NEW YORK — Every workday in mid-town Manhattan, thousands of bicycle messengers delivering parcels zip through nightmarish traffic, some of them blowing shrill whistles at hapless pedestrians who get in the way.
The messengers, lacking the steel armor that protects motorists and cab drivers, thread their way among people who surge off the curbs whenever they think they can walk, or run, across the street.
Mid-town Manhattan streets have simply grown too narrow and congested to handle the tides of vehicles and pedestrians. So, the city has proposed a solution: ban the bikes, the newcomers on the scene.
"They're scaring the public to death," said Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward in July, announcing a City Hall plan to ban all bicycles from three major mid-town thoroughfares.
The problem goes beyond simple fear. Three people have died this year after being struck by bikes. That is the same number of fatalities as in all of 1986 and one more than in 1985, according to city Department of Transportation records. Most of the victims were elderly.
"Many of these bicyclists are messengers who are paid by the number of deliveries they make," Mayor Edward Koch said.
On a good day, a swift messenger may make up to 40 deliveries and earn $200, said bike messenger Stephen Athineos.
Not surprisingly, bicycle enthusiasts and the messenger companies that employ about 5,000 delivery people in mid-town Manhattan organized to fight the ban.
"If we were gas guzzlers and air polluters and took up half a city block at a stretch, like limousines, I could see this (ban) as justified," said Charles Komanoff, a spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, a local organization of bicycle commuters.
"You do get a few bad apples," acknowledged Nelson Vails, who used the speed he developed as a messenger to win a cycling silver medal in the 1984 Olympics. "If one guy screws up, it screws up all his fellow workers."
The city is proposing to ban all cyclists--not just messengers--from Park, Madison and Fifth avenues, the silk-stocking streets where many multinational corporations and banking, finance and media companies have their home offices. The ban would keep bikes off those avenues from the southern border of mid-town Manhattan at 31st Street to 59th Street, the southern edge of Central Park. Violators would be subject to a $45 fine.
Sixth Avenue and Broadway were to remain open under the ban, and bicyclists could still walk their bikes on the forbidden venues.
The ban was to be enforced from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, and was to have begun Aug. 31.
In New York, however, issues without unanimous acclaim seem doomed to litigation, and so it was with the bike ban.
The Assn. of Messenger Services, Transportation Alternatives and the national League of American Wheelmen filed suit in state court challenging the city for not holding hearings before implementing the ban.
A state judge decided that the order was issued improperly. The issue has yet to reach the state's court of final appeal.
History suggests that the city may have committed a tactical error when it decided to outlaw all bicycles, bringing the League of American Wheelman, a national association of bicyclists, into the fray.
The last time the league fought the city over the right to ride the streets of Manhattan was more than a century ago.
According to league official Doug Miller, in 1879 the city adopted a horse-drawn-vehicle-only policy in Central Park. The next year, police arrested three cyclists in the park.