In Amsterdam, orderly lawlessness? Credit photobyalyssa @ flickr.
In Eugene, Oregon - though a much smaller city than Portland, it too is a bastion of bike riding - today, the Eugene Police Department is planning a traffic sting - what it calls a "Focused Enforcement Operation." The sting is in order to enforce the law...and presumably give out a lot of citations (Thanks, WebikeEugene!). These types of traffic enforcements aren't unusual, but for cyclists they inevitably raise a lot of issues, because while cars have their designated place on the road, and pedestrians are supposed to, on the sidewalk, in North America cyclists are living in a sort of limbo. Cyclists are expected to obey laws and observances rarely designed with their comfort and safety in mind, and with scant dedicated, separated roads and tracks. So just how much scrutiny (and tickets) should cyclists get?For guidance it is useful to look to the Netherlands, and specifically the largest city of Amsterdam to see how cyclists are (or aren't) kept to the letter of the law. According to the blogger Henry Cutler of Bakfiets en Meer, "Everybody knows that cyclists in Amsterdam generally proceed with caution but ignore traffic signals. One waits only when it's either unsafe or the police are watching. Like it or not, that's the practice."
As Cutler told it, he was recently stopped and harangued a bit by Dutch police for running a red light, though he was not ticketed. In Cutler's experience, the police don't really enforce illegal cyclist behavior such as running red lights or cycling on the sidewalk, but they don't want to see blatant demonstrations of it, and every now and then must at least let off a little verbal steam as a face-saving mechanism.
This seems to work (in the Netherlands, at least) because cyclists are given the same respect as pedestrians and drivers. In fact, because there is at least one cycle for each Dutch citizen, pedestrians are as likely to be sometime cyclists as car drivers are likely to be sometime pedestrians. In other words, everybody cycles at one time or another.
And the result? Well, you are more likely to be murdered in the United States, according to Toby Sterling (looking at fatality statistics up to 2006) than you are to be killed while cycling in Amsterdam.
The question, of course, is whether this Amsterdam-style system can be transferred, or even if it should be, to North American big cities. While that is the type of urban mobility set-up that TreeHugger definitely endorses, we are certainly not there yet.
And in the interim, at least in my city, the pedestrians and drivers are highly irritated with cycling scofflaws. At a recent neighborhood dinner, when talk turned to cyclists it turned mean fast. The consensus among the non-cyclists was that bikers needed to obey the law, and that enforcement and education was direly needed. Among the cyclists, feelings were mixed but everyone understood that what were considered flagrant offenders - speeding cyclists hell bent on running stop signs, red lights, and scaring hapless pedestrians - were poisoning the relationship between cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers.
This would lead one to believe that police crackdown on bike scofflaws may, for the moment, be a good thing. Amsterdam-style biking in U.S. cities is still an ideal worth waiting and working for. And that would have to entail both a laissez faire attitude to scofflaws and an infrastructure that really works for cyclist safety.
To get there, we have to bike, a lot, avoid egregious infractions wherever possible, and accept some police interference to curb the worst offenders. Or? What's your opinion?
Read more at TreeHugger about biking scofflaws:
6 Ways to Diffuse Anti-Cyclist Road Rage
8 Ways to Create Utopias for Peds and Cyclists
Do Bicycle Helmet Laws Do More Harm Than Good?
Cyclists, Motorists, and the Law