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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Attending TEDx Rochester 2011

Today was the third year of TEDx Rochester, held at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) TED is a lecture series that originally focused on "technology, entertainment, and design" (providing the words for the acronym) but shifted to simply, "ideas worth spreading". "TEDx" lectures are independently produced, but attempt to mimic that theme. This year, TEDx Rochester featured sixteen live discussions, two video presentations, and a proper video lecture from TED itself.

Adam Walker kicked things off talking about a project he's involved with: The Kosovo Wind Gardens. The idea is to create small electricity-producing windmills all around countries without infrastructure for a reliable electric grid. Kosovo is one example, as it has very few power plants (their largest is a 1950-designed coal-burner with disastrous emissions) and simple things like dairy milk production are hampered by unreliable power. The windmills are designed with "appropriate technology" in mind: not just something from an industrialized nation, but a design that relies on simple materials and manual labor (rather than efficiency of mass-production) to better suit local self-sustainability. I was impressed with Walker's presentation and the keen sense of appropriateness and a focus on the people being assisted.

Next was Andrew Perry who discussed Visual Literacy and Graphic Narratives. His thesis was an attempt to show that the means of storytelling and communication are changing — whereas the poem was central to literature prior to the 16th century the novel became the dominant form starting around then, and now we are seeing a new form that integrates text with images and diagrams (in a creative, literary way, not solely for factual reference). There is a new manner of storytelling that goes with it and, while I'm not sure it will become a dominant form, it has definitely come into its own as a rich and complex literary form.

Ashley Aberg then spoke about the difficulties of changing medical thinking when it comes to gender. She centered her talk on what medicine calls "intersex" — neither dominantly male nor female. It is because the male/female binary-gender system influenced the medical community that the medical community considers it worthy of "correction" that typically involves surgically modifying the appearance of a child's genitals. Aberg's point is that there is nothing life-threatening or unnatural about intersex, and as such, it is society that should adapt to it. In some ways a radical concept, but in others, it is solely habit that keeps society's view of gender from matching what nature produces.

Next, Christopher Azzarra spoke about Improvisation: Musical Literacy Beyond the Page. As a music teacher, he observed that formal musical training does more to hamper individual music development than it helps. Since the measurement and analysis of music is so mathematical and sterile, it is hardly the place to start. Instead, he provided some examples of how natural it is for children and for professional improvisational performers to communicate with one another purely with music. Music touches us deeply because it is a fundamental part of our being.

Next was a video presentation of Raymond McCarthy Bergeron's La Lune et Le Coq — an amusing animation wherein the moon and rooster compete at the end of the night.

Dr. Tim R. Mosmann, Ph. D. gave a presentation on the complexity of the immune system. He gave a depth-first tour of immune response and how astonishingly complex it is. At each of a half-dozen levels (from the body to the lymph nodes to the chemistry of the lymph nodes to the cellular interaction to sub-cellular and so on) a huge amount of information is known on how it all works. But then we can extrapolate the exponentially large amount of information, since each specific example was only a fraction of the interaction at that level. In essence, the amount of information is too large to aggregate, so we need new tools to handle it.

In another radical turn, next was Jim Maddison who gave a case for building the The Roc City Skate Park under the eastern terminus of the Freddy-Sue Bridge. Like the shift to accept graphic novels or intersex individuals, skateboarding is a perfectly acceptable leisure activity that offers a mix of exercise, creativity, and accomplishment. Maddison and his team have been working to break down the entrenched view of skateboarders as ne'er-do-wells and hoodlums.

Xanthe Matychak presented Make Better Stuff: the rise of social business and distributed manufacturing. She sees a major shift in manufacturing where it will be possible to build on-demand at nearly anywhere in the world, alleviating the need for the manufacture/transportation cycles we have now. I tend to agree that these new technologies are a game-changing development. But I don't think it will have as nearly a large impact as she thinks or hopes, unless we see a major change in how people view money and cost that would permit local artisans to overshadow the desire for cheap mass-production.

Emcee Howie Jacobson presented his own project: Vote Be Heard. The gist is to encourage primarily poor, primarily black, and primarily inner-city people to vote in major elections to make their world better. Although I think the effort was valiant, it did not strike me that much care was given to the voices in those communities. In other words, it seemed like some comparatively wealthy white people got together and made what they thought would be powerful messages for a group they largely do not interact with. As I see it, the inner-city poor (like the Occupy Wall Street movement) have little idea what they can do to improve their situation without the benevolence of the wealthy people who keep them there. Because of that, voting has comically little effect, and the oppressed are wise enough to know that.

Theresa B. Mazzullo followed that talking about a group she's involved with, $eedNY. They have financial resources to fund start-ups and other technology ventures. I spent her entire talk trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I was seething as I wondered why people with great ideas and people with the ability to produce things (and often some of both in one person) were not already rewarded with great wealth — and those who have great wealth have neither ideas nor means? Further, I seethed at the whole "venture capital" concept where a person with an idea presents it to those with money, and if they are given money to proceed, either they fail and the gambled capital is lost (and they probably have to pay off crippling debt regardless) or they succeed and the bulk of the profits go back to the investor, reinforcing the cycle.

In another topical twist, Jon Schull presented a history of transportation, paying particular attention to bicycling and human-powered vehicles. Although his talk was interesting and sometimes enlightening, it lacked a call-to-action punch. Rather, it seemed to advise going along for the ride and to be prepared for things to change in the future. Having lived a zero-automobile lifestyle for 4 months now, I feel deeply relieved that I need not worry about all the maintenance owning an automobile brings. I tend to work from broad goals — even in 1994 when I bought my Civic, I was already thinking about rising gas prices (which never hit until 10 years on), and since then, I tended to steer my life toward eliminating the need for a car. Having finally achieved that, I feel well positioned for the future. I advise people to do the same: it's much easier to plan to live close to work 10 years from now than it is to try and achieve next week, so start now thinking how to adapt to our world in 10 years.

Mark Noble presented some recent developments in stem-cell research. Again, an informative lecture, but pretty much just that. And again, part of me gets annoyed that (in America, at least) this lifesaving technology is reserved for the rich people who can afford it. It's kind of disheartening to know that I'm less valuable as a person than someone else.

Triggering more irritation was Hasan Elahi's video lecture from TED titled Hasan Elahi: FBI, here I am!. In this case, I was annoyed with the totalitarian police state we live in, not in Elahi's lecture. He talked about how he was interrogated by airport security because of a name mix-up and how he now lives his life under constant government scrutiny. His solution was to publish the minutia of his life: he uses his smart-phone to periodically (and frequently) document his whereabouts along with other things like photos of his hotel rooms or the urinals he uses. In the end, it's a clever redirection of energy that is resulting in a surreal art project on surveillance.

Prove Your World was next: a group of people who are working on a science-based program for children that tries to be better than either dry lecturing or vacuous demonstration. By that, they mean that (like Christopher Azzarra said about music) exploring the theoretical side of something first turns people's interest away, yet by simply offering a flashy demonstration without explanation leads to no learning (or, for that matter, curiosity) whatsoever. Their technique is to start from a simple question (in their demonstration it was, "what's a supernova?") and use demonstration as a tool for learning. Of all the lectures, this was the one I want most to get involved with. Of course their pilot episode is about how airplanes fly, and I cringe that they will reinforce the "equal-transit-time myth" of the airfoil.

Jim Gresko and Dave Vogler paired up to talk about how design is similar to jazz improvisation. I thought it was an innovative approach to discuss the concepts and it worked well.

Next was a discussion of Empathy in Education by Timothy Cottrell. He runs a program called The Center for Mindfulness and Empathy Education which pairs high-school students with people in Hospice care. Students' own testimonials revealed a surprising maturity for people in young adulthood.

BELIEVE/Visual Intervention is a film by Ian Wilson and Philip Night that documents a street-art project bringing in international talent side-by-side with Rochester's own on projects on Troup Street and the Union Street railroad bridge near the Public Market.

Relatedly, closing the show was Joan Hildebrand — "the Voice of the Public Market". She had simple, straightforward observations on adapting to change, as she went from a mid-time TV personality to being nearly unknown in this small town, but rather than harp on what she lost, she found new vitality in her work with the Market.

Overall, I found this year's TEDx Rochester to be an even and varied distribution of good discussions. I found it a little heavy on money and products in that many lectures centered on either an existing or future product or project, or gave significant focus to money and profitability. Of course, that may be more my own bias as I tend to seek TED lectures that are more philosophical or human-centered, and tend to ignore those that highlight a new technology or product. I find it a little off-putting, though, that in their re-cap blog post, they note that they "partnered with RIT & U of R to help us recruit new talent for the stage" and add that in the coming year they are "looking to also partner with groups like The Entrepreneurs Network and High Tech Rochester to expand our net." To me this means even more focus on money, product, and project rather than ideas and exploration.

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