Urban Cycling and Digital Copyright Norms

This year, cyclists in New York City are contending with increased scrutiny from police officers, who are attempting to crackdown on any and all infractions of code. Bike Ticketing In New York, Widespread, On the Rise

Eben Weiss, Bicycling Magazine, In Crackdown on Cyclists, History Repeats Itself: "Nevertheless, this perception in New York City of bicycles as dangerous and the people who ride them as bullies has not changed. In an unprecedented investment in cycling infrastructure that gave even Portland an inferiority complex, New York City has added hundreds of miles of bicycle lanes in the past few years. As a result, the number of bicycle commuters has doubled since 2005. So, it seems, has resentment, and people have been blaming bike lanes for everything from harming local retail businesses (uh, it couldn’t have anything to do with that little recession we’re having, could it?) to somehow making the streets more dangerous for children and senior citizens, who would presumably prefer to be mowed down by cars instead of bicycles."

Filmmaker Casey Neistat was ticketed for riding outside of a bicycle lane, and made this amusing video to show how often bike lanes are obstructed:

Also this week, this video highlighting the interactions between cyclists, pedestrians and cars:

3-Way Street from ronconcocacola on Vimeo.



Cyclists in NYC have a reputation for riding aggressively, weaving in and out of traffic, ignoring red lights and riding dangerously and erratically.

In large part, cyclists perpetuate these stereotypes because neither the city's infrastructure nor law enforcement allow cyclists to ride safely while also compling with the law. A bicycle rider is much smaller and slower than the cars, trucks and buses with which he would share the roads, and much faster than – and thus dangerous to – the pedestrians who use the sidewalks and crosswalks. Absent a complete network of dedicated, physically separated, safe bicycle lanes, cyclists need to ride more aggressively in order to attempt to feel safe riding among the much larger and faster vehicular traffic. Riders who started cycling in the city prior to the Sadik-Kahn bike lane bonanza were accustomed to riding aggressively without much regard to the letter of the law, because the infrastructure did not create a respected space for cyclists to behave prudently and responsibly as cyclists. Cyclists riding in traffic lanes were (and still are) treated by motorists as interlopers into their dedicated space. Cyclists riding on the sidewalk in violation of the law were doing so because it could be safer than riding alongside traffic.

In at least two ways, copyright in the digital age also reflects a similar dynamic, with remixers and P2P file sharers acting without strict adherence to the law in order to route around the market and copyright regime knowing how to meet their needs.

During the dawn of the era of digital music, users turned to P2P file sharing when they found it impossible to legitimately buy digital downloads. Before the launch of the iTunes Music Store, 8 years ago, there was no systemic legal way to buy individual songs for a reasonable price. Buyers who were willing to pay $0.99 for a hit single, but not $12 for the album including that single might be priced out of buying the full album. So instead, they would turn to P2P in order to get the one track they wanted.

At the beginning of the P2P era, downloading MP3s over a high-speed university network or internet connection could be faster than ripping the legitimately purchased CD to MP3 on a standard computer of the time. And so many of the early P2P music pirates infringed on copyright law not as a show of protest against an unjust law, but out of a market's failure to offer a product – downloadable digital music – at any price. The original simply offered the best music acquisition experience available at the time.

For a time in the early aughts, the major labels were not only not offering the digital music product that the market sought, but seemed vigorously opposed to offering any service that was both legal and offered any level of convenience to customers. Because the labels were so worried about piracy, they were hesitant to offer convenient digital downloads at reasonable prices without ensuring that those files were locked down with DRM. It seemed like the perception on the label side was the digital downloads = piracy. Only after Apple's iTunes service offered enough DRM to satisfy the labels, but worked seamlessly enough to entice iPod users did we start to see today's market gradually emerge.

In the last 8 years, a vibrant market for digital music and video content emerged to provide a wide selection from a number of retailers in both downloadable sales (iTunes, Amazon) and streaming rentals (Rdio, Rhapsody, MOG, Netflix, Hulu). At the same time, copyright owners went to court to defend their rights against infringers. And sharing music and video illicitly over P2P has lost most of the noble reasons for its use. The vast majority of users on P2P now are doing so out of a conscious preference of piracy over legitimate access. In some cases, P2P helps fans access material when it is first released, rather than waiting for the release window to catch up to their home country. In other cases, it is because piracy provides a better user experience than the legitimate access. But in others, it's simply to avoid having to pay.

The cyclists who started riding aggressively and flaunting rules out of safety will happily follow reasonable laws once the infrastructure is in place to allow them to ride safely, quickly and conveniently throughout the entire city. There are other cyclists however, who choose to flaunt the law, ride aggressively and recklessly, salmoning against traffic as a statement of some kind. They may see themselves as engaging in "bike culture" because they are adopting the styles and norms of aggressive riders for the sake of being aggressive and edgy, rather than out of necessity.

Before the advent of popular legitimate online music services, I worried that the lack of the services would turn young music listeners towards a life of expecting all downloads for free, and not understanding that recording artists might want to make a living from their work. (This attitude persists, but hopefully is not the dominant one amongst today's youth.)

Today, New York City and its urban cyclists face a similar crossroads. Will the crackdown on traffic code violations come along with continuing progress towards a complete, safe, viable cycling infrastructure? Will cyclists have the space and respect that we need to be one of three coequal classes of users of the public space along with pedestrians and motorists? If so, then I would expect reckless cycling to decrease at the same rate that infrastructure makes compliance with all regulations safer and more efficient than recklessness.

If, however, the vociferous bike lane opponents get their wishes and start to rip out the nascent bike infrastructure, this will become a fruitless crackdown that might only serve to delegitimize bicycling as a method of transportation in New York City. (Fortunately for cycling advocates, this week has seemed to establish that Anthony Weiner is not likely to succeed Michael Bloomberg as the next mayor of New York.)

Cyclists and policymakers should learn from the music industry: the violations of law occur because compliance is largely impossible. Legal opportunities to purchase usable digital music downloads have likely had a far larger impact on P2P usage than copyright infringement suits filed against file sharers. A cycling infrastructure where bike lanes aren't systemically blocked by parking, standing and turning vehicles and where lanes don't end abruptly to force cyclists into traffic will be more effective at encouraging safe, respectful cycling than a crackdown. Preventing encroachments and respecting the cyclists' space to be able to ride safely is the only way to encourage cyclists to respect other users of the city's public space.

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