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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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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