Steeped in the myth of leather-jacketed mayhem, the motorcycle is the ultimate image of freedom and power on the road. However, life on two wheels has become increasingly difficult for New York City motorcyclists. Over the past decade, bikers contend the city has turned up the heat on regulatory and legislative fronts, leading to growing complaints of harassment and accusations of discrimination.
With just 37,500 registered motorcycles in a city of 8.4 million people -- roughly one motorcycle for every 224 residents -- motorcyclists comprise a small minority in New York City, according to New York State Department of Motor Vehicles statistics. Like many minority groups, motorcyclists have long been underrepresented and their voices unheard. But after years of shaking off countless changes to regulations and procedures they consider unfair, the motorcycle community has begun to organize and fight back.
At the forefront of this movement is the New York Motorcycle & Scooter Task Force (NYMSTF), an advocacy group founded in 2009 by motorcyclist Cheryl Stewart, to help improve conditions for local riders.
"We're a bunch of motorcyclists that have been really, really anxious for a while about how our rights have been considerably eroded in New York City," Stewart explained. "It's been one thing after another."
For Stewart, the need to organize became apparent after a series of city-directed actions she believed were encroaching on motorcyclists' rights -- from quality of life issues, such as parking, to serious accusations of harassment and constitutional rights' violations at the hands of the New York Police Department and the New York State Police.No (More) Parking
As one of the most densely populated cities in the world, it's hardly surprising that parking is a contentious issue in New York City. Though non-residents may be largely unsympathetic, the fact remains that motorcycles and scooters are treated differently in other cities.
San Francisco has designated motorcycle and scooter parking spots throughout the city, according to NYMSTF parking committee chair Jesse Erlbaum, as do Philadelphia, Boston, Austin, San Jose, Seattle, Cincinnati and a host of other U.S. cities, as well as international metropolises like Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Rome and London. In Austin, Toronto and parts of London, these two-wheeled vehicles are even allowed to park for free.
These cities recognize motorcycles and scooters as a "greener" form of transportation. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino acknowledged as much in a recent statement announcing dedicated motorcycle and scooter parking in his city, saying they are "smaller, and many are environmentally friendly, contributing less to congestion and air pollution, and requiring less space for curbside parking."
Not so in New York City, which has removed designated parking areas for two-wheeled vehicles in recent years, leaving Manhattan virtually free of motorcycle parking. The city even saw the two-wheeled vehicle exemption struck from its 2008 congestion-pricing plan before it ultimately failed to become law. This, despite the mayor’s office patterning its proposal on London’s law, which does exempt two-wheelers.
Both Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office and the city’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability declined interview requests for this story and referred us to the New York City Department of Transportation, which also refused comment. Former New York City Traffic Commissioner and New York Daily News traffic columnist "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz was willing to offer this assessment of the city’s attitude, however. "I don't even think the Richter scale needle moves when it comes to motorcycles in city planning and city government," he said.Police Profiling
Even more alarming are reports of the NYPD conducting allegedly unconstitutional motorcycle-only checkpoints, and regularly ticketing riders based upon incorrect interpretation of motor vehicle regulations.
One of the most telling cases is that of Karen Perrine, a graphic designer from Staten Island, who was ticketed in October 2005 for riding her motorcycle in the high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lane on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Armed with the knowledge that federal law permits motorcyclists to ride in HOV lanes on federally funded roadways, Perrine decided to fight the ticket in court with the assistance of the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA).
Perrine was initially found guilty based upon a New York Department of Transportation rule that prohibited motorcycles from using HOV lanes. But Perrine appealed the decision, and in the end succeeded in having it overturned. But it took nearly two-and-a-half years, and in the meantime she was fined for having excessive points on her license and had her auto insurance policy canceled.
The rule was clearly not in compliance with federal regulations, explained Imre Szauter, Government Affairs Manager at the AMA, yet the agency refused to change its rules because it said the NYPD opposed the change. Eventually, after an unsuccessful campaign by NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly to have motorcycles banned from HOV lanes (documented in a letter acquired by Szauter through a Freedom of Information request), New York City’s laws were brought into compliance with federal regulations.
During the course of Perrine's ordeal, the AMA documented other cases of motorcyclists receiving erroneous HOV lane tickets in places as far flung as Pittsburgh and Gilbert, AZ. But, unlike in New York City, local authorities dismissed each of these cases after they were informed of the federal law.
Perrine's battle has taken on almost legendary status, yet there are countless other riders who continue to be ticketed for regulations that are interpreted incorrectly, often after being pulled over at checkpoints that allegedly violate motorcyclists' constitutional rights, according to NYMSTF’s Stewart. These targeted motorcycle-only enforcement campaigns involve officers stopping all motorcyclists, whether there is reasonable suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing, but not cars and trucks.
"We believe they're unconstitutional traffic stops when they pull over only two-wheeled vehicles," Stewart explained.
The NYMSTF website offers a law enforcement discrimination complaint form riders can submit if they feel they were targeted unfairly or otherwise mistreated. The group has also created a checkpoint alert system that encourages riders to send a text message to alert others about checkpoints via Twitter or RSS feed.
When questioned about these traffic stops and allegations of discrimination against motorcyclists, the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information for the NYPD declined to comment. When contacted for information on complaints filed against NYPD officers by motorcyclists, Graham Daw, Director of Intergovernmental and Legal Affairs for the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), advised that the agency is not able to separate out complaints involving motorcyclists.
The AMA's Szauter said the New York State Police also implement motorcycle-only checkpoints, during major motorcycle events, such as the Americade rally in Lake George, NY. All motorcyclists are diverted through a highway rest area, explained Szauter, where state troopers do a quick scan for illegal helmets and excessively loud exhaust pipes, though he added that riders can also have their paperwork or other equipment checked.
Szauter notes that motorcycle-only checkpoints are not unique to New York, citing recent clampdowns on riders in Washington and Utah. Set up over Memorial Day weekend following a professional motorcycle racing event, the Utah checkpoint created such a large traffic back-up that it was shut down after two hours by the Utah Highway Patrol, who then issued a public apology via the AMA.
When questioned about the constitutionality of these checkpoints, Dan Moynihan, Assistant Counsel for the New York State Police, explained: "Much like members of the State Police check only boats for compliance with the special provisions of the Navigation Law that are only applicable to boats, or only snowmobiles for compliance with the special provisions of the Park and Recreation Laws that only apply to them, they check only motorcycles for compliance with the motorcycle equipment laws."
"This is not any form of illegal profiling anymore than the Legislature itself profiled motorcycles when it passed special equipment requirements that were only applicable to motorcycles," Moynihan added.
Lieutenant Jim Halvorsen, commanding officer of the New York State Police Motor Unit, explained that motorcycle-only checkpoints are designed specifically to enforce and encourage motorcycle safety.
"If there was a way we could make motorcycles safer without ever writing a ticket, someone please tell me," said Halvorsen. "We're interested in saving lives and preventing injuries, and it's proven that strict enforcement does save lives."
Halvorsen, who also heads up the Division Motorcycle Enforcement and Education Program, said state troopers regularly attend events to perform courtesy inspections and use the opportunity to educate riders about safety.
However, critics contend that these motorcycle-only checkpoints are designed to harass motorcyclists. In June 2009, a class action lawsuit was filed in upstate New York accusing the State Police and other officials of violating riders' constitutional rights by establishing motorcycle-only road blocks intended to harass riders who were attempting to travel to motorcycle rallies. Court documents show the case against some of the named defendants has been dismissed, but a spokesperson for plaintiffs' attorney Mitchell Proner, of Proner & Proner, confirmed the case is still proceeding against others. Halvorsen is a named defendant, and is due to be deposed in the case."As far as police go, yes, motorcyclists are more highly scrutinized," Perrine said, "and if they see you, they'll try to get you."