An Open Letter to the Baltimore Police Regarding Bicycle Citations

Dear BPD,

Firstly, thank you for your continued efforts to make Baltimore a safer city. Yours is a dangerous and stressful job, and it’s one that I’m glad I don’t have to do. Also note that the quotes from the officer may not be verbatim; I have done my best to remember them as closely as possible.

Today, like any other Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, I was riding my bicycle home to Bolton Hill from work in Fell’s Point. Traffic was heavy, as it usually is around rush hour, so when I found myself just shy of making it through the light at Aliceanna and Broadway, I first checked to see if any cars were waiting to cross, and then on seeing no oncoming traffic (from either direction) proceeded to cross the street. After safely crossing Broadway, I continued down Aliceanna Street, enjoying the brief moment of open road all to myself, glad to be riding my bike on Earth Day. At this point, I saw a police officer who was stopped in line for the same light, going the opposite direction, open his door and step into the middle of my lane. He stood there with his arms crossed. After a moment, I realized he was trying to stop me, came to a halt, and dismounted.

“What do we do at a red light?” the officer asked (his tone was more than a little gruff and condescending, but that’s not my point).

I sighed and answered that we stop.

“That’s right, you stop at a red light.” he said , “We’re going to start issuing citations to bicycles running red lights very soon, so don’t think you can get away with that again. This is your official warning.”

I don’t run lights on my bike because it’s thrilling to break the law, I run them because it’s nice to have 15 seconds to ride without a speeding hunk of metal and glass sandwiching me against a line of parked cars , any one of which could open their door at any point. I have no problem with following the rules of the road. I try to remember to use signals when I turn (which is more than many drivers—even police—in Baltimore can say, in my experience), I wear a helmet, I try to let cars pass me when I am moving slowly. I am not a perfect tenant of the road system, though I am working to be more courteous, but I do try to follow the rules that make sense. I simply don’t agree that it’s logical for bicycles to be subject to the same rules that cars are when it comes to traffic signals, and here is why:

1. Bicycles Have Greater Visibility

In a car, the driver is encapsulated. The roof supports present two large impediments to visibility, as do other cars in traffic around them. Cars are required to stop behind the crosswalk, which can severely limit their ability to see oncoming traffic at an intersection. Bicycles have no impediments to visibility, and their small size allows them to easily proceed to the point where they can accurately judge the flow of oncoming traffic.

2. Cyclists Are Less Distracted

Riding a bike in an urban setting is an aerobic, engaging activity that requires full attention both mentally and physically. To text and ride a bicycle simultaneously would be foolhardy and perilous (likewise in driving, yet here we are). As a result of our vulnerability on the roads, cyclists are generally far more alert than our fossil-fueled contemporaries, and thus far less likely to unthinkingly roll into oncoming traffic due to relaxed signal laws.

3. Bikes ≠ Cars

This is the big one. Holding bicycles to the same rules and regulations that cars are held to is a ridiculous idea because they are entirely different vehicles. As Randy Cohen says in his New York Times Opinion piece, bicyclists are not cars nor pedestrians,

“We are a third thing, a distinct mode of transportation, requiring different practices and different rules. This is understood in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where nearly everyone of every age cycles. These cities treat bikes like bikes.”

The fact is that bicycles aren’t recognized in Baltimore. Dedicated bike lanes along busy commuter routes are few and far between (slapping a sharrow in a parking or turning lane doesn’t really count), and there are no dedicated signals. Cars have roads, pedestrians have sidewalks. Cars have traffic lights, pedestrians have walk/don’t walk signals. In order for cyclists to respect the rules of the road, the road needs to respect the cyclists.

However, this letter is addressed to the Baltimore Police Department, which is not the branch of government responsible for the planning and implementation of bike lanes, dedicated signals, &c. What the BPD can do to make our roads more bike-friendly is simple: don’t ticket cyclists for running red lights when it’s safe to cross the intersection. Don’t impose restrictions on bikes when there are no working systems in place to guarantee them rights. I’m not advocating that the police allow reckless behavior from bike-riders, but some sort of crack-down against bikes running lights isn’t necessary.

There is precedent for this type of protocol: as mentioned in Randy Cohen’s article, Idaho has laws in place that grant different privileges to bicycles regarding stop lights and signs. Even though Maryland law currently requires bikers to adhere to the same duties as drivers, the extent to which this is enforced is up to the police force. You, BPD, can help make Baltimore a more appealing place to go for a ride.