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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The Mayoral Debate at Gleason Works

I stopped by Gleason Works (1000 University Ave.) for the Mayoral Debate tonight. On the ballot are Tom Richards as a Democrat, Alex White on the Green Party ticket, and former mayor Bill Johnson as an independent. Ann C. Lewis was in present as a write-in candidate (and handing out literature outside) along with a couple other write-in candidates who were more vocally upset at not being invited to the debate. I've known White a bit through a friend of mine, and I find him to be rational, methodical, strategic, and a real lover of living life. I don't think I've ever seen Richards, and I've only had passing contact with Johnson when he was mayor or around town on occasion.

Anyway, let me lay things out in broad strokes. Rachel Barnhart, acting as moderator, asked 5 pre-conceived questions then selected several more from cards from the audience. Alas, she didn't ask about the proposed RGRTA Bus Barn project on Mortimer Street nor about the City Schools, but instead found it more important to ask about suburbanite concerns about parking and about what to do with the riverfront. In general, all the candidates recognize the major issues before them and have similar directions they'd like to go in.

The differences, though, are what's key. All three candidates agreed that giant boondoggle projects failed to revitalize downtown — White cited a few, and Johnson added that he counted 27 in the past 60 years or so as part of his research as a college professor. However, only White wanted to move forward with caution. Johnson seemed almost bitter that the Renaissance Square was opposed and cancelled — he saw it as the first time in a long time that the city and county cooperated, but my perspective was less of a trophy of such an achievement and more that the county would defecate and the city would get to keep it. Richards cited value in a rivers-end marina being developed with high-priced housing adjacent; he apparently didn't hear that the real estate market's bubble burst. While Johnson and Richards play with hitting the proverbial lottery, White's "big project" was public transportation possibly using light rail — and at that, his proposal was for, at best, a modest start rather than a one-shot full system.

White also differentiated himself by understanding that he is, foremost, a champion of the people. Johnson continues to give more credence to businesses than people (and yes, I fondly recall how he was so easily contacted, often recommending people call his office and set up a lunchtime appointment). Richards was scarcely a Republican in Democrat clothing showing strong support for big business and high finance over actual people. For instance, when White proposed that abandoned houses be rehabilitated for low-income families, both Richards and Johnson jumped down his throat that (1) the houses are not worth salvaging (clearly, White was proposing for the many houses in salvageable shape), and (2) the city now has a policy to secure the houses so it is nearly impossible for people to get into them so they can be "preserved" and get sold later. Missing from the discussion is that homeless people can be paired with abandoned homes (at least temporarily) to help solve two problems.

White also proposed that Rochester attempt to supply municipal electricity, citing that the density of electrical service suits such a system and can drive utility bills down. He prefaced by acknowledging that Richards opposes the idea (purportedly because Richards was former CEO of RG&E, resigning profitably when it was sold to Energy East, then later Iberdrola headquartered in Spain). Richards countered by saying that municipal power wouldn't work because there is no reserve to tap from, adding that the utility company is a major taxpayer in the city whose revenues would need to be replaced. Obviously capacity consumed by RG&E customers would be freed up for municipal power, so his argument is essentially that it's better to spend $0.17/kwh (average what I pay) so that $0.02/kwh can go to the city and $0.10/kwh can go to profit (fictitious figures, but you get the idea) rather than paying $0.05/kwh for municipal power and making up the $0.02/kwh difference in additional property tax (for those not good at math, that's a savings of over 50% of the cost of electricity).

Anyway, in reading other media, I find they fall for the allure of Johnson and Richards slickly polished public speaking skills with Johnson and Richards having an edge with better sound bytes. However, White spends less effort perfecting his public image and more developing sound choices for the future of Rochester.

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