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Councils problematic bicycle crackdown

Philadelphia Citypaper: Council’s problematic bicycle crackdown

Thursday, November 19th, 2009 at 3:00 pm
posted by Isaiah Thompson

This morning, Councilmembers Jim Kenney and Frank DiCicco introduced legislation aimed at reining in bicyclists.

The particulars: Three bills were introduced today, two as an either-or pair.

Councilman Kenney introduced two bills (co-sponsored by Councilman DiCicco) that each seek to increase fines for riding on the sidewalk (from $10 to $300), wearing headphones (from $3 to $300), and riding without brakes (a $1,000 penalty in one bill; confiscation in the other).

Councilman DiCicco introduced one bill (co-sponsored by Councilman Kenney) that would require all riders to register their bikes with the city (at a fee of $20), and mount license plates on their bikes. The penalty for not doing so would be $100.

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia – which has been a vocal advocate for bikers’ following traffic laws – has voiced its opposition to these bills.

They make two points. The first is that raising penalties while enforcement is still so lax is counter-productive and unfair.

The first step toward safer streets is equitable and consistent enforcement of traffic laws as they apply to all road users. Up to now, traffic enforcement has not been a priority. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia urges City Council and the Nutter Administration to implement immediately an equitable and consistent traffic education and enforcement program to enforce the laws that are currently on the books before City Council raises penalties, requires mandatory registration, and puts other restrictions in place.

The second, regarding bikes being required to have license plates, is that similar attempts have failed elsewhere and would simply discourage people from riding.

With regards to laws requiring registration and licensing of bicycles, the Bicycle Coalition does not support a mandatory program. Among other issues, we are concerned about the potential for a registration program to discourage riders, impose financial disincentives, and expose the City to numerous legal issues. Peer cities and states have passed and then repealed registration and licensing programs. We recommend a thorough investigation of registration and licensing programs in other cities to determine whether such programs would help or hinder efforts to achieve peace on Philadelphia’s streets.

My own opinion is that these bills, while well-intentioned, are over-reactions to a problem that’s consistently misunderstood and blown out of proportion.

There have been two deaths of pedestrians by bicyclists recently: that’s tragic. But step back and look at the number of pedestrians — or bicyclists — killed by drivers in any given period, and you’ll see that bicycles are the least of our safety woes.

These fines mostly apply to laws already in place. I think those laws are OK (although I propose you should be able to have headphones if you only use one ear bud!), but the high fines are seriously misguided.

If more Philadelphians tried riding through inner-city traffic themselves, they’d understand how scary it can be, even for the most experienced riders. Many of the people who ride on the sidewalk do so simply because they find it scary to ride with cars – and looking at the numbers of fatalities and accidents, it’s a perfectly logical fear. These riders need a little help, not fines.

Regarding headphones, The Bicycle Coalition Advocacy Director John Boyle points out the Pennsylvania law contains no prohibition at all on headphone use. The proposed fine for headphones ($300) is almost three times the fine for running a red light — which, it seems to me, is a much more dangerous offense.

To be fair to the Councilmembers, both spoke eloquently and sensibly about their bills today. Both insist they support and encourage biking in the city, and both have emphasized that these bills are open to discussion and amendments, and that they’re willing to listen.