Biking in Buffalo


By Michael I. Niman ArtVoice 5/7/03


Trouble began in early October of 2000.  I rode my bicycle up to the ride through window of my neighborhood M&T bank, as I had been doing for years, to quickly deposit a pay check and be off on my way.  Only on this bright fall day, a new teller was on duty.  She told me that she couldn’t take my deposit at the “drive through” window – I would have to come inside. 

I asked why, and she replied, “You need to have a car to use this window.” 

“Is that all?” I asked. She responded, “Yes.”  And I said, “OK,” and shot my deposit back through the deposit tube.  “What are you doing?  I said you need to have a car,” she chirped back at me.

“I have one.  Do you want to see the registration?”

“No,” she bellowed back, with anger building in her voice.  “You need to bring it here with you!”

I glanced back at my somewhat small luggage rack, then with a confused look on my face, I turned back to her, and pleaded, “You don’t seem to understand.  My car is BIG.  People can fit inside of my car.  I can’t bring it here on my bike.”  Cars started lining up behind me waiting to use the lane.

“You need to ride your bike home.  Get your car, and drive it back here,” she replied sternly.

“Why would I want to do that?” I asked. 

“It’s for your safety,” she explained, with tension still building in her voice.

“But I don’t get it,” I pleaded.  “You want me to ride all the way home, in traffic, get in my car, drive it all the way back here, in traffic, wait in line again, just so I can be here where I am now?  I don’t understand how that’s going to make me safer.  Bad things can happen at any point during that process.  Traffic can be dangerous for a cyclist you know.”

Frustrated, she took my deposit, warning me not to come back again without my car.

A Nest of Idiots

I telephoned the bank and asked what that strange little exchange was all about.  Tellers have the right to refuse to serve customers if they feel there is a dangerous situation, the customer service representative told me.  And a bike in the drive through lane represented a dangerous situation.  When I asked why, the rep told me that a car could hit me while I was banking, and I could be hurt.  “That sounds like a good reason to ban cars,” I replied.  “But why are you banning bikes.”  The conversation didn’t go much further.  I was told, strangely, that bikes could use the drive through ATM lane, but not the drive through teller lane, unless they had some sort of motor, in which case they could use any lane. 

It seems I had found a genuine nest of idiots.

Two weeks later I returned to the M&T Bank and again attempted to deposit my paycheck, only to encounter the same ornery bike-o-phobic teller.

I sent my paycheck and driver’s license through the vacuum tube to the teller, who told me I would have to come inside to complete my transaction.  I told her that I couldn’t.  I had no bicycle lock.  I had a full pannier bag and an attaché case strapped to my bike, and that I didn’t want to leave them outside even if I did have a lock.  And that I had just as much of a right to enjoy the convenience of the drive through window as the next person.

As we were speaking, the bank guard came up behind me, and, seemingly seeing me as a powerless bicyclist instead of a SUV-wielding he-man, mustered up the best insult he could at the moment, and told me I was a “bitch.”  I tightly gripped my brake levers, as he kept repeating, “I’m gonna fuck you up bitch.”  At this point I realized that someone in the bank REALLY didn’t want bikes at the drive through window.  I pictured Gandhi on a mountain bike as the guard circled around me moaning like a cat in heat, occasionally pushing or pulling at my arm in an attempt to get me off of the bike.  I explained to the teller inside that if she was the one who sent this asshole out here, then she could be facing a charge of complicity to felony assault when he finally went berserk. And I told her I’d like her to call the police and report a menacing madman.  Last I heard he was going to come to my house and kill me.  Then the teller called him back inside. 

Some time later, accompanied by a civil rights attorney, I met with a bank Vice President and a few other folks.  We viewed the security camera footage of the guard circling my bike.  In retrospect it was quite comical.  I seem to have held tight on the bike as if I was jumping logs and rocks at Hunter’s Creek. 

They told me that they actually have no policy against bikes using the drive through windows, then made a half-hearted apology and a bunch of promises to my attorney regarding sensitivity training for drive-through tellers and new bicycle-friendly signage at drive-through windows.  A few months later, before any of this was implemented, September 11th happened, and we all became distracted – especially civil rights attorneys.  It’s been almost three years now, and save for the installation of one well-used bicycle rack, nothing much has changed at the bank – except bank employees no longer actually physically assault cyclists.  They just refuse to serve them.  

M&T Bank does not stand out as anti-cyclist.  Their shameful misbehavior toward cyclists is not an aberration – it’s the norm.  In an auto-dependent culture, cyclists get no respect.  Worse, they are often seen as deviants – bucking the auto culture and asking for trouble.

The Accident

Two years later, almost to the day, I was riding down Elmwood Avenue when I was suddenly “doored.”  It’s one of an urban cyclist’s worst nightmares.  Dooring is when a parked car flings its door open into your path without warning.  There’s usually little if anything a cyclist can do to avoid this accident. 

I’m perfectly conscious of the threat of dooring, and hence, I was giving a wide berth to parked cars and checking windows for potential door openers.  This car’s back seat, however, was full of junk, obscuring its occupant.  It was a two door car, hence the door was longer and swung wider.  And it opened without warning just as I was speeding past, clipping my handlebar and peddle, thus flipping me 15 feet over the door and into the center of Elmwood Avenue

It all took place in slow motion.  I remember being frozen in time, upside down in mid air, looking up Elmwood Avenue at approaching traffic.  Then bang.  I was on my back looking up into the sky where a flying bicycle was frozen in midair.  Than kapow.  It landed on top of me like a loyal dog following its master.

The actual doorer was a bit player in this saga.  He should have checked his mirror before flinging open his door.  But accidents do happen.  And this one broke my arm.

The police arrived, but refused to take an accident report.  To them it was a beat-up car full of junk and a bicyclist.  Neither ranks high in a class conscious consumerist society.  The cops told me that I should come to the precinct in a day or so if I was still inclined to file an accident report – then left us losers to our business.

The 2nd Assualt

I felt that it was my duty to leave some sort of statistical bread crumb.  Cyclists get mashed down all over the streets of American cities, but reports are seldom filed, hence, it’s nearly impossible to get decent statistics about such accidents.  So off I went the next day to Buffalo ’s “D-District” precinct house.  The clerk on duty seemed genuinely confused as to why I would want to file an accident report.  I told her that the accident broke my arm and that I was angry.  I thought she’d understand this logic.  And that I needed to file the report to get my hospital bills easily paid by the driver’s insurance company. 

She checked the duty log and reported back to me that I wasn’t injured.  Painfully, I raised my arm, the one in the cast, and pointed to it with my good hand.  She repeated again that the log said there were “no injuries.”  Again I pointed to the arm.  I know you aren’t supposed to say “smart” things to cops, and I’m not prone to saying stupid things, so silence seemed to be the best option.  Finally, she asked, “Did that happen in the accident yesterday?”

I waited 45 minutes for the officers who responded to the scene of the accident to come back to the station house before being told I had to return the next day.  Another day, and another half hour wait, and finally I met up with the officers who initially told me to come to the precinct house to file the report.  Only this time they told me there wouldn’t be any report, since it wasn’t a motor vehicle accident, since I was a bicyclist.  Their jefe told me the same thing, only peppering his speech with profanity – and telling me I needed to call a lawyer and sue the driver, not file an accident report.

This is what people who study rape term as the “second assault.”    The trauma of having the legitimacy of your trauma officially denied – of being treated as less than human.  Not worthy of statistical legitimation.  It was this second assault, the one which crept up slowly, which in the long run proved more disturbing than the actual accident.  Bikes can be doored, mashed or otherwise mowed down by automobiles – but these events don’t rate as auto accidents.  And hence, for traffic planners or community activists, it’s almost impossible to calculate which roads present the biggest dangers for cyclists. 

It seemed that once I mounted the saddle of a bike, I became a bit less than human.  Or at least less than an automobile-wielding human.

Buffalo Stories

Buffalo is a small town.  I made a few telephone calls to get the straight poop on the accident report.  Were the cops right?  Can drivers kill cyclists with the same impunity with which they can run down dogs?  The answer is no.  In New York State , Bicycles are legally classified as vehicles, and with the exception of specially marked limited access highways, have the same rights to use the road as other vehicles.  And when a bicycle is involved in an accident – the proper protocol is to file a DMV standard accident report.  Police Commissioner Rocco Diina, a cyclist himself, ultimately made this clear to the D-District command – and I went back a third time to file my report.  Needless to say, they were a bit gruff, but they filed the report – albeit minus the witness statements of the responding officers.  And they had the driver’s age wrong by a factor of three – but hey, I got my accident report.

Since this initially happened last October, I’ve received many stories about police responses to bicycling accidents in Buffalo .  Some were positive, with officers gently scooping up bicycle parts to deliver home for the fallen cyclists.  And some were chilling, like the story of the 50 year old women who was doored on Elmwood Avenue and flipped into the middle of the street.  The driver who doored her ignored her as she lied there, and instead rushed into a liquor store.  The police officer who witnessed the accident from his double-parked cruiser quickly put his car in gear and rushed away as the badly bruised and scraped cyclist struggled to put herself back together.

Then just yesterday I heard tell of another cyclist getting mashed on Elmwood Avenue – this time being rear-ended by a careless driver.  Luckily she rolled clear of traffic instead of into traffic.  It’s one of those moments when we are faced with the frailty of our own lives, as we come inches from death.  When she finally got up, a heckler yelled to her that “Streets are for Cars!”  And when she tried to file an accident report she met the same run-around that I did seven months earlier.  Again, she was treated like an idiot for insisting on filling out an accident report after being involved in a potentially deadly accident.  Some things never change.  But they should.  And we should make certain that they do.

Critical Mass

Things actually are starting to change for Buffalo ’s cyclists as we’re seeing the emergence of a distinct bicycle culture.  Foremost is the emergence of the Buffalo Critical Mass cycle rides.  Bicyclists call it a celebration of the evolution of transportation, from four wheels (bad) to two wheels (good).  Participants refer to it as an “organized coincidence.”  Whatever it is, it happens on the last Friday of every month.  Bicyclists, usually about 50 or more, start gathering in front of Buffalo City Hall at 5PM .  When the mass gets critical, they take off, creating a rolling frolicking carnival of noisy bicyclists meandering through the city.  One purpose is to make motorists aware that bicycles are vehicles with a right to safely travel on public streets.  “We don’t block traffic, we are traffic,” is a common refrain heard among the [critical] massers.

Critical Mass is not an organization; it’s an international movement of bicyclists.  It happens when cyclists convene on a common spot at a set time.  Instead of riding solo through city streets, harassed by rude and reckless motorists, they band together.  There’s safety, and empowerment, in numbers.  World take note: It’s cool to bike

For the last three years, Buffalo ’s Critical Mass rides have been going strong, raising consciousness about bicyclists’ rights among both cyclists and drivers.  The rides are empowering – teaching cyclists not to fear traffic.  They provide a safe space for cyclists as they tour Buffalo ’s diverse neighborhoods.  But most of all – they demonstrate the power of community.  And Critical Massers take this home with them.  Wherever they ride, whatever indignities they suffer through, they know they are not alone.

There’s also the innovative Recycle-A-Bike program, which has bike mechanics traveling to Buffalo pubic schools to teach children how to maintain and repair bicycles.  Recycle-A-Bike also rescues discarded bike parts from the trash, rebuilding them into functional bikes which they distribute to needy people. And there’s about a dozen cycling clubs of all stripes hailing from Buffalo as well.

Psycho Drivers

And to be honest, Buffalo ’s drivers aren’t all that bad either. That’s because, for every nasty agro horn-blasting tailgating ignorant driver in Buffalo , there are hundreds of polite courteous people who give bikes a safe berth as they share the roads.  The problem is that in a typical day, an average cyclist shares the road with hundreds or thousands of cars – and it only takes one to kill you.

There are many factors behind aggressive anti-bike attitudes.  For one, many cars are sold as symbols of status and power, with little people piloting big machines down open roads on essential jaunts to the Meglo-Mart.  If you buy into the idea that a car makes you powerful and complete, then the inverse must be true of bicyclists.  Hence, how dare a powerless cyclist slow the progress of an important consumer.  This might explain the horn that startles you or the speeding mirror that almost breaks your collar bone.  But there’s more to it.  Most drivers who terrorize cyclists are just ignorant of rules of the road.

Bicycles are vehicles.  This is a point that the Buffalo Police Officers who pulled over 60 bicycles in Buffalo ’s first Critical Mass ride three years ago seem to have missed.  Captured on film by documentary filmmaker David Gracon, officers fumbled through rule books, trying to find some law that the critical massers were violating.  I had a similar conversation with an upset tailgating honking driver who was following a recent Critical Mass ride down Elmwood Avenue .  As we rode side by side down the avenue she told me we were blocking traffic.  I told her we were traffic. She told me we were moving too slow – traffic should move at 30mph.  I told her that was the speed limit, not the minimum threshold, and that I’d get real tired trying to pedal so fast.  “Then you’re blocking traffic,” she replied.  We weren’t getting anywhere.  So I pointed out that she was accusing us of a minor traffic violation – while she was in fact, by tailgating and honking at a cyclist, was committing vehicular menacing, which is a felony.  She dropped back and stopped honking.

Many people, including police officers, are unaware of the laws governing cyclists.  Bicycles must obey all traffic regulations.  In exchange they have full rights to travel unmolested on public roads.  It is illegal and dangerous, for instance, to bicycle on the sidewalk, just as it is illegal and dangerous to drive on the sidewalk.  Bikes belong in the street.  There are also specific laws governing car-bike collisions. Under New York State law, if a car and a bike collide, the cyclist is automatically covered by the automobile operator’s No Fault medical insurance – no matter what the circumstances of the accident.  This holds true for doorings and other accidents which may involve a stationary car and a seated driver.  If you are on a bike, and you collide with a car, you should get immediate medical attention without worrying about whether or not you can afford it.  It’s free. Get the driver’s license and insurance information and file an accident report.  Cyclists involved in accidents get adrenaline rushes and may be unaware of the extent of any injuries until later.  I rode off and taught a class because I was in denial about having a broken arm.  Bicyclists involved in accidents with cars, no matter how minor, should file accident reports.  And police officers should fill them out with courtesy and compassion.  This really isn’t too much to ask for of public servants – especially those whose jobs many of us are now fighting to protect. 

Who’s Really in Danger?

Cyclists should be aware of cars, but should not fear them. With the increasing popularity of cycling in Buffalo , many drivers are learning to share the road with cyclists. Others are even learning how to park their cars and get back on their bikes.  And when it comes right down to it – in the long run, cycling may be safer then driving.  Drivers who rely on cars for all of their trips are exposing themselves to what doctors call, Sedentary Death Syndrome (SDS) – a term used to describe a wide range of obesity-related disorders brought about by the lack of exercise.  Getting on a bike and commuting to work, packing your pannier bags with groceries, or just riding for the hell of it, is one of the easiest ways to combat SDS and develop a healthier lifestyle. 


To learn more about Recycle-A-Bike, or to donate resources (they need storage space for bike frames), call 851-4052.  To ride in a Critical Mass Ride, just show up at City Hall at 5:15 PM on the last Friday of any month, year round!  Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous ArtVoice columns are archived at


Copyright 2003

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