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New York City Group Promotes Bicycle-Friendly Urban Transport

Getting from place to place in a crowded city is getting more difficult all the time. Congestion, pollution and cost keep going up. There is a group of concerned bicycle riders, called Critical Mass, that are trying to change the way people move around town.

On the last Friday of each month, for the past several years, hundreds or even thousands of bicyclists gather in New York City. They are part of a movement called Critical Mass that promotes bicycle friendly urban transport in cities around the world.

Critical Mass Bicycle Rider, Ludmila Svoboda says, "I think we should be seen as part of the traffic flow, number one, not as a nuisance on the sidelines."

Ms. Svoboda is a bike rider in New York City's Critical Mass protest ride. The rides are intended to increase public support for pro-bicycle changes in the overall transportation priorities of the city, according to Bill Dipaola with the environmental group Time's Up which supports Critical Mass.

Bill Dipaola, and event coordinator for Time's Up, in New York City says, "There is absolutely no respect for bicycles. Right now the Critical Mass has been big for five years. We are seeing a 30 percent increase in biking in New York City. But we are asking the city to respond to this by creating infrastructure which means bike parking, respect for bicycles and safe places for bicycles, either bike lanes, auto free streets or greenways."

The term Critical Mass refers to when the density of bicycle traffic reaches a point where it overcomes auto traffic and alters the movement of traffic on city streets. But the American love affair with cars has made its cities develop in ways that don't accommodate bicycles well. Transportation expert Elliot Sander suggests that changes to New York streets for more bicycle traffic will not be easy.

"It's certainly an incredible challenge to do it in a place like midtown Manhattan where the physical space is so precious and it's already designed," says Elliot Sander, Director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

There is also the question of how many city dwellers are willing to make expensive structural changes for bicycles.

"It's not clear that if you were to really take some space away, where there are other demands for that space, whether it is for cars, for busses or for trucks, that would be acceptable at a political level," Mr. Sander continues.

Like other cities, New York has built dedicated bikeways that allow unimpeded and safe bike lanes. But such bicycle paths are usually out of the core of the city where people live and work. The bicycle lanes within the city are usually a simple line painted on the side of the road that doesn't separate bicyclists from cars or cross traffic. This makes it dangerous for bike riders like Louise Levi.

When asked if she feels a danger from cars, she replies, "I've been in accidents, I've been hurt by cars."

Louise Levi says the Critical Mass rides in New York have become increasingly confrontational with mass arrests by the police. "I feel that at times that both sides have behaved antagonistically," she says.

Ironically, the police and protesters seem to have the same vague objective; to keep things moving. But Michael Coan, Inspector with the New York City Police Department sees the Critical Mass ride with more immediate concerns for public safety.

"If the bicyclists do go into the streets, if they do violate the traffic regulations, if they put themselves, pedestrians or other vehicles in danger, then we will take action," he says. "And they've been told that, they've been given written warnings."

Urban gridlock and pollution is only likely to increase, and a critical mass of agreement is needed to solve future traffic congestion.