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Is the Biker Rights Movement Gaining Momentum?

The Atlantic Çities: Is the Biker Rights Movement Gaining Momentum?

ERIC JAFFE

MAR 14, 2012

Reuters

In the past few weeks, the long march toward equal road rights for urban bike riders took two big steps forward. In late February, Berkeley instituted a law protecting riders from harassment by granting them the right to civil action, and last week San Francisco officials gave preliminary approval to legislation that requires commercial buildings to let riders take their bikes inside if there's no bike parking outside. Both laws are the second of their kind in American cities — and perhaps prelude to a wider trend.

Berkeley's anti-harassment law gives riders the option of filing a civil suit against any driver who assaults, threatens, injures, or intentionally (and maliciously) distracts them. Those acts were already illegal, of course, but they could only be prosecuted as criminal offenses before the new legislation. A successful suit under the new law will require offenders to pay three times the damages or $1,000, whichever is more, as well as attorney's fees and any other awards.

The city modeled its law on a similar one in Los Angeles — the first city to pass an anti-harassment ordinance for bike riders — which went into effect last September. Before these laws riders were left at the mercy of an urban police force often reluctant to bring criminal charges against drivers who harassed bicyclists. Writing for Streetsblog last fall, attorney Ross Hirsch said the anti-harassment law is "a recognition that that criminal enforcement of harassment and battery laws that currently outlaw certain behavior is essentially non-existent."

Across the Bay, meanwhile, San Francisco's building-access law is expected to receive final approval any day now and be signed into law 30 days later. The ordinance [PDF] will compel commercial property owners to permit bikes inside the building unless there's "secure alternate covered off-street parking" on the premises, or unless unique circumstances related to elevator safety merit an exemption.

The rule would be an important step toward fulfilling the city's goal of reached a 20 percent bike commute share by 2020. Just as parking-spot minimums promote automobile commuting in cities, it stands to reason that secure spots for bicycles will do the same with riders.

The San Francisco ordinance is an updated version of the so-called "Bikes in Buildings" law that went into effect in New York in late 2009. That legislation also requires property owners or manages to grant bicycle access to employees in commercial office buildings, but only if the building has a freight elevator and only after the tenant (or employer) requests access.

Whether or not the laws take hold in other cities will depend, in part, on their perceived strength. When Washington, D.C., flirted with an anti-harassment law this past fall, one critic called it a sign of our "increasingly litigious society." But frivolous lawsuits are highly unlikely, writes writes Christopher Kidd, who ran the media campaign for the L.A. ordinance, because riders need enough evidence to secure a lawyer and convince a judge — a point supported by the fact that "not one case has yet been brought to court" since Los Angeles enacted its ordinance six months ago.

In New York, early signs of the building-access law came back positive. Half a year into the ordinance, more than 1,700 bike commuters (mostly in Manhattan) had secured a space for their bike at work. But the movement is still struggling to gain wider acceptance in the city. Only four Brooklyn landlords had complied with the Bikes in Buildings law nine months in, reports the Brooklyn Paper, and even in Manhattan some tenants have clashed with building owners over the matter.

It may take some time for three cities to make a trend, but compared to where bicycle rights were just a few years ago, two sets of two certainly seems like progress.