In October, two pedestrians died in Philadelphia after being hit by errant cyclists. Now, anti-cyclist sentiment is on the rise.
A NOTE: Part Two of Traffic Injustice will be the next post on the Road Rights blog. What’s happening in Philadelphia is more pressing and Bob Mionske covers that here.
By Bob Mionske
It began with a mystery.
On October 15, Philadelphia police found 40-year-old Andre Steed lying injured in the street, bleeding from severe head injuries. He was taken to a hospital, where he was placed in a medically induced coma.
There were no witnesses on the scene when police arrived, and no explanation for how Steed, a paralegal at a Philadelphia law firm, had been injured, so Steed’s colleagues put up fliers asking for information about his injury. In response, two people claiming to be eyewitnesses came forward; they said they heard a loud noise, then saw Steed and another man laying on the ground. The other man had been riding a bicycle. He got up, and admitted that he had swerved out of the path of a car and hit Steed. He adjusted his handlebars, and then fled the scene.
Police now had eyewitnesses, and a description of a suspect, and began an investigation. Then, on October 24, Steed died.
Steed was not the only pedestrian to die after colliding with a Philadelphia cyclist that month. On October 8, Tom Archie, 78, was waiting to cross the street at the intersection of Passyunk Avenue and Pierce Street, watching for an opening in traffic. When traffic abated, Archie stepped off the sidewalk, directly into the path of a cyclist who was riding against the flow of traffic on the one-way street. Unable to stop in time, the cyclist plowed into Archie, knocking him off his feet. Archie hit his head, and was knocked unconscious; he was transported to a hospital, where doctors discovered a massive blood clot and bleeding on the brain. Archie never regained consciousness; on October 25, the day after Andre Steed’s death, Archie was taken off life support, and died. The cyclist who collided with Archie had remained at the scene and subsequently sent a “beautiful letter” expressing his regrets to Archie’s widow.
And thus, within the space of a day, two pedestrians were dead after colliding with errant cyclists. Still, one detail in these reports troubles me. If two eyewitnesses saw the aftermath of a collision between Andre Steed and a hit-and-run cyclist, why did they leave Steed lying bleeding in the street? Why didn’t they call police? Perhaps Steed did collide with a cyclist, just as the witnesses claim, but the fact that they left him lying in the street raises questions about the veracity of their accounts. There may be answers to those questions, but so far, we haven’t had those answers—primarily because until now, everybody has accepted the eyewitness accounts at face value.
Nevertheless, two pedestrians had died, and regardless of whether the circumstances surrounding Steed’s death need closer examination, Tom Archie’s death was due to a cyclist who was ignoring the traffic laws. The result was a backlash so massive that it engulfed all Philly cyclists, scofflaw or not.
Philadelphia media led the charge, with an almost daily barrage of news articles and opinion columns with an anti-cyclist slant. Taking up the banner and joining the fray, two Philadelphia Councilmembers stepped forward with separate legislative proposals targeted at cyclists. Together, the proposed ordinances would:
- Increase the fine for riding on the sidewalk from $54 to $300
- Increase the fine for riding with headphones from $3 to $300
- Increase the fine for riding “brakeless” fixies from $3 to $1,000, with a provision that if the fine is not paid, the fixie would be confiscated.
- Require all bikes to be registered, and to have a license plate.
At first glance, the proposed statutes may have seemed just the thing to rein in Philadelphia’s lawbreaking cyclists. After all, there isn’t much deterrent value to a $3 fine. However, for anybody taking more than a cursory glance at the issue, the proposed statutes seemed more like political hay made at the expense of an easy scapegoat.
For one thing, it’s widely alleged that Philadelphia police do not enforce the existing traffic laws, whether the offender is riding a bike, or driving a car. To illustrate the point, consider this Youtube video, in which an overwhelming majority of vehicle operators proceed through an intersection in complete disregard of three stop signs and a flashing red light. If the laws are simply not being enforced, no amount of new legislation is going to change problem behavior.
Questions of enforcement aside, an even deeper problem with the proposed laws is that they do not address the behaviors associated with the pedestrian deaths. Consider, for example, the fact that neither pedestrian death was due to a sidewalk cyclist. Both pedestrians were injured in the roadway; Tom Archie was run down when he stepped into the street and a wrong-way cyclist he did not see was unable to stop in time, while Andre Steed was allegedly run down in the street by a cyclist who then fled the scene. Both wrong-way riding and hit and run are currently against the law, and the proposed new laws do nothing to further address either problem.
Similarly, increasing the fine for riding with headphones might increase the deterrent value of the statute, but again, neither death was alleged to be the result of a cyclist who was riding while wearing headphones.
Brakeless fixies? Same thing. Neither death was alleged to be the result of a cyclist riding “without brakes.” Yes, the cyclist who hit Tom Archie was unable to stop in time, but there was no allegation of the cyclist being on a fixie or riding his bike without brakes—he was riding the wrong direction and Archie quite innocently didn’t think to look for him. So why go after fixie riders? Because the fixie subculture is primarily a youth subculture, and youth subcultures are traditionally targeted by authorities in our society. Consider, for example, the similar societal reactions to the hot-rodders of the 1950s, in which young people were singled out for police attention based on the modifications they made to their cars. In Philadelphia, fixies were not at issue in either death, and yet the most hysterical overreaction was directed at fixie riders, with proposed fines of $1,000, or confiscation of the bike, for bikes not equipped with a brake.
Regardless of whether you think fixies should be equipped with brakes or not, think about this—when was the last time anybody proposed to confiscate the automobiles of Philadelphia’s drivers for equipment violations? And just how many accidents are Philadelpia’s fixie riders causing to justify this overreaction? It doesn’t take much probing to see that fixie riders are just the latest in a long line of youth subcultures singled out for special scrutiny by the authorities. By the time today’s fixie riders are entering middle age, it will be some new youth subculture that’s getting the stink eye from somebody with “authorita.”
And then there’s the question of whether Philadelphia even has the authority to enact the anti-fixie legislation. Under Pennsylvania law, local government is authorized to pass local traffic laws on the operation and registration of bicycles. However, local authorities are not authorized to legislate on the equipment of bicycles. Furthermore, if the state and a municipality both have legislation prohibiting a specific behavior, state law mandates that prosecution for an offense will be under the state law, rather than the local law, and if the citation is made under the local law, it will still be deemed as prosecuted under the state law. This means that Philadelphia’s proposal to fine fixie riders $1,000 or face confiscation can have no effect under Pennsylvania law, because under Pennsylvania law, the penalty for that offense is lower.
The widest net, however, was cast for all cyclists, with mandatory registration—the favorite cudgel of anti-cyclists everywhere—proposed for all Philly cyclists. At least this proposal bore some faint relationship to Andre Steed’s death, since in theory a license plate affixed to a bike may aid in identifying hit-and-run cyclists.
But back up a step and ask if hit-and-run cyclists are a significant problem in the larger context of pedestrian-versus-car dangers. Easy: they’re not. The number of hit-and-run cyclists doesn’t even come close to the number of hit-and-run drivers on the road. In fact, the number of pedestrians injured or killed by all cyclists pales in comparison to the number of pedestrians injured or killed by drivers. And that’s just looking at the problem quantitatively. When you also take the severity of injuries inflicted into account, you start to get the picture on the real safety issues pedestrians face. Think of it this way—if you had to choose one, which would you rather get hit by: a 200 pound bike/rider going 15 miles per hour, or a multi-ton SUV going 45 miles per hour? Now choose where our attention should be directed on road safety issues.
None of this is to say that reckless cyclists shouldn’t be brought to justice—they should. However, requiring cyclists to put license plates on their bikes is the least effective approach to pedestrian safety, because it does nothing to address the real safety issues pedestrians are confronted with.
But putting all other facts and reason aside, wouldn’t a license plate have helped police apprehend the cyclist who allegedly ran down Andre Steed? Maybe. Occasionally, even hit-and-run drivers are apprehended based on a license plate. But far more often drivers who flee the scene of an accident are apprehended based on a vehicle description, and corresponding damage to the vehicle. And that’s just the drivers who are caught; often such drivers are not apprehended at all. So if hit-and-run drivers, who have license plates prominently attached to their vehicles, nevertheless usually get away from the scene without eyewitness descriptions let alone the license plate number, wouldn’t that also be the case with hit-and-run cyclists? Consider this fact, for example: two eyewitnesses to Andre Steed’s fatal collision left the scene and never contacted emergency services. How likely is it then that they would have bothered to write down and report the license number of a fleeing cyclist?
Although apprehending hit-and-run cyclists is the rationale offered in support of the proposal, as is the case everywhere, it’s not really the point of the proposal. As I noted inLicense to Ride, those who call for registration of cyclists see it as a way to attack cycling; the real intent of these types of proposals is punitive.
As is always the case with such punitive measures, while it sounds practical, requiring Philadelphia’s cyclists to be registered is an unworkable idea, because nobody has yet devised a means to require cyclists in one city to register their bikes, and enforce that law when cyclists who do not reside in that city bring their bikes there. Automobile registration works precisely because it is statewide, and universally required. Bicycle registration does not work, because it is neither statewide, nor universally required.
The punitive backlash against Philadelphia cyclists was a 180-degree reversal from what had up until then been the city’s arduous courtship of cyclists—and maybe that was the point, and to be expected. In 1987, Bicycling named Philadelphia as the worst city in the country for cycling. Twenty years later, Michael Nutter was elected mayor, and in furtherance of Mayor Nutter’s efforts to remake Philadelphia into America’s leading green city, began instituting changes intended to make cycling a safe and viable means of transportation. In June, Mayor Nutter issued an executive order requiring the city to give equal treatment to pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. The city responded by creating a new east-west downtown corridor for cyclists—the first of many cycling improvements to come. That corridor was created by removing two car lanes, one in each direction, and reconfiguring them into bike lanes. Drivers who had previously believed that they had an exclusive right to the road, were suddenly confronted with the hard truth that they were going to have to share road space with Philadelphia’s cyclists.
And that is when the pushback against cyclists began, when Philadelphia allocated some road space to cyclists. The next day, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky responded to this perceived “injustice” by proclaiming, literally, his hatred of cyclists. One month later, with two pedestrians dead, the anti-cyclists in the City of Brotherly Love had their opportunistic moment to make political hay out of two tragedies completely unrelated to the new bike lanes.
But as Philadelphia’s cyclists have come under attack, they have organized their own response. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia has opposed the suggested legislation, arguing that the councilmembers are taking the wrong approach to road safety. As Campaign Director Sarah Clark Stuart notes:
Bicyclists shouldn’t be singled out when the problem is all road users – motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians – bending the law to suit their own needs, with little if any consequences. The absence of adequate enforcement has led some road users to develop bad habits that endanger themselves and others.
Alex Doty, the Bicycle Coalition’s Executive Director, highlighted just how misguided the proposed laws are when he observed that the proposed fines will “be out of whack with those imposed on motorists”:
For example, a driver running a red light is currently fined $119. The councilman proposes raising the fine for riding a bicycle on a sidewalk from $54 to $300. Bicyclists riding on the sidewalk pose no more danger than a motorist running a red light.
In fact, cyclists riding on the sidewalk pose far less danger than a motorist running a red light. “In the end,” Doty notes, “the best way to get bicyclists off the sidewalk is to engineer streets so they feel safer on the roads.”
And the pushback doesn’t end there. Philadelphia Bicycle Insurrection is a new grassroots movement that self-organized in response to the proposed bike laws. Within the space of a month, they’ve established a website, are on Facebook and Twitter, and have gained over 1,000 members. Their mission?
To push back, hard, at negative publicity, openly hostile press coverage and politically opportunistic smear campaigns aimed at bicycle users in Philadelphia. We’re here to hold politicians and media accountable to the truth.
It’s still too early to tell how all of this will play out, but one thing is certain—Philadelphia’s cyclists aren’t going to be pushed around. Stay tuned.
(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.)
This article, Philly’s Pushback, was originally published on Bicycling on December 21, 2009.