Philadelphia police officers biked through Center City on a mission today: 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 targeted enforcement was aimed at ticketing cyclists while educating them on 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 Philadelphia Capt. Dennis Wilson of the Ninth Police District, who helped coordinate the officers fanning out from Rittenhouse Square across Center City. "We're not trying to make things harder for bikers, we're trying to make things safer."
Bicycle safety has gained attention in the past week, after 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 drivers, but those laws are rarely enforced. The police department handed out just 14 tickets to cyclists last year.
Now, police are working with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia on an education campaign, and hoping to coordinate more enforcement efforts in the future. Today, members from the coalition handed out flyers with information about fines, rules and tips for courteous biking.
Breen Goodwin, education director for 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 due to 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 is opposed to bills introduced this week by two city councilmen. Councilman Frank DiCicco has proposed upping the fines for cyclists who break the laws, 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 welcomed by some. Some cyclists who work as bike messengers, or couriers, said they feel they're 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. Today, 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."