DOT Wants Cameras to Catch Bike-Lane Blockers (But Will Albany Allow It?)

Here's why you can't trust cops to do bike lane enforcement. File photo: Dan Miller
Here's why you can't trust cops to do bike lane enforcement. File photo: Dan Miller

The city wants to crack down on scofflaw drivers who illegally park and stop in the bike lane by deploying cameras to catch and ticket them, according to the Department of Transportation — but the agency can’t realize its dream of cop-free enforcement without help from Albany.

The DOT put out a so-called Request for Expressions of Interest on Sept. 15, which calls for interested vendors to help set up an automated bike lane enforcement program for city’s hundreds of miles of bikes lanes — similar to the system currently in place that automatically catches drivers who speed in school zones or go through red lights.

Would-be vendors have until Oct. 15 to express their interest.

The agency said potential operators must show “how it can develop, implement and operate an enforcement program that would identify through images and videos of vehicles illegally stopping, standing, parking or otherwise blocking bike lanes throughout the city, including an image of the vehicle’s license plate.”

But one cycling advocate says the solicitation is merely a dog-and-pony show because the city can’t deploy those cameras without Albany approval, and there are myriad other ways to immediately protect cyclists from cars than through cameras.

“It’s a BS way to look like they’re doing something that doesn’t actually do anything. There’s no legal authority to do this enforcement. They need another set of cameras, need to go to Albany,” said Jon Orcutt of Bike New York.

The city first got permission from the state legislature in 2013 to deploy its speed cameras in the five boroughs. But the city still has to go back and ask legislators to approve more cameras, and to allow them to operate 24/7. Asking for permission to operate the amount of cameras necessary to enforce the city’s 700 miles of bike lanes would be a massive hurdle and undertaking, Orcutt said.

“The mileage of bike lanes we’re talking about, and the ubiquity of people parking in the bike lane, is huge. It’s a huge amount of cameras,” he said. “It’s not a real thing, even if they get a couple papers, and form contracts, they still face a legislative hurdle and a scale hurdle. They’d need 5,000 bike lane cameras. When is that gonna happen?”

There is some legal gray area, countered Marco Conner DiAquoi of Transportation Alternatives, who pointed out the city has explicit power under state law to enforce failure to yield, blocking the box, occupying a bike lane or the like — and the power to enforce those rules is not tied to any specific technology to do so. The reason the city needed express permission for speed cameras is simply because speeding was not included in the list of items that the city can enforce on its own.

“I am convinced the city has the authority, but someone may argue that because the state has explicitly preempted local New York City law on automated enforcement when it comes to speeding, red-light running and bus lane enforcement cams, then that signals an intent by the state to preempt additional automated traffic enforcement, and that the city does not have the authority,” he added.

In any event, the silver lining, Orcutt said, is that the Request for Expressions of Interest at least suggests that officials are aware the current system is failing. Anyone who rides a bike in the city knows that painted bike lanes are rarely unobstructed from vehicles — and often it’s the city’s own cops breaking the law. And reporting the problem to 311 has proven pointless, Streetsblog has reported.

“The good news, at least, is that the city is getting the message that illegal parking is out of control. The bad news is that this isn’t really a concrete step,” he said.

But instead of again punting the problem to Albany — like officials did last week when responding to the death of Apolline Mong-Guillemin, the 3-month-old who was killed by a reckless driver who should never have been on the road — advocates and lawmakers have asked Mayor de Blasio and the DOT to support outgoing Brooklyn Council Member Steve Levin’s bill to create a citizen enforcement program, which allows anyone to report illegally parked cars — including those with city-issued placards — and in turn take home some cash.

Levin introduced the bill last November, but the de Blasio administration opposed it, saying it worried people would physically assault their neighbors for calling them out for illegal parking.

“Pass Steve Levin’s bill. Get behind the citizen enforcement if you want to bring fire to this issue — that’s the way to do it,” Orcutt said.

The Department of Transportation declined to answer specifics about its plans or the need for Albany approval, saying only, “This is an exciting RFEI and we look forward to seeing what responses we get. We will share more information on this RFEI at a later date.”

— with Gersh Kuntzman