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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About Peacework Organic Farm at Thursday Thinkers

I headed to the Rundel Auditorium in The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) a little late for Thursday Thinkers. Elizabeth Henderson had already started speaking on the topic, Locally Grown: Green and Economically Viable? She farms at Peacework Organic Farm (2218 Welcher Rd., Newark).

The farm itself is owned by The Genesee Land Trust, Inc. (500 East Ave.) and leased to the farm for long-term use necessary to maintain organic methods. The farm offers people the opportunity to experience farming and to get 7 to 11 items of fresh vegetables for a full 6-month season from May 21 through November 15. The monetary cost is small, but it also requires 12 hours of farming in 3 4-hour morning shifts.

The farm is certified organic, meaning they use techniques of replenishing and recycling rather than using chemical pesticides and commercial fertilizers. They use cover crops like buckwheat to keep weeds down and to keep the soil healthy and nutrient-rich. They also maintain a "microherd" of microorganisms that work the soil year-round. In addition, they monitor reports from other farms and agricultural organizations to prepare for particular kinds of pests. Once, for instance, they sprayed their potato plants with copper to block a late blight — one of a few chemical-oriented approaches they take. More often, though, it's a matter of understanding the balance of flora and fauna to keep pest populations at bay.

They offer a Mayday Celebration on May 2 this year including a potluck dinner. In addition to Peacework Organic Farm (2218 Welcher Rd., Newark), check out The Genesee Valley Organic Community-Supported Agriculture (GVOCSA) for a similar program.

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Bob Bechtold Talks About Saving Money and the Environment at Harbec Plastics

I headed out to hear Bob Bechtold of Harbec Plastics (369 State Route 104, Ontario) discuss their techniques to become Carbon Footprint Free by 2015 — this week's Tuesday Topics discussion in The Kate Gleason Auditorium at The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) When I was there, I ran into Rochester Turning blogging machine stlo7 and, to my surprise, I posted my summary first.

Anyway, since Bechtold is in business to make money, that's obviously one of his priorities, but it goes along the lines of "Eco-Economic Decision Making" — what's now called the "Triple Bottom Line": people, planet, and profits. He's a self-described former-hippie and tried to engage investors in his ecological interests. But none took hold until he started Harbec Plastics (369 State Route 104, Ontario) on an economic basis, then steered it toward ecological goals.

He started discussing Harbec's in-house electricity generation. They have 25 30-kilowatt microgenerators that provide for the company's maximum 500 kilowatt load with 5 generators literally to-spare. They run on natural gas provided by the utility, but Harbec gets the advantage of utilizing the excess heat which is otherwise a waste product. The distributed utility model is terribly inefficient on this front: generating electricity from a heat source throws away 60%-75% of the energy in the fuel as heat, while Harbec retains it for heating and even in an absorptive chiller for air-conditioning. He claims they have measured their BTU efficiency at 70% and calculated that their methods reduce carbon dioxide production by 90% over utility production.

As such, they just use the electrical grid as backup.

The well-known wind turbine has a 250 kilowatt capacity. Their location is a "class 3" wind site: about average overall and not as good as sites closer to the lake. They use the turbine to further offset their utility consumption by about 300,000 kilowatt-hours per year, netting a cost savings of $40,000 each year and a return-on-investment on the turbine itself in 8 to 10 years. Bechtold said that one of the biggest competitive advantages is that it freezes energy cost for the 25-30 year lifespan of the turbine, since the costs are no longer attached to fuel prices.

Regardless of all these improvements, their first steps were ones of reducing consumption. The site has in-floor radiant heating, large skylights for natural lighting, and double-insulated walls. Although they don't meet the requirements yet, they are following Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building standards. They have also switched their injection molding equipment from industry-standard hydraulic systems to better, more efficient electrical systems. In addition, they added insulation to the molding machines to reduce air conditioning load and to make the equipment run more efficiently. The motors have inverter drives or soft-start for efficiency and to make the equipment last longer. Even their air compressor system is an advanced variable-speed unit. With the help of a grant, the ROI for switching to the T-8 type fluorescent fixtures is only 1.5 years and saves $38,000 each year in electricity.

Bechtold also started Northern Development, LLC (369 State Route 104, Ontario) so he could work toward scaling these efficiencies to an industrial park. If you're really jonesing for more tech-talk, that's the place to go.

During the question-and-answer, it was clear that his message of gains in the "triple bottom line" was accepted. As such, people's questions focused on how to expand his efforts. In answering one question, he said there are anti-franchise laws that prevent people from sharing electricity across property lines, making it impossible to implement in neighborhoods (hint, hint, legislators). It was only through some unique loopholes in that law was it possible for him to run Harbec as he does. However, the individual has a choice: he noted that he's installing a Freewatt furnace/generator at his daughter's house which generates electricity when it heats the house, offsetting expensive electricity (sorry Fairport Electric).

Curiously, New York State isn't so bad for small-scale electricity generation. Not only is it geographically advantaged to be ranked 17th for wind power availability, the legislature finally allowed "net metering" up to 2 megawatts, so small farms can "sell back" generated electricity at utility costs rather than the 1.9 cents per kilowatt hour you'd get from direct sales. This also means that you can use the grid for your excess capacity as it's very difficult to store electricity.

Overall, there's quite a bit of promise in it all.

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