In a recent article in The Atlantic Cities, contributing writer Eric Jaffe helps explain the “historically rocky” relationship between cyclists and police officers in New York. He writes that “riders have a reputation for flouting traffic rules — sometimes that’s deserved, sometimes merely perceived — and cops have struggled to understand which bike laws can and should be enforced.”
This very balanced article features an interview with Rich Conroy, the director of education for the Bike New York advocacy group. Mr. Conroy explains that both cyclists’ behavior and the policing of cyclists needs to change. While he sees some cyclists riding dangerously, the typical infractions that the police are issuing tickets for is not promoting a safe riding culture. The violations given out by police to cyclists often relate to riding in a bus lane or riding in a car lane near a bike path (often the result of the bike path being blocked or simply too dangerous to ride on). On the other hand, more dangerous cycling behaviour such as riding without lights at night, riding against traffic or riding on the sidewalk goes largely unpunished.
If cops and cyclists are to coexist in a more harmonious way – in NYC as well as in Montreal – several changes need to take place. Firstly, cycling laws need to be revised. Riding on city streets should be legal for cyclists even in the proximity of a bike path. There are a multitude of legitimate reasons that lead cyclists to ride on the street that is near a bike path. Paths are often blocked, too narrow, congested and used by joggers. If bike paths are designed well, connected throughout the city, properly maintained and reserved for cyclists (and not for moving trucks), cyclists will use them almost exclusively. Secondly, Police officers need training to help them better police cyclists. They tend to target the wrong violations. Instead of ticketing cyclists who treat a red light as a stop sign when no drivers or pedestrians are around, the police need to target dangerous behaviour like: erratic riding, riding through a stop sign or red light at high speeds, riding while intoxicated and riding without lights. Police officers simply need to use discretion and good judgement. Thirdly, the attitude of many cyclists has to change. By blowing through a stop sign or red light, cyclists confuse drivers and intimidate and danger pedestrians and other cyclists. By biking a little slower and by respecting all road users, cyclists might have a fighting chance to improve their poor reputation.