America's Largest City Says it will Enforce Traffic Laws for Three Weeks, All Other Times the Purge

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People keep dying all over New York City, as lax traffic enforcement has helped contribute to a wave of cyclists being hit by cars. To bring the United States’ largest city back into the general realm of a vehicle-driving society, the New York City Police Department has announced it will enforce some traffic laws, but for real this time. For three weeks.

As of the time I am typing these words, 15 cyclists have been killed by drivers in New York City this year. I preface that statistic with the time-specific qualifier because it’s a rapidly changing state of affairs. When my colleague at Deadspin Patrick Redford started an article about this topic after the 12th death, two more cyclists died by publication, and another shortly thereafter. This is five more than the number of cyclists who died all of last year in the city, and we still have a good chunk of peak cycling season to go.

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This rash of deaths has led to calls from cyclists for some kind of response from the city. Any kind, really, that doesn’t involve ticket stings on cyclists themselves.

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Not to worry, cyclists. The NYPD has a plan:

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Discerning readers will notice two strange facts about this plan. First, it is a list of existing laws, protocols, and regulations. Second, it has an end date three weeks from today.

This is not a plan to stop cyclists from dying. It is, in fact, an explanation for why it keeps happening. It’s not only Wiggum-esque, but a perfect encapsulation of how New York’s streets became such a scary place to ride a bike to begin with, even as other cities around the world have largely figured this shit out.

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This enforcement blitz begs the question: what happens when the three weeks are up? Do we just go back to the way things were before? Will the city return to its current state, where parking in bike lanes goes without any punishment, sidewalks can be converted into pop-up parking zones, putting some random piece of paper on your dash absolves you of all parking restrictions, and nearly any vehicular maneuver can be executed so long as you have your hazard lights on?

To be sure, cyclists often don’t obey the law either, sometimes because the law is stupid—no I do not need a bell on my bike thank you very much—other times because it is genuinely safer to disobey the law, and yet more times simply because some cyclists are idiots. But everyone, from drivers to cyclists to pedestrians feel empowered to ignore traffic laws, because cops do, too.

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This isn’t just an issue with driver behavior or New York City specifically. It is a grand experiment in what happens when nobody respects, believes in, or adheres to traffic laws because nobody enforces it. In other words, it’s a case study in concentrated anarchy. While we may sometimes argue about speed limits or what have you, no one ever advocates for a complete abandonment of the laws which make driving and getting around actually possible. And yet that appears to be what is happening here.

After years of taking our cues from the authorities that the traffic laws are merely suggestions, it’s going to take more than three weeks of enforcement to convince us otherwise.

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About the author

Aaron Gordon

Senior Reporter, Investigations & Technology, Jalopnik