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City to Bicyclists: Berkeley Not in Idaho

Berkeley, California might have a reputation of a very progressive city, but when it comes to cycling, it appears to have little tolerance for cyclists who roll through stop signs. Police are justifying the crackdown on the terms of a state grant.
September 13, 2019, 2pm PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Bike East Bay

Berkeley made history in July by becoming the first city in the United States to outlaw natural gas hook-ups in new buildings—part of the city's commitment to decrease climate emissions by reducing fossil fuel consumption. Critics are now questioning if a safety campaign targeted at cyclists who fail to come to a complete (as opposed to 'Idaho') stop at controlled intersections, sends the wrong message when it comes to the environmental and health benefits of human-powered transportation.

The transportation reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Rachel Swan, found that the Berkeley Police Department has justified the ticketing campaign on the need to "to prevent collisions and fulfill the requirements of a $250,000 state grant [by the California Office of Traffic Safety] to promote good behavior on roadways."

The resulting campaign didn’t take aim at any particular group, Officer Byron White said, adding that bicycle safety enforcement was among several boxes the police had to check to meet the terms of the grant.

The grant guidelines, specified in the 2019 Highway Safety Plan [pdf] does list under "High Visibility Enforcement: Conduct enforcement operations in identified areas of high bicycle and pedestrian traffic," but doesn't indicate that it should be targeting pedestrians and cyclists." [pg. 131]

But bike advocates and city council members criticized the operation for being ill-timed and off message, saying it’s at odds with new Vision Zero policies to show the streets aren’t just for cars. And the fines are steep, set at $238 in California, but running higher after court costs.

What's unusual about the safety campaign is where the cyclists are being targeted – bike routes, including off-road paths and bike boulevards which are meant to give cycling priority over motor vehicle traffic. From the police's perspective, it may make sense – go where the cyclists are, but this sets the university city apart from its neighbors.

The strategy of ticketing people bicycling on designated bikeways sets Berkeley apart from other cities, said Dave Campbell, advocacy director of Bike East Bay.

San Francisco has focused its Vision Zero effort on building protected bike lanes and intersections that separate pedestrians from cars. Oakland has largely de-emphasized enforcement against bicyclists. In a May news release — part of the same state-funded safety program that prompted the citations in Berkeley — Oakland police highlighted bicycle safety “as a top priority” and offered tips for drivers and cyclists to watch for one another.

To be fair, police have issued almost triple the citations to motorists than cyclists and pedestrians.

Since July, Berkeley police have stopped 55 cyclists or pedestrians for alleged violations, resulting in 36 citations, according to records from the traffic enforcement division. At least two city officials were among the people cited. During the same period, police pulled over 143 motorists, issuing 106 citations from those stops.

Office White noted that cyclists pose dangers when they don’t follow the rules of the road: In the first seven months of this year, 64 collisions in Berkeley involved bicycles. In 32 of them the cyclist was deemed at fault.

Swan ends on a positive note for cyclists worried about being cited.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín expects a proposal to come before the City Council in the next few weeks, which would make cyclists who fail to halt at stop signs a low priority for police.

Hat tip to MTC News Headlines.
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Published on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 in San Francisco Chronicle
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