Who Will Lose Out If Courts Uphold NYPD’s $1 Million Bike Tour Fee?

A new $967,534 fee from the NYPD threatens citywide bike safety education programs, including classes at the Police Athletic League summer camp at P.S. 180. Photo: Bike New York

NYPD’s move to reclassify the Five Boro Bike Tour as a “non-charitable” event threatens to have some very real consequences for programs that teach kids to bike in New York City. By compelling the non-profit Bike New York to pay nearly a million dollars for police support for the bike tour, NYPD is jeopardizing bike education programs that reach thousands of New Yorkers.

For 35 years, Bike New York ran the Five Boro Bike Tour without paying a fee. But as Streetsblog reported last summer, the ride has been swept up in the NYPD’s decision to start charging fees for non-charitable events that require police support. Essentially, NYPD’s argument is that the bike education programs provided free of charge by Bike New York, thanks to revenue from the bike tour, do not constitute charitable activity. Bike New York has now challenged NYPD in court, and the ruling will affect whether the organization can continue to provide free bike education classes to kids throughout the city — especially this year, due to the timing of NYPD’s decision to deny the bike tour designation as a charitable event.

Bike New York offers free classes for youth and adults in all five boroughs. Last year, its summer and after-school youth programs, in addition to its learn-to-ride, bike maintenance, and street skills classes, reached 14,000 New Yorkers, more than half of them under the age of 18.

The NYPD permit fee — $967,534 — would wipe out a big chunk of the organization’s budget.

The organization’s total annual revenue is about $3.7 million. While it does earn some money from grants, fees charged for bike commuter classes at corporations, and excursion rides in New Jersey and the Hudson Valley, the bulk of its budget is covered by the Five Boro Bike Tour, an annual, non-competitive, 40-mile car-free ride with more than 32,000 participants. In 2009, the tour’s revenue was $2.3 million, and it cost slightly over $1 million to put on.

Bike New York first got wind of the NYPD’s rule change last year, and testified against it in June. “We were hoping it wouldn’t apply to us,” said Bike New York President Ken Podziba. “But we were concerned.”

Bike New York submitted its permit application to the NYPD on January 7 and opened registration for the tour on January 22. Registration closed two weeks later. On March 5, NYPD sent a letter to Bike New York saying that the Five Boro Bike Tour is a “non-charitable athletic parade.” NYPD did not apply this designation to other events such as Transportation Alternatives’ New York City Century Bike Tour or the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

On Monday, Bike New York filed suit [PDF] in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, asking for immediate relief from NYPD’s decision.

The Five Boro Bike Tour is enormously popular and recently began a lottery system for those interested in riding. If the lawsuit is unsuccessful, Bike New York may have to raise entry fees, currently set at $86 per person, to cover the additional costs of the event in future years.

But with this year’s registration already complete, Bike New York says it’s too late to raise the event’s entrance fee. If NYPD’s decision holds up in court, it could have a significant impact on Bike New York’s programs this year. “Do we start charging for the programming, making it less accessible?” asked Rich Conroy, education programs director at Bike New York.

Bike New York operates many of its classes from nine community bike education centers — where it stores bikes, helmets, and educational materials — at Van Cortlandt Park, Randall’s Island, P.S. 180 in Harlem, Pier 54, East River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, East New York, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and Midland Beach on Staten Island.

Its youth education team partners with summer camps and with after-school programs in the spring and fall to provide bike education free of charge to 2,500 participants each year. The organization also goes to public, private, and religious schools free of charge during the academic year to provide education.

Ironically, the NYPD’s own Police Athletic League runs a camp that takes advantage of this free service, with 165 kids participating in 2012. “As a non-profit, I’m pretty sure they don’t have money to spend on sending kids to a bike program,” Conroy said.

Citi Bike has also partnered with Bike New York to provide street skills education to bike-share users once the program launches this spring. “We’re not getting income from Citi Bike or New York City to run those programs. Those are coming out of our budget,” Conroy said.

Bike New York has 15 full-time staff members, one seasonal staff member, and a roster of instructors paid per class — 57 “regular” instructors plus 25 summer/after school instructors.

Bike New York is not alone in fighting the fee. “I understand the need for the Police Department to contain costs, but shifting the burden on groups that advance public safety is not the answer,” said City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca in a statement from Bike New York.

“This fee would bankrupt a popular organization based on a technicality,” added Council Member Gale Brewer in the statement. A court hearing is scheduled for April 10. The tour is scheduled for May 5.