The Line Between Enforcement and Harassment

Bicycle Commuter

On a Memorial Day weekend evening ride, I began to think about all the changes involved in making a city bicycle friendly. Much of the talk is about bike lanes, bicycle paths or parking. But there is little discussion of culture and how that affects law enforcement. What does it take to create a bicycle friendly culture in a city devoted to cars and driving?

Well, on a societal level, bicycling has to be seen not as a recreational activity, but as a means of traveling. And bicycles must be associated with adults, not just children. Such images must become pervasive throughout society, for without them, cyclists will just be seen as “lunatics who refuse to drive cars like the rest of us.”

To that end, I started thinking about the latest trend in many major cities of “cracking down” on law breaking cyclists. Several cities have increased fines and stepped up the enforcement of moving violations aimed at cyclists.

It’s not entirely clear what the goal of this enforcement is. Cyclists are singled out from other users of the road. Bicycles are viewed as a separate type of vehicle, whose operator must be reigned in. It’s almost as if those charged with law enforcement have been authorized to curtail the activities of a subset of society.

We see this at intersections in certain areas of the city where police are stationed to hand out tickets to cyclists who run red lights. While you would expect adult cyclists to understand the concept of a red light, many cyclists don’t actually know that bicycles are vehicles – and that the light applies to them. Society tells them that bikes are for fun – which takes us back to cultural views – and brings us to the subject of fines.

In the US, ignorance of the law is not a valid excuse for breaking the law. Fair enough. But what happens when a cyclist is traveling on a road designed for cars and has no way to travel freely while obeying the law?

This occurred to me when I was riding on a particular route, which annoys me to no end because it is impossible for a bicycle to trigger the traffic lights at several intersections. Somewhere, buried beneath layers of sloppily laid asphalt, there must be inductive loop vehicle detectors. Cars manage to trigger them, but without visual cues to locate the wires, there is no way to know where to position a bike to make the light turn green.

On one intersection in particular, I have tried moving my bike horizontally, one foot at a time, towards the center of the road. With each movement, I wait to see if there is any effect on the light. I’ve also tried moving the bike forward, closer to the cross road to see if that will work. Nothing has worked to date because the wires’ sensitivity is not calibrated to detect a vehicle as small as a bicycle.

Before the new law stiffening bicycle fines to as high as $150 per infraction, I used to wait for a reasonable amount of time at an unchanging red light and then, after looking for oncoming traffic, proceed through the intersection. Now, I’m not willing to take the risk. When it comes to traffic violations, police have a lot of discretion. They can forgive an infraction or penalize the vehicle’s operator to the full extent of the law.

This is precisely where the problem arises for cyclists. Police usually don’t know what’s involved in riding a bicycle and what sort of events are hindrances and dangers to cyclists. They look at intersections from the perspective of motor vehicle traffic. And, what’s more, they look at bicycles as a “nuisance.”

I’ve heard more than one cop say that bicycles should be banned from the roads. Some of them don’t know that bicycles have the same rights as cars, yet they are selectively enforcing laws against them.

When they’re standing at these intersections handing out tickets to cyclists, how many tickets do they hand out to motorists who don’t yield the right of way to oncoming bicycles? Most likely – none.

Getting back to the dilemma of traveling through a red light when the bicycle won’t trigger a green light – what’s a cyclist to do? Have you ever tried explaining to a cop that the light won’t turn green no matter how long the bicycle stands there? I have.

I once stood at an intersection where road work was underway. A cop stood a few feet in front of me, allegedly directing traffic. There were no cars behind me to trigger the light.

I asked the cop if I could go through the intersection and make a left hand turn. He told me to wait for the light to turn green. Meanwhile, there was a steady flow of traffic in the other direction, so the light didn’t turn green for me.

I went on to explain how I ride through this intersection all the time and that the light never turns green if I am there alone – without cars. He informed me that I was wrong. He held fast to his belief that a bicycle could trigger the light, despite watching me stand there for nearly ten minutes – I timed it.

Due to the stiff fines, and the presence of police, I couldn’t travel through the intersection because I was riding a bike. There existed an invisible impediment to travel created by differences in vehicles which are not considered when planning roads, or when enforcing laws.

So, when a cyclist can’t travel through a light for fear of retribution from a cop and can’t trigger the light to pass legally, the line is blurred between enforcement and harassment. All things are not equal when it comes to vehicles or operators or law enforcement. And, as long as there are separate classes of vehicles, with undefined rules for some of them, there will be no justice on the road.

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