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Cyclists Appeal To L.A. City Council To Make Streets Safer For Riders

Regina Graham |
May 20, 2011 | 2:03 p.m. PDT


(Photo by Mike Baird, Creative Commons)
(Photo by Mike Baird, Creative Commons)
Cyclist Monica Howe vividly recalls how she was assaulted one afternoon as she rode her bicycle with a friend.

A motorist had driven his black BMW inches from her as she rode on a busy downtown Los Angeles street leaving her shaken and upset. As she confronted him at the next red light, the driver jumped out of the car yelling racial epithets at her and pushed her to the ground while she was on her bicycle.

“It was scary,” said Howe, the Communications and Design Director at the Coalition for Clean Air. “I don’t think I have ever had that degree of road rage. I’ve had people get close to me, but he was actually gunning for me.”

Cyclists feel that they are second-class citizens in a city that is well known for its love affair with cars. They think that the city is slow in making the necessary improvements for them to be safe on the road and have a number of issues with riding their two wheels in the city.

Harassment is one of those issues that they complain about; attacks on cyclists and other types of harassment occur every day and are all too common say cyclists. Many of them have their own horror stories of being attacked or harassed while riding their bicycle.

“Bicyclists being harassed happens all the time and that’s just a very sad fact about living in this city,” said Jay Slater an avid cyclist and chairman of the Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC).

Some incidents are minor and others have left cyclists seriously injured, making them high profile incidents like the 2008 Mandeville Canyon Road attacks. Now, the city is finally taking note and is trying to solve some of the major issues cyclists face. The Los Angeles City Council is considering an ordinance that would make it easier for cyclists to sue motorists who attack them. In addition to that, the Los Angeles Police Department is also being praised for their newfound relationship with the cycling community after years of criticism for their harsh treatment of cyclists.

Cyclist Joe Linton has not owned a car since the early 1990s and uses his bicycle as a primary mode of transportation around the city. As a city, Los Angeles could be doing a lot more to make it more bicycle friendly, said Linton.

“It’s certainly not a bike friendly city in terms of infrastructure,” Linton said. “I think the infrastructure tells drivers that they are legitimate and that bicyclists are not.” Los Angeles is finally getting with the program and is taking more steps to accommodate cyclists on the roads. However, some cyclists feel that is not enough.

“For the most part I would say there is not a lot of motivation either on the city council or with LADOT (Los Angeles Department of Transportation) or Caltrans (California Transportation System) that they are concerned,” said Ayla Stern, an avid cyclist and member of the BAC. “Everyone should have the ability to travel safely, we shouldn’t have to wear three tons of armor to get from their house to work in a safe way.

The city prioritizes cars and safety, transit, biking and walking are discouraged and not invested in by the city, Linton said.

Slater and other cyclists have been asking the City Council for more rights as bicyclists and to improve the city streets to make them more bicycle friendly. Roughly 2000 bicycle related accidents occur each year in Los Angeles, according to Sgt. David Krumer of the Los Angeles Police Department and a liaison for the cyclist community.

“A lot of bicycle accidents go unreported because they are usually minor in nature and nobody wants to bother with it,” Krumer said.

Slater has also been a victim of harassment while riding his bicycle around his West Los Angeles neighborhood. Motorists have tried to spit on him, throw water bottles at him, squirt water on him, yell and curse at him. For Slater, it’s most dangerous when people drive so close to him while he is on his bicycle that he feels that it could be a life threatening experience.

“You really never know when they [drivers] are going to be serious and go after you,” Slater said.

Slater’s most recent incident occurred the morning of April 28 when he and his wife where out riding their bicycles through their neighborhood. As they turned down a street, a motorist suddenly pulled out of a driveway and started driving straight toward them. At the last second, the driver moved over, but as he passed them, Slater recalls the driver had a “weird smiling look on his face.”

“For a moment, I was not sure what his intentions were,” Slater said. “That kind of harassment never feels good. He got a kick out of it obviously seeing if we would jump out of his way and it is not a pleasant feeling.”

Stern, who is a program coordinator for Jump Start at UCLA, says that she has been harassed countless times while riding her bicycle in Los Angeles. Her most severe attack was when a motorist threw oranges at her to try and knock her off of her bicycle into parked cars.

“It was really scary,” Stern said. “It was so unexpected and purely aggressive.”

The most high profile incident in recent years involving violence against cyclists is the Mandeville Canyon Road attacks where a physician deliberately injured two cyclists by slamming on his car’s brakes. One of the cyclists went through the rear windshield of the vehicle breaking his front teeth and nose and lacerating his face while the other cyclist suffered a separated shoulder after crashing into the sidewalk. The driver was convicted of deliberately injuring them and is currently serving a five-year prison term.

"That made me realize how vulnerable a cyclist is,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl. “When people get into road rage with other cars that’s problematic in itself, but if somebody gets into a road rage with a cyclists they have absolutely no protection and an incident could be deadly.” Rosendahl has introduced a city ordinance that would prohibit the harassment of bicyclists and make the streets safer for them to ride.

“This proposal, this anti-harassment proposal, allows cyclists take action independently of any reliance upon the city,” Rosendahl said. “It creates a private cause of action that allows cyclists that are the victims of discrimination on the road way to pursue the matter civilly, rather than wait for law enforcement to act.”

It targets motorists who physically assault, attempt to assault a bicyclist, intentionally injure, threaten to physically injure either by words, vehicle, or other objects and intentionally distract or attempt to distract a bicyclist.

“This gives cyclists a sense of empowerment,” Rosendahl said.

If a bicyclist takes a harasser to court and wins, the ordinance will allow the bicyclist to receive at least $1,000 award in damages, attorney’s fees and punitive damages paid for by the harasser.

“Cyclists are really vulnerable,” Howe said. “This is taking the step in the right direction.”

The City Council is expected to vote upon the ordinance in the next coming months. Other city councils have taken steps further and made harassing or attacking a bicyclist into law punishable by jail time and or fines. In Columbia, Missouri it is illegal for motorists to harass or attack bicyclists. If they do, it is punishable by a $1,000 fine and/or one year of jail time.

In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn signed the first specific Anti-Bicycle Harassment statute into law that increases penalties for drivers who attempt to harm or threaten bicyclists and makes them subject to a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.

Cyclists have long complained that the LAPD has been unsympathetic for their concerns and needs as cyclists. A cyclist recently filed a lawsuit against the LAPD claiming that he was roughed up by the police for using video last spring to capture officers as they allegedly harassed protesting bicyclists on Hollywood. Cyclists have asked city officials to educate officers on the vehicle codes as it applies to cyclists.

As a result, the LAPD reached out to the cyclists roughly two years ago by appointing Krumer as the liaison to the cycling community.

“When we embarked on this, it was a very tense situation and there was a belief in the larger cycling community that the LAPD as an organization has an anti-cycling bias,” Krumer said. “We have a very good relationship with the cycling community now.”

The LAPD is perceived as being overly harsh in the enforcement of cyclists’ traffic laws and not very sensitive to the needs of cyclists, Krumer said.

“We are trying to change that perception and in the course of our relationship with the cycling community they have brought up some very valid issues that they have had with our department and which we have taken steps to remedy,” he said.

Some of the officers are more familiar with the road rules for motorists than drivers, Krumer said.

“Since that was brought to our attention, we have already developed a training program that would educate our officers on how to actually apply our vehicle towards cyclists so that we have less of these situations involving cyclists,” said Krumer.

Cyclists can now say that they are working in a partnership with the LAPD and there is a better relationship between the two, Rosendahl said.

Rosendahl said he understands the concerns of cyclists and their complaints that the city has been too slow to deal with their problems. The city is taking a hard look at improving road conditions and he hopes that once the proposed ordinance is approved, that it will significantly help the Angelenos people riding on two wheels.

“It’s not a cure, but all it is is one more step to recognizing that our public streets are for the users not just the automobile,” Rosendahl said.



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