Police Chief Sheppard Takes Tiny Steps to Improve Cycling in Rochester

After running some errands, I biked over to the Rundel Building of the Rochester Public Library and headed to the Kate Gleason Auditorium to hear what Police Chief James M. Sheppard had to say about what the police can do to support bicycling in Rochester. I arrived with a bias that police care nothing for cyclists and treat them as nothing more than a recreational nuisance. I had hoped to be surprised with progress.

The event was sponsored by the Rochester Cycling Alliance. Alliance Vice President Bill Collins gave a quick introduction, saying the meeting would mostly involve the audience asking questions of Chief Sheppard. He said there was a similar meeting about a year ago, and there have been a lot of changes, particularly involving infrastructure. He introduced Erik Frisch, who identified himself as the Transportation Coordinator of the City of Rochester.

Frisch gave us some stats: last year there were 16 bicycle lane-miles, and there will be 45 lane-miles at the end of the construction season this year; the city plans to add at least 10 lane-miles per year. At this point they have "Bronze" status as a bicycling-friendly city, awarded by the League of American Bicyclists in 2012. He went on to say they will be adding green "Bike Boxes" at selected intersections: at an intersection, the stop line is moved back, and the space created is for exclusive use by bicycles. He also noted the addition of a contra-flow bike lane on Troup Street, and that part of the federal funding surrounding closing the inner loop from Charlotte to Monroe is the addition of a physically-separated bike lane. A few other notes: the addition of a two-lane cycle track near UofR, several one-way cycle tracks downtown, and they are targeting 100 lane-miles by 2018.

Chief Sheppard was introduced, praised the bicycling community for its strong advocacy for safety, and set to answering questions. Here are some highlights.

Karen asked about what the Rochester Police Department (RPD) is doing with the Rochester City School District (RCSD) "Safe Routes to School" program [perhaps referring to this mini-grant program]. Chief Sheppard said nothing is being done. He said he met with School #2 and planned with elaborate program, but the principal was moved to another district so the program was canceled. At present, there are only crossing guards.

Theresa Bowick of the Conkey Cruisers said her group wanted police traffic-maintenance support for where the El Camino Trail crosses Avenue A through Avenue D. Chief Sheppard said nothing further could be done. "Police resources are like gold," he said, adding that some officers on bicycles will occasionally give support.

Scott Wagner said he was following up on a letter he sent on September 17 concerning bicycle theft, and Chief Sheppard was probably anticipating the question. In the past year, he felt there had not been any improvement in the situation of bicycle theft. Reports of theft are disregarded by 911 and viewed as an annoyance by the police. Since he's a bicycle commuter, his bike is just as important as a car (which clearly would be treated more seriously by the police). He asked how can the Police Chief, the RPD, and the community improve this situation? He went on to relay an anecdote about a bicycle thief who was caught by citizens, admitted the theft, and had the tools on him, the police ignored the situation. [The description matched pretty close with this one which I heard about.]

Chief Sheppard joked that he hadn't anticipated the question. He said that there were several things that could have been done. First, if there was an issue with the service, call 911 and ask to speak to a supervisor. Second, in the case of bicycle theft, the RPD will not send an officer. Rather, one should call 311 and get the theft documented. He added that one suggestion from the community has been to go back to registering bikes, despite that nearly all bicycles already have a serial number.

He did not say the RPD would change anything.

Jon Schull followed up on the "Safe Routes to School" program. He asked if there were any concrete goals at this point — anything specific? He added that kids ride all over the place, violating the rules of the road, because they don't have a good route to school. Can the officers assigned to each school offer assistance?

Chief Sheppard said there are 12 officers in the secondary schools, and they won't likely handle those additional roles. He pointed out that things like "Bicycle Rodeos" help students, but suggested that the bicycling community make a safety video and share it on YouTube since young people of today would watch a video but would not read a pamphlet.

Another cyclist said that enforcement and safety is not just for children. One of the biggest risks to bicycle safety is the cyclists own behavior, noting that particularly downtown, people ride on the sidewalk and engage in other illegal behaviors, yet the rules should be enforced. [Note: the NYS DMV does not forbid riding on sidewalks, per the NYS Drivers' Manual, Chapter 11, only to say it may be prohibited locally. City Code §34-6 states, "All persons over 12 years of age may ride bicycles upon any sidewalk except in the Central Traffic District". The Central Traffic District is "the area bounded by the Inner Loop".]

Chief Sheppard said that officers change their focus seasonally, and they do occasionally stop bicyclists.

Harvey Botzman of the Rochester Cycling Alliance said the RPD does very little to train officers in bicycle laws, how to ticket, or how to advise cyclists — is there any officer training? Chief Sheppard said there was one officer who did train other officers, but did not commit to making any changes.

Scott MacRae of the Rochester Cycling Alliance noted that when he lived in Portland, Oregon, enforcement is becoming more important: the police organize "sting" operations for providing information to people (both cyclists or pedestrians) who break the law — particularly when public safety is a concern. Chief Sheppard didn't commit to creating such a program, noting that pedestrians are not required to obey the rules of the road and often surprise drivers. Even new crosswalks mid-block are troubling to drivers, despite signage that New York State law requires them to stop for pedestrians in any crosswalk.

I asked a question about the occasional egregious driver — one who endangers the safety of a cyclist. I had hoped for better enforcement, but Chief Sheppard instead suggested the cyclists organize a ride with a police officer included who can presumably issue tickets.

Jon Schull said that at last year's meeting, Chief Sheppard said we'd have a police liaison — formerly, Officer Dave Smith. Chief Sheppard said he would definitely find a new officer to fill that role.

Richard Reed noted his own experience with problems with the infrastructure (drainage grates, potholes, etc.), preventing cyclists from riding in the appropriate area of the road. Eric Frisch answered, suggesting that anytime we find a problem on the road, call 311 or go to the city website. He added that if it's reported by the public, it'll be fixed in 48 hours. You'll need the specific street address or, if that is not available, the light-pole numbers.

Jack Spula, a "daily bicyclist and city resident" asked about enforcement concerning commercial traffic. He said that large commercial vehicles on residential streets are traveling too fast: can we get more enforcement on commercial traffic? Chief Sheppard didn't commit to making any changes to such enforcement.

Harvey Botzman noted that on streets with many walk-in establishments (like Park Avenue), double-parking of taxis is substantially dangerous, especially to cyclist. Ticketing or providing information to taxi operators may help. Chief Sheppard said the taxis get their permits through the RPD, so this is possible.

In all, I was surprised that cyclists tended to prefer stronger enforcement of cycling laws over stronger enforcement of motorized-vehicle laws. In all, about 15 people showed up, so it is by no means a thorough cross-section of all cyclists.

Chief Sheppard concluded by stating his action items from the meeting: replace police liaison Officer Dave Smith, explore the possibility of bike registration, and get better data to track thefts of bicycles.

I approached Chief Sheppard afterward to mention my Bike Info Card project from a few years ago as a way to avoid the hassle of creating a formal bike registration. He very much preferred the idea of registration as it would ensure officers responding could get necessary information with as minimal an interaction as possible. He took down Officer Brian Bannerman's name who I had worked with a little bit, but excused himself for a phone call and left the library.

It appeared to me that Chief Sheppard charmed the audience and promised to do nothing. It largely affirmed the bias I entered with: that the police consider cyclists nothing more than a nuisance that should be ignored.

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Excuses, Excuses …

Wow: it's been quite a while — not since The Big Dig in July.

Anyway, the reason I've been away is this:

The Tadpole Trike, partially completed frame

What would have been the way to get to Burning Man this year ...

Sometime in early 2010, I hatched a plan to build a vehicle that I would transport to Winnemucca, Nevada then pedal 100 miles to Burning Man. I knew time was too short to make it for that year, so I slated it for 2011. Well, I spent hundreds of hours on design toward the beginning of the year, a dollar amount I'm afraid to calculate on custom-designed parts as well as off-the-shelf parts, and another hundreds-of-hours on building. By Sunday, August 7, I did not yet have a pedal-able vehicle, and I had 11 days before I would need to ship it, so I put it off for another year.

The more precise plan was to ship the trike to Winnemucca by UPS Ground. I have designed it so it folds up and can be shipped in a relatively small crate (which doubles as a trailer for extra gear). I would take the train to Winnemucca and it would hopefully be waiting at the hotel — probably Scott Shady Court Motel (400 1st St., Winnemucca, NV) which I stayed at and liked a lot before. Sunday, the day before Burning Man starts (on Monday), I'd get my water jugs filled, get packed up, and head for Jungo Road (a.k.a. Nevada SR 49). From there I'd pedal the 85 miles to 40° 46' 02.07" N, 119° 07' 12.26"W where there is a microwave antenna access road that crosses the railroad tracks. I would hope to pass the active mine at Sulphur before nightfall as there's a bit of traffic supporting it (not so much on Sunday, but on the way back). I'd take a right and cross the tracks then head due west across the Black Rock Desert, north of the Burning Man event, until I reach the barely-marked West Playa Highway which I'd take south to the main gate. After the event, I'd just reverse the trip. I estimate about 100 miles each way which could take anywhere from 10 to 24 hours depending on how fast I could go — and since I haven't tested anything yet, I really have no idea what is practical.

The vehicle itself is called a "tadpole trike" because it has three wheels and kind of looks like a tadpole with 2 wheels in front for steering and one rear wheel for propulsion. The picture shows the frame as far as I had completed it, and nearest the photographer is the mount for the pedals. I used parts from the 1994 Honda Civic I had taken off the road 2 years ago, parts from go-kart companies, bicycle parts, lots of scrap metal (mostly from bed frames), and the final drive is to use motorcycle chain for extra strength. I estimate that including the tires, it will weigh in slightly less than 200 pounds, so it's definitely not meant to win any hill-climbs.

But I did design it with a broad gearing range: a 2-speed custom shifter doubles the range of a continuous-variable Fallbrook NuVinci 360 internal hub shifter from a stump-pulling 0.2-to-1 to a mountain-bike-high-gear 3.5-to-1. In terms of gear-inches (which, if you imagine a pennyfarthing big-front-wheel bike, it's the effective diameter of that wheel) it has a range of 5.2 gear-inches to 18.2 gear-inches in low and 22.9 to 80.0 gear-inches in high. So with a pedaling speed range of 15 rpm to 150 rpm, that translates, overall, to 0.23 mph to 35 mph. And assuming I can put a maximum of 300 pounds of force on the pedal at a standstill, the lowest gearing will yield a massive 800 pounds of forward-force at the drive wheel.

I figure my goal is to just attempt it.  If I have to stop and go back, or haul the beast back broken, then so be it.  The road itself is generally pretty obvious, but I do have USGS topographic maps of the whole area along with a compass and a GPS for good measure.  I set up JayceLand to be able to accept picture-message posts like I did for the Big Dig … Verizon's map shows the last point of "coverage" to be around 40° 53' 21.534" N, 118° 26' 15.342" W which is little more than halfway, and not quite to Sulphur.

But alas, the whole idea seems to be quite distant now. Funny how a week ago I was picturing it actually happening, and now I don't even know if I'll try it in 2012 — or ever for that matter. I think I will desire it again in the future. After all, part of the beauty of it is that I can potentially be someplace where it's more than 20 miles to the nearest person. The whole trike and its testing is a separately interesting matter, but I can get that accomplished with some camping trips around here, or even just using it as a main vehicle.

We shall see!

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Another Usual Crazy Night

I decided to go out and visit Ali at Genesee Valley Park (Hawthorn Dr.) at her kickball game with The Kickball League of Rochester. The game is relatively simple and goes by fast, so I only caught a couple innings. Ali went home but I decided to go with the team to the bar. Their pick: J. D. Oxford's Pub (636 Monroe Ave.) I haven't been there in years. It wasn't bad — $4 pitchers of uninteresting domestics was a good deal — and I got to chat with some cool people on the team. Plus the team's pizza arrived really late so I decided to take Ali's share (I suspected she was very hungry.)

Afterward I was going to head to Lux but I thought I'd check out 140 Alex Bar and Grill (140 Alexander St., formerly Nasty D's) as they changed names. There were only a few people outside so I was going to skip it, but I had to stop for the intersection and ended up talking about my tall bike with them a little. One of them mentioned I should go inside because Felipe RoseMySpace link (the Native American in The Village People) was signing autographs. Well, as serendipity would have it, I had literally just listened (as in hours earlier) to a podcast of Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me! from April 10, 2010 which featured Rose as a guest. I went in and got to say hi and tell him about it. He was busy promoting a show at The Erie County Fair (5600 McKinley Pkwy., Hamburg) and was a little distracted, but thought it was kind of funny.

Then I went to Lux LoungeMySpace link (666 South Ave.) I was hanging out by the pool table for a bit when this guy comes in with one of the other new tall bikes around town! His name is Matt and he and some of his friends are working on custom bikes. Finally! It's not just me!

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Too Many Police in Rochester

This evening I was biking on my "tall bike" through The Lilac Festival today when I came to the South/Highland intersection. Police had stopped traffic to permit the pedestrians to cross. Once the people had completely cleared the intersection, I slowly rolled through next to the barrier blocking Highland before the cops released vehicular traffic. One of the cops said, "do you know I can give you a ticket for that?" I just smiled and he repeated his question so I just said, "yeah" and rode away.  [Admittedly, I made a terrible mistake: I should have stopped and answered him with, "am I being charged with a crime or am I free to go?"]

What the hell was that all about? He said nothing to the pedestrians who cut through the road, jaywalking outside the crosswalk. But once again I get to have a negative experience with the police. By riding a bike, I not only have to be responsible for a motorist hitting me [let's be real here: if I were killed by a car, you'd hear a lot of, "well, he was taking chances riding that tall bike"] I also have to deal with being hassled by the cops (just like last time).

If Officer Killjoy wasn't just a power-hungry egomaniac awarded a badge by Mayor "More Cops For More Problems", he would have actually stopped me and given me a ticket — after all, that's his job. Along with all the jaywalkers. But he was out to ensure I "knew my place" — that he was the Authority Figure. I tell you what, pig: how about you ticket the myriad of SUV's that get a tax discount for being a commercial vehicle, but that exceed the 3-ton gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) on most residential streets, and I'll start caring that you have anything to do with enforcing the law.

Why not? Here's a thought: BP Oil.

Someone riding a bike says, "we don't need oil." It's a statement that although the oil companies could go bankrupt and the economy could go to hell, people will be okay. Illegally using a commercial SUV as a commuter car is a statement of faith in infinite oil and in a vibrant and ever-growing economy. Guess which activity attracts more police attention? See, it's only through ensuring people are terrified of something (in this case, gas shortages) that they stay in line and obey cops. After all, it depends on what you think is important: a viable future for America, or an easily controlled populace.

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Dropping Plans for the "Mileage Maximizer"

I think I started thinking of a way to improve gas mileage about 5 years ago.  I have been tinkering with it on-and-off since then. One of the features of the Buick RoadMaster that Ali and I bought was the throttle-body fuel injection because I thought it would be easier to modify than the direct injection of newer engines. Despite learning lots about how I would tackle the problem, I don't think I'm going to worry about ever actually implementing it; instead, I'll focus more of my energy on human-powered vehicles like custom bicycles and such.

I read an article that included a graph of engine efficiency for a Volkswagen (I think) that plotted efficiency (horsepower per gallon of fuel) as a color against throttle position and engine RPM. In this particular engine, efficiency varied between about 5% and about 30%. One way to think of it is that for any given engine speed (i.e. 2500 RPM), the efficiency the engine converts fuel to mechanical power varies with throttle position. A rudimentary observation is that the engine is more efficient at 50% throttle than at either 5% or 95%. Also, there is a "sweet spot" — a throttle position that is the most efficient (or a range that's pretty close) — for any given engine speed.

Automotive designers have not done much with this information as far as I can tell. They try to make the "sweet spot" bigger for efficient cars, they try to set the top gear in the transmission so average highway speeds are in the sweet spot, and in a few cars, they switch off half the cylinders sometimes to try and change the sweet spot.

My idea is to change the fuel system more radically. First, switch to "throttle by wire" — make the accelerator pedal more akin to a "torque selector" than a "gas pedal". The actual engine throttle would be computer-controlled to try and maintain the most efficient engine output for its current output RPM. To control the amount of power the engine actually produces, the computer would disable fuel to suppress firing of certain cylinders at a ratio that approximates the desired power output requested at the accelerator pedal.

For example, if you're driving up a grade on the highway and need the engine to deliver 40 horsepower, the car might be running at 1800 RPM and you'd have the throttle at 40%. Let's say this gets you an engine efficiency of 12%, but at 1800 RPM, the "sweet spot" 60% throttle you can get 20% efficiency. At 60% throttle, though, the engine delivers 80 horsepower and you'd be accelerating. So the computer would turn off the cylinders half the time so the effective engine output would be 40 horsepower, but the engine efficiency would nearly double — and so would your gas mileage.

The trouble is, it's quite a time-consuming, complicated project. The first step is to measure the engine data — and that starts with building sensors and recording equipment to get a good set of efficiency and power output data for a spectrum of both throttle positions and RPM. Then it's a matter of analyzing that data to get the target throttle positions and ratio calculations to match the existing performance of the accelerator pedal. But then it gets complicated: you need a throttle actuator, an electronic accelerator pedal, and a way to send the engine computer corrected data from the exhaust oxygen sensor (i.e. turning off half the cylinders increases exhaust oxygen a lot) — probably more sensors too, and a computer to process all that information real-time. Of course you need to make it safe, and be able to record data so you can present it truthfully.

And if everything goes perfectly, it's a gamble as to how much improvement you'd actually get. The thing that kept me interested in the project was the prospect of doubling the mileage — going from 20 MPG to 40MPG. I think it's more realistic to consider a 10%-20% improvement. But without the big step of collecting data, I don't even know at all.

I promised myself this year that I'd put forth extra effort and really try to make it work. I made this promise for 3 years now, and I still have no system. So I'm relieving myself of pretending to get it done. At the end of March, I was supposed to have a working Controller Area Network (CAN) to reliably communicate data between the various microcontrollers in my system. It's now the middle of May and I have no such system. So it's time to zip up the body bag and pack this one away. I learned a lot in doing research, and I'm glad I did, but I just don't think I'm going to bother finishing it.

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Let's Talk Cycling

I went to Brighton Town Hall (2300 Elmwood Ave.) for the Let's Talk Cycling discussion. It turned out to be the featured lecture at The Rochester Regional Group of the Sierra Club meeting that night. After some Sierra Club business, Jean M. Triest was introduced. She's a Traffic Safety Specialist at The Monroe County Department of Public Safety. As a reasonably well-seasoned cyclist, her talk was a bit on the basic side for me — bikes need brakes, reflectors, a bell, and a headlight and taillight for night; bicyclists are recognized as legal drivers; ride in the same direction as traffic; use hand signals; obey traffic-control devices; be visible; be predictable; etc.

She cited a study from The League of American Bicyclists that examined the causes of bicycle accidents. She started out with some myths and the first was surprising: "traffic passing from the rear is the biggest risk to a bicyclist" is a myth. In a chart she showed me afterward, when comparing types of accidents with bicyclists, getting hit from the rear is the least likely kind of accident. The most likely cause of accidents — 25% — was riding in the wrong direction. Poor lighting is another problem cited (and cited separately from rear-end collisions).

I was getting kind of jaded about the whole thing.  For the question in my mind was, "if I do all this stuff, how much can I reduce my risk?"  As best I could tell from anecdotal experience, even if I'm a perfect cyclist, my odds are not that much better than if I was not that good.

I decided to dig around a bit and found the Crash-Type Manual for Bicyclists by Carol Tan and The University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center [although the information resides at The Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center.] It's a detailed summary of a study (although inconveniently stored in 73 separate PDF files) on the underlying causes of bicycle accidents. Indeed accidents from the rear are comparatively rare (less than 3%), much more likely on roads higher than 60 KPH (37 MPH), and much more likely in unlit areas at night.

In perusing the data, I noted that by using the same techniques to avoid an accident while driving an automobile, I can avoid the vast majority of the accident types between a bicycle and a car. From there, I can further reduce my risk by being seen: in cases where the bicyclist was otherwise not doing anything out of the ordinary, most of the accidents could be attributed to the driver not seeing the cyclist. It's rather obvious to say this, but most drivers don't want to get into an accident, even with a cyclist — and it's clear from watching a busy roadway that they're generally excellent at not colliding with stuff.

And much of the advice Triest gave was along the same lines: be seen, behave like a car, and don't not behave like a car — stand your ground. By following this advice, it's unlikely you'll ever be in an accident on a bicycle, at least with a car. And if you do get into such an accident, it can be traced to not following that advice.

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