any unbiased observer could see (and still can) that the actual cause of
danger and congestion in our city's streets was automobiles. Fortunately, this unfair treatment of one
subgroup of cyclist struck a nerve among many others – from activists to roadies to commuters – and
brought together the cycling community in a spirit of direct action that helped usher in an era of
victories for a livable city.
Of course, this ebb and flow is part of life, particularly when considering New York’s contested public spaces.
Faced with the ban, cyclists started organizing, doing what regular people have often done when faced with an injustice. In the weeks following Koch’s ban, cyclists reclaimed public space for non-polluting, sustainable transportation for everyone. Direct action changed the course of New York City history.
“That spirit of direct action rose, as it always does, from the streets,” noted Steve Athineos, a
bike messenger who helped organize the twice-weekly direct action bike rides that helped defeat the
According to Charles Komanoff, who was then president of the advocacy group Transportation
Alternatives, “Masses of cyclists, sometimes half a thousand and occasionally more, spread across
Sixth Avenue and paraded the three miles from Houston Street to Central Park South. Our stately pace,
perhaps 5mph, was slow enough that passersby could look past our bikes and see our bodies and faces.
Walkers and joggers could join our ranks. We were slow enough that we could and did stop at red
lights. Letting foot and auto traffic cross at the green was a stroke of genius. It certified cycling as city friendly.”
After the ban was defeated, the newly galvanized cycling community went on to win important
victories for livable streets: full-time access to River Road in New Jersey; legal access to the south
path of the George Washington Bridge; a shift in public opinion that clean air should be a priority in
NYC transportation planning; and re-establishment of the permanent bike lane over the Queensboro
For more background on the history of the ban, see Bicycle Uprisings Then and Now, by Keegan, Time’s Up!
Join us to celebrate this important moment in cycling history.
The Battle of the Bike Ban is a Celebration of the Bicycle Uprising that defeated a ban on cycling in the heart of Manhattan 25 Years ago and the 20th Anniversary of the first Critical Mass Ride, which was born out of the bike ban protests and continues to this day, in hundreds of countries and thousands cities across the world, the last Friday of every month.
Friday, Sept. 28, 2012, 6:30 pm, SE Corner of Houston Street & 6th Avenue
Ride to Central Park in solidarity with the 20th Anniversary of Critical Mass
9:00 pm, Screening of Fifth, Park & Madison, a film about the original uprising, at Cooper Union Great Hall, plus discussion of grassroots cycling activism then and now.