Philadelphia police officers biked through Center City on a mission yesterday: to make bicyclists more aware of their surroundings, their fellow travelers on the streets, and, most important, the laws they're supposed to follow.
The effort was aimed at ticketing cyclists while educating them about what constitutes good behavior (stopping at red lights, signaling to turn) and what's punishable by a fine (biking on the sidewalk, riding against traffic).
"We think this is a good way to get the message out," said Capt. Dennis Wilson of the Ninth Police District, who helped coordinate the officers fanning out from Rittenhouse Square. "We're not trying to make things harder for bikers; we're trying to make things safer."
Bicycle safety gained more attention in the last week, when The Inquirer reported that two pedestrians died last month after being struck by bicycles, and that untold numbers of people suffer serious injuries from rogue cyclists who break traffic laws.
Cyclists are subject to many of the same laws as motor vehicle drivers, but those laws are rarely enforced. The Police Department handed out just 14 tickets to bicyclists last year.
Now, police are working with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia on an education campaign and hoping to coordinate more enforcement efforts. Yesterday, members of the coalition handed out fliers with information about fines, rules, and tips for courteous biking.
Breen Goodwin, education director of the coalition, emphasized that it wasn't just bikers who could stand to brush up on their manners. Cyclists are often at the receiving end of rudeness, recklessness, and accidents because drivers and pedestrians make mistakes too, like stepping out into the road without looking.
"We all have to take responsibility for our roles in the transportation infrastructure," Goodwin said.
But the coalition opposes bills introduced this week by two city councilmen. Councilman Frank DiCicco has proposed increasing fines for cyclists who break the law, and Councilman Jim Kenney has suggested mandating bike registration for everyone over 12.
Members of the coalition say existing laws to govern cyclists are adequate. What's needed, Goodwin said, is more enforcement.
The increased attention on the biking community hasn't been entirely welcome. Some bike messengers said yesterday they felt they were being blamed for the bad behavior of a few.
"I hate people on bikes, too," said Mike Stuerze, 23, who works for Timecycle. "I've gotten hit by people on bikes many times, people who were going the wrong way or not paying attention. But not everyone does that."
Stuerze's bike is fully outfitted with brakes - some cyclists and couriers ride bikes with fixed gears and minimal or no brakes - and he said he obeys most traffic laws.
"But there are limits," he said. "If I'm less than halfway up on a one-way street and I need to go back the other way, does it really make sense to ride four blocks around the block to make sure I'm going the right way?"
Most times, he said, he'll opt for the shortcut, meaning he breaks the law for less than 30 seconds. Yesterday, though, due to the police presence, he took the long way every time.
"I try to be careful," he said. "And now I have to be extra careful."