Thursday, August 20, 2015

Relationships, Not Fines, Lead to Great Schools + Communities

Editor’s note: This post takes a detour from the usual topics covered on this blog, to address an issue I recently encountered. I share it here because there is a connection with community relations, effective communities, and effective schools.  

One of the things New Yorkers love about our city is our marvelous transportation system. Whether it’s trains, buses, bikes, or feet, New Yorkers know how to get around. And get around we do. In fact anyone who lives here and tracks their steps can tell you that without even trying, we get the recommended 10k steps a day just living our daily lives. More and more not only is this city pedestrian-friendly, but with the introduction of services such as CitibikeNYC, it’s also become bike friendly.  Or at least one would hope so.

If you’re a New Yorker, you know the rules of the road on foot and pedal. According to a New York City Transportation spokes women, most buttons are placebos. More than 90% of crosswalk buttons don’t work. When you are at a corner, you look both ways and cross when safe. Or as Time Out New York puts it in the article 51 reasons you know you’re a real New Yorker: #4. You jaywalk (and would never consider not jaywalking).

In fact, when you see someone waiting until the light changes when there are no cars coming, it can mean only one thing.

You’ve spotted a tourist.  

Not only has this become a rule of the road, but it’s also become an efficient and effective way to keep people moving more safely. Rather than moving among cars, walkers and cyclists can move on empty or less crowded roads.

When the topic came up in San Francisco, Tom Shuler of the Boise Police Department explained to the San Francisco Examiner that allowing cyclists to yield, rather than stop, “makes the road safer for cyclists because it gets them out of the way of cars.”

This is a community norm. The common sense way we operate in New York.

But perhaps not anymore. One of the things that New Yorkers hold dear, (the effective means of getting around town) is being threatened under the guise of “safety.”

Here’s my story.

On a leisurely Sunday ride home from the park using the bike lane, on a street that was devoid of moving cars or pedestrians, my friend looked and crossed the street. He turned around and said to me and my other friend that there were no cars coming down the street. We looked just to be doubly sure and did the same.

I saw a police car.

Good to see.  

Biking is great for the environment, but it could be a lot safer. The police need to crack down on some of the hazards plaguing the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. The streets lined with endless double-parked cars in bike lines that cause cyclists to have to operate unsafely. Cars driving in the bike line. Or maybe they’ll finally go after those reckless dirt bikers. The ones plowing through streets with altered mufflers doing wheelies. There are also reckless cyclists intentionally going the wrong direction endangering other cyclists and pedestrians.  There are also pedestrians that don’t care if cars are coming. They’ll dart out in the midst of traffic, seeming to take joy out of freaking out motorists and cyclists.

Next thing we knew there were sirens and lights. I couldn’t imagine what was going on, on the quiet street.  We pulled over to let the officer pass. He stopped his car in the bike lane. Unfortunately, jeopardizing the safety of cyclists by using bike lanes as parking spaces is common practice by police in New York.  We approached the car to see what was going on. Was he trying to warn us of something unsafe happening in our community?

No. We soon discovered he wasn’t there to help us.

Instead, he explained the reason he was waiting on a quiet street with bike lanes was because the city was cracking down on hazardous violations that endanger pedestrians and cyclists. He explained he wasn’t trying to pick on anyone. He was just trying to help keep us safe.

What? By stopping us after safely crossing an empty street? Apparently we were lucky. Some cops are taking more extreme measures such as grabbing the handlebars of cyclists to stop them resulting in injury.  

Like fish in a barrel, police are hiding at stakeouts to snag unsuspecting cyclists on quiet streets and parking in bike lanes to slap recreational cyclists with fines of $278 a pop that goes on their record (equal to vehicle infractions) driving up insurance fees.
She's got a ticket to ride...
Just a few blocks from my home I watched a man who was supposed to protect and serve his community, doing something very different. He was not contributing to the safety of myself or others. Instead he was engaging in a form of harassment that has become commonplace around the city. Putting cyclists at risk (@CopsinBikeLanes has it’s own Twitter handle), stopping them when safety is clearly not a factor, and serving them with a fine.
As the officer drove back to his stakeout location to target others using the bike lane to ride home from the park,  I felt my usually optimistic outlook for my community dissipate. I felt the erosion of those elements that are at the foundation of a great community: Strong community ties, trust, and a supportive environment... fade away.

This erosion is even more apparent when we learn of the arbitrary rule set forth by the above-the-law officer who also glided through the light and then blocked the bike lane. He let one of the cyclists off without a ticket. She happened to be a model biking in a sports bra. He said it wasn’t her fault, since the rider in front of us told her it was clear to cross,. The same rule didn’t apply to the less scantily clad.  

Cyclists aren't the only ones who understand that these laws don't keep cyclists or pedestrians safe. Sam Schwartz who served as deputy commissioner in the city Transportation Department explained to Cityland (a site covering land use) that we should accept that bike riders shouldn’t have to follow all of the rules established for car drivers since cyclists navigate the road more like pedestrians than cars. For example, he says we should allow for turns on red after stops and when there are no pedestrians.

A city purporting to work to improve frayed police-community relations and foster a supportive environment, shouldn’t have cops targeting citizens on a leisurely ride home from the park. Ticketing citizens for infractions that do not jeopardize anyone’s well being does not make a community safer. Instead it puts up barriers and strains relations between our citizens and those whose jobs are supposed to be to serve them.  

New York and all the communities across our country can do better. Some places are taking action. Let’s get New York City to be a place where rather than harassed and ticketed our residents feel served and protected.

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