If you're planning on pedal-pushing your way through Downtown, watch out. The Austin Police Department has its eyes peeled for scofflaw bicyclists who don't bother to follow traffic laws. Cops confirm they've been cracking down on cyclists since August, based on a purported increase in citizen complaints, violations observed by officers, and bike-related accidents. Meanwhile, reports of mass-ticketing and heightened police scrutiny have been circulating the bike community's online watering holes, where bike advocates argue that singling out cyclists is unjust when drivers are just as likely to make poor decisions as bicyclists.
"This is one of many initiatives conducted by the Downtown-area command to make the area safer," said APD Lt. Patrick South. Officers are looking for common bike violations, said South, as well as those that have been prompting the most complaints and causing public safety concerns for bicyclists, motorists, and pedestrians. Those violations include running red lights and stop signs, crossing the wrong way into traffic, and riding on sidewalks. APD has received complaints from large businesses, community leaders, citizens, and workers Downtown, he said. "The intent isn't to issue a ticket; the intent is to gain compliance to the traffic codes we're trying to enforce," South said. "If we need to issue a citation to a repeat offender, we'll do so, but ordinarily on the first offense, we'll try to give a warning. ... If we can avoid one severe vehicle collision with this effort, then I feel it's a success."
Levels of cycling experience and education differ widely in Austin, as do attitudes on how cyclists should behave in auto-dominated traffic. The League of American Bicyclists certifies instructors to teach people how to ride in traffic. Any league-certified teacher will tell cyclists to follow the same traffic laws as cars, ride as far to the right as is safe, use front and rear lights, and never do anything to make a motorist slam on the brakes. "Bicyclists fair best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles," said LAB Education Director W. Preston Tyree. However, many otherwise law-abiding riders openly justify treating red lights like stop signs because sensors that trigger the lights to change cannot detect bikes. Others argue that if no one's around, it's okay to treat stop signs like yield signs to conserve momentum. This practice is lawful in Idaho and Montana, and legislatures in both California and Oregon have considered similar stop-and-roll laws.
Regardless of the rules, there are also cyclists who simply don't know how or where they're supposed to ride, in addition to those who treat biking like an all-out, anarchistic urban rally. Meanwhile, the burgeoning popularity of fixed-gear bikes (or fixies) and their contribution to complaints of lawlessness have been hotly debated within the cycling community. Fixie riders can't stop pedaling while their wheels are in motion, making them more likely to roll through traffic lights and stop signs. These bikes were designed for track racing and are characterized by their inability to coast and the way their pedals are fixed to the wheels via the chain. The racing versions have no brakes, and it's fairly common to see brakeless fixies on the street, another controversial topic. Fixies have become wildly popular within major cities nationwide, including Austin. South said he was unaware of fixed-gear bikes and that APD doesn't discriminate based on the type of bicycle being ridden.
"While operating a bicycle in a public roadway, you are required to follow all Texas motor-vehicle laws," he said, noting that the majority of Downtown lights are on timed cycles, so bikers needn't worry about perpetually waiting at a deserted traffic light. Since August, APD has been able to obtain a level of compliance within the biking community without having to issue many citations, he said, adding that "the officer will view the totality of each situation." Still, cycling advocates say that valuable resources such as public education, creative policy-making (such as stop-and-roll laws), and better bike facilities could go a lot further.
According to records obtained from the Austin Municipal Court, a total of 108 citations have been issued to bicyclists citywide since the beginning of August. They show fines ranging from $10 to $275, averaging about $175. Two cyclists were arrested in July, one in August, and another at the Critical Mass group ride in October. So far, busted cyclists aren't claiming bogus charges or harassment, though a handful have reported officers' confusion about how to cite them as a bicyclist and inconsistent policies in the courts relating to whether bike tickets affect one's driving record.
Rob D'Amico, president of local transportation-cycling advocacy group League of Bicycling Voters, said part of the problem is that "cyclists have been marginalized for so long that they don't feel they're part of the transportation system and therefore don't always follow the rules." It's unfair to target bikes until they're fully integrated into the transportation mix, he said. He recommends that all cyclists educate themselves on safe riding, consider taking a safety course such as the Road 1 class offered by the Austin Cycling Association (www.austincycling.org), follow all traffic laws, and watch to ensure that motorists do, too. D'Amico – who has served on the Street Smarts Task Force, which advises the city on promoting biking as a mainstream transit mode – said the city "needs to get some of the recommended big signature-level bike facility projects on the table now. We're falling so far behind other cities – even those our size."
"The theory goes that if bicycles and motor vehicles follow the same rules, we'll have fewer incidents where the two conflict," South said. "Overall, patience and calmness are key to arriving at your destination." While APD wasn't able to supply documentation of the increased complaints and accidents that prompted the bike crackdown, it's likely that the rise in unlawful cycling can be tied simply to this year's widely observed rise in the number of folks bicycling for transportation. Bike transportation boosters hope the growing ranks of cyclists will not only educate themselves but become involved in related political processes, such as the ongoing update of the city's 12-year-old bike plan, which includes long-sought-after bike facilities such as off-street bikeways and more car-free bike lanes. While the likelihood of such improvements remains uncertain, there is one thing that's guaranteed: If you break the law in front of APD, you're getting busted.
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