Military and Police

Can Traffic Policy Intended to Make Cyclists Safer do the Opposite?

While I was on the job, I can’t remember one time I investigated a bicycle vs. motor vehicle collision that wasn’t the cyclist’s fault. This is not to say I didn’t, and I know other officers have and do, but I can’t remember any. I don’t have anything against bikes or bike riders. I have ridden a bike all of my life and can’t remember being without a bike since I were a four-year-old. Although, some of those ape-hanger handlebars and banana-seat contraptions were nothing to brag about.

As a cop, I rode on duty many times and served for a year, back in the late 90s, as my precinct’s mountain bike coordinator (fancy name for flat-tire fixer). I also was an assistant trainer for a class the Seattle Police Department (SPD) taught to precinct officers and the civilian Q-Patrol, the first gay bike patrol trained by a police department. They were also a Guardian Angels chapter on some of their patrol nights.

I currently ride often and have both a road and mountain bike. So, any problems I have with bikes comes from how leftist politicians have elevated the venerable conveyance to sacred heights in many American cities. If you want a quick and humorous lesson in leftist, bike-culture phenomenon, check out this YouTube clip from the TV show “Portlandia.” It’s a satirical (though uncannily accurate) look at bicycle life in the liberal la-la land of Portland, Oregon.

The Rose City is much smaller but just as bike-crazed as its big Emerald City sister to the north. But, let’s stay in Seattle for a moment. In the last several years, the city and its suburbs have engaged in the oddest effort to reconfigure street lanes (and, reconfigure is putting it diplomatically). Area governments, once securely fastened to the Obama administration’s leftist teat, and now cast into a Trumpian federal wilderness, still promote bicycle commuting to the detriment of automobile drivers.

Generally, even in sunny climes, Americans do not commute to work on bicycles—at least, not in any great numbers, as they do in France or China, especially when compared with automobiles. This is even truer in the Great Pacific Northwest, one of the hilliest and rainiest metropolitan areas in the United States. Amazingly, local politicians still can’t figure out why they build it, and they will not come.

I live in a small suburban community about ten miles north of Seattle. There is one stretch of road about a mile and a half from my place that has had its two lanes, both north and southbound, reduced to one (nicely backing up morning and evening commuter traffic) to add bike lanes that almost no one uses. Well, aside from the bike lane, they also put in a left-turn lane. Good? You tell me.

Along one section of the road, the left-turn lane runs for at least half a mile with, wait for it…no left turns! But, hey, there is an empty bike lane, so… A bike lane which, in the several years it’s been there, I’ve rarely seen an actual bicycle commuter use. In fact, when I do see the rare cyclist using the lane, it’s a recreational weekend rider, not a commuter. But I do see all those high-tax-paying drivers slogging along in their cars every morning and evening.

Every time Seattle gets a new mayor, bicycle-centric traffic policy seems to remain unchanged or made worse. So, soon after Jenny Durkan was elected mayor, while listening to a radio news tease, I was on the verge of shock as the announcer mentioned a fresh emphasis from the city’s new administration to alleviate the massive traffic congestion. Was it more traffic lanes or better parking? Umm, no. Still, with interest, I listened, hopeful, before hearing that dull thud you hear when a liberal policy drops.

What plan did the new administration come up with for alleviating driver frustration? Well, how about fewer parking spaces, road diets (reducing travel lanes), and moving drivers onto mass transit. Hmm, this smells really familiar, doesn’t it? Seattle also has this weird thing where instead of constructing bump-in curbs so buses can move closer to the sidewalk while picking up passengers so cars can pass, being Seattle, they construct bump-out curbs to ensure buses block traffic and other vehicles can’t pass without doing so illegally and at extreme risk of collision.

And here’s something even newer. After having built too few parking stalls at park & ride lots adjacent mass transit (buses and rail) stations, now the city and county want to charge drivers for those parking spaces. So, one of the perks of taking mass transit (reduced costs) gets thrown (yes, I’m going to say it) under the bus.

Most recently, the city is considering tolling cars coming into the city. Their reserve of tax-increasing ideas knows no bounds.

It’s a testament to capitalism that such a leftist city as Seattle has been able to resist the socialist’s damage to the degree it has, so far, and continues to remain as relatively successful as its been. But for how long can the business community hang on in the face of the leftist onslaught? Or, will they simply emulate California and follow it off the socialist cliff into degradation and insolvency? Just ask Amazon, one of the world’s largest and most successful businesses, which is based in Seattle. Let’s just say, they ain’t too happy lately and are looking for a new home—just like Boeing did.

This emphasis on getting folks out of their cars instead of easing their pursuits of happiness has caused some interesting political collisions. With the proliferation of streetcars, rails scar the city’s roadways. To date there have been several cyclists who’ve experienced bike wheels jamming into trolley tracks, causing crashes, leading to injuries to bikers and damage to their bikes.

In one particularly bad accident, a young woman lost her life after suffering head injuries from such a crash. In another, a trolley struck a police bike patrol officer, breaking his leg. Lawsuits have arisen out of some of these incidents. But, in leftist-run cities, bicycles rule.

Another aspect of the bike lane issue are some counter-intuitive rules. I’ll try to explain. Some bicycle control signs and pavement markings are likely making cyclists less safe. For example, there are two types of markings painted on the road warning automobile drivers that bikes use the street. One is called a sharrow, and the other is an official bike lane. Fastcompany.com agrees with me about sharrows.

A sharrow is the image of a cyclist painted on the pavement with two chevrons above it acting as arrows pointing in the direction of travel. This is supposed to let drivers know that, though there is no designated bike lane, cyclists may use the route.

The other is a dedicated bike lane. Bike lanes are lanes dedicated solely for bicycles. They are bordered by solid white lines either on both sides of the lane or on one side out from the curb. This warns drivers that cyclists, ostensibly, routinely use the roadway and that within the bike lane the cyclist has the right of way. And this is where a city puts cyclists at more risk.

When approaching an intersection on a road with a sharrow, once at the intersection, the motor vehicle has the right of way, even if the driver is making a right turn. The cyclist is obligated to yield to the vehicle ahead and remain behind as if it were another car.

On the other hand, when approaching an intersection while in a designated bike lane, the bicycle rider has the right of way and the car driver must yield to the cyclist. This applies even if the car is ahead of the bike rider, signaling to make a right turn. The driver must keep an eye on the bike in the rearview or side mirrors and wait for the cyclist to pass and only then to proceed.

So, what happens when a cyclist believes a roadway marked with sharrows is a bike lane? Or if the car driver thinks so? What happens if the bike rider expects the driver to yield and not make that right turn, but the driver does turn? And what about cross traffic when a driver, knowing he or she has the right of way at an intersection with only sharrows, stops to give the right of way to the bike? This kind of confusion can be disastrous.

A cyclist can easily be killed in any of these situations. I’ve seen it. The difference between the sharrow and a bike lane is who has the right-of-way. The similarity between the two symbols can make discerning the difference and obeying traffic rules difficult. Either way, a cyclist having the right-of-way or not, it can wind up a matter of being dead right or dead wrong.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Steve Pomper

Steve Pomper is an OpsLens contributor, a retired Seattle police officer, and the author of four non-fiction books, including De-Policing America: A Street Cop’s View of the Anti-Police State. You can read a review of this new book in Front Page Magazine and listen to an interview with Steve on the Joe Pags Show. Steve was a field-training officer, on the East Precinct Community Police Team, and served his entire career on the streets. He has a BA in English Language and Literature. He enjoys spending time with his kids and grand-kids. He loves to ride his Harley, hike, and cycle with his wife, Jody, a retired firefighter. You can find out more about Steve and send him comments and questions at www.stevepomper.com.

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