28 June 2018

Fighting For Scraps At The Edge In The Mile High City

When I was writing for a local newspaper, a kinda-sorta-somewhat high-ranking (Is that vague, or what?) police officer admitted that  he didn't make arrests or even give summonses for some low-level offenses.  "Is it because you want to spend your time and energy on more important things?"

He shook his head.  When I reassured him that our conversation was off-the-record, he admitted that he doesn't give tickets or arrest people for some of those minor infractions because, well, he has committed "most of them" himself at some point or another in his life.  

Now, as I understand, here in New York, as in many other places, police officers are exempt from some of those charges.  The same holds true in Denver, where they cannot be charged with an offense they rarely ticket:  riding a bicycle on a sidewalk.

The Mile High City's statutes on this matter are similar to those in many other places:  The rule doesn't apply if the sidewalk is part of a designated bike route. Also, police who are riding their bikes as part of their uniformed duties, as well as other uniformed city, state and federal employees are exempt.  So are newspaper deliverers.

Denver police officers on the 16th Street Mall during the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Oh, one other group of cyclists is allowed to ride on the sidewalk:  Those within one block of preparing to dismount their bikes.  That alone is probably a reason why cops don't enforce the policy:  How are they supposed to know that a cyclist is going to dismount on the next block?

But the vagueness of that part of the law is not the only reason why it's infrequently enforced in Colorado's capital. According to a recent report, the officers themselves admit that cycling on some of the city's streets is simply unsafe, and the sidewalk is the only viable alternative.  

One officer added that his exemption from the law is not the only reason he violates it.  "I'm not going to get hit," he explained.  He, perhaps not surprisingly, admitted that he has never ticketed anyone for the violation.

Jill Lancatore, Executive Director of the nonprofit advocacy group WalkDenver, says that officer's perception hit the nail on the head.  Though she acknowledges pedestrians are frustrated, she cautions against making the issue one of pedestrians vs. cyclists because "So much of our public right of way are dedicated to cars that everybody else is pushed to the fringes and we're fighting for scraps at the edge of the roadway."

I have not cycled in Denver but, based on what I saw in other parts of Colorado, I imagine it's more spread-out and car-centric than my hometown or places like San Francisco or Portland. From reports I've read, streets are particularly narrow, probably as a result of constraints of construction in the mountains.  That, in and of itself, is a reason to make cycling safer and thus more enticing to more people.  

But there is another reason:  In part because of its altitude, Denver has some of the worst air quality among major American cities.  So, working to make cycling safer can only help to improve residents' health as well as safety.

Until then, cyclists, pedestrians and other non-motorists will "fight for scraps at the edge," as Lancatore says.  And cops like the one I mentioned will look the other way.

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