Step One: Don’t Order Them Onto Sidewalks

by Melinda Tuhus | June 13, 2006 8:05 AM | | Comments (3)

Bicyclists will come to police headquarters and address cops. Officers will get new instructions on how to deal with two-wheeled commuters. Capt. Steve Verrelli (pictured) announced those and other new efforts in the wake of pressure on the department to improve relations with cyclists. He also noted that cyclists themselves need to start following the law.

Verrelli (pictured) is in charge of the 230 or so cops in the patrol division — the ones responsible for traffic enforcement. Police Chief Cisco Ortiz asked him to convene the group after last week’s meeting between cyclists and Mayor John DeStefano, the police chief and other administration honchos.


Next, he wants members of Elm City Cycling (the loose network of cycling advocates in New Haven, including those at the meeting) to speak at the line-ups over the summer of all the squads of city police officers, to describe “a day in the life of a cyclist in New Haven” — to illuminate the ordinances with some faces and some story lines.

Verrelli acknowledged that the New Haven police department hasn’t made bicycle/motor vehicle interaction a priority. “We don’t train for it, we don’t say much about it. The world of bicycling does not fit into the perspective of most of our guys,” he said, adding that some New Haven cops don’t know the basic rules of bicycling, e.g., that riding on the sidewalk is prohibited, which explains why many cyclists report being admonished by officers to “get on the sidewalk.”

If New Haven is going to start educating its officers about these regulations — and having cops enforce them when possible against offending motorists — bicyclists will need to clean up their act as well.

“I see [violations] all the time,” Verrelli said. “We could spend all day pulling you [cyclists] over. I think 80 percent of bicyclists don’t follow the law.”

He got no argument from those around the table. Matthew Feiner, proprietor of The Devil’s Gear bike shop on Chapel Street (pictured on the left, with fellow activist Rob Rocke,) said, “My shop is bitch headquarters” for cyclists who complain about their treatment on the streets by motorists, and sometimes by cops. “A lot of them think they have a right to run red lights and stop signs.” He sets them straight, he said. He said cyclists have to set a good example if they expect treatment in kind from motorists — and if they want to enhance their own safety.

The last major piece of the plan is a public awareness campaign to educate motorists that cyclists do indeed have the same rights and responsiblities as motorists. Ideas began tumbling out of the mouths of cops and cyclists so fast it was hard to get them all down: get an intern at Traffic and Parking who can work on a public service announcement (PSA); get funding for billboards and to run the PSA on local television stations; put a “Share the Road” insert into tax bills; post information at the Department of Motor Vehicles (“It’ll give people something to read as they wait for hours there,” quipped one of the cyclists); speak in the homerooms of juniors at area high schools, many of whom will be getting their licenses shortly; and get wording added to the state driver’s manual to make it clear that “bikes belong” as part of the transportation mix, and should not be considered just a nuisance that motorists might have to deal with, which is pretty much how the manual reads currently.

Yale grad student Joel Creswell (pictured) suggested it would be important to reach out to the Yale Police Department and to Yalies who bike, because they are notoriously oblivious to traffic, putting themselves and motorists at risk.

Verrelli designated Sgt. Bernie Somers (pictured) as his liaison with Elm City Cycling. Somers is one of the most knowledgeable officers in the department when it comes to traffic ordinances, including those about cycling. And, responding to an oft-mentioned complaint by cyclists that cops often ignore their pleas to make motorists accountable for endangering cyclists’ safety, he pointed out that traffic violations are infractions, not misdemeanors (or felonies), and as such they must be directly observed by an officer if there is to be any hope of enforcement.

Verrelli suggested meeting on a monthly basis to follow up on all the plans and suggestions that came up at Monday’s meeting. The cyclists enthusiastically agreed. ” I think we’ve finally found the right forum to get some real work done,” Creswell said. “These officers are pro-active and truly committed to solving what we all know is a very serious problem.”

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Posted by: charlie | June 13, 2006 12:33 PM

Cyclists shouldn't have to follow the same exact rules as cars. Bicycles should have a de facto "lane" running along the side of every street, allowing them to continue through intersections or travel down one-way streets when needed. It is much harder to stop a moving bicycle and get it started again than to push on the brakes of a car. This whole conversation is all about safety, right? If so, the safest thing to do would be to let bicyclists travel in their natural manner, going through stop signs (with a "rolling stop") and lights where practical, while enforcing that cars stop completely. Bicycles deserve at least some special treatment in dense urban neighborhood, not just for practicability and safety sake, but also because right now 99% of the special treatment goes to cars. Just think of all the federal highway subsidies, for one thing. Also, before you crack down on cyclists, you should crack down on jaywalking pedestrians. The sidewalk issue however, is important. Cyclists should not travel on the sidewalk when pedestrians are or may be present.

Posted by: DancesWithCars | June 15, 2006 5:13 PM

In response to Charlie:
Please understand that, despite all the things you think "should be", this is the way things are. You have equal rights on all public roads, not superior rights. If you want to be safe, you need to behave as a law-abiding, responsible adult, and lawfully cooperate with the thousands of drivers who do act safely when passing you every day.

If you want to gain superior rights in the future, then act as a law-abiding equal now to earn such rights in the eyes of society.

If you want to improve your safety even more, then take an in-depth, adult-level traffic bicycling class; just like you have to do before driving a motorcycle, big rig, or schoolbus.

See for instructors near you.
Thank you for your thought and consideration.

Posted by: Rob N | June 18, 2006 12:37 PM

I respectfully disagree with "Danceswithcars" Cyclists should demand rights superior to automobiles. The most basic premise of traffic law is public safety. There is a hierarchy, giving the most vulnerable superior rights and protections. Hence the law is biased towards pedestrians, with vehicles required to yield in most cases. Why shouldn't automobiles be held to a higher standard of behavior and be required to yeild to cyclists?

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