- Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
The complaint has been a perennial one among those who get around more or less exclusively on four wheels: Why don’t the police ever give tickets to bicyclists who break traffic laws?
We got that question from a reader through our Austin Answered series, so we looked in it.
And the answer is, well, actually, Austin police do give tickets to people riding bicycles. The police in 2016, according to municipal court records, cited cyclists 375 times for various infractions, averaging about one citation a day.
Is that number proportional to the amount of bicycle traffic on Austin streets? That’s a much tougher question to answer, because bicycle use isn’t tracked in any detail, either by miles traveled or time spent cycling.
The tickets issued last year to cyclists in Austin included:
• 97 tickets for running a red light.
• 61 for ignoring or coasting through a stop sign.
• 49 for driving the wrong way on a one-way street.
• 24 for operating a bike without lights.
• 24 for making an “unsafe turn or movement.”
Among the 19 other types of infractions that produced tickets last year, police cited four cyclists (or perhaps the same one four times) for using a phone while riding a bike, and one for riding a bike between stopped vehicles.
That database included just over 318,000 traffic tickets. So that meant citations for cyclists amounted to 1.2 out of every 1,000 tickets written last year or, put another way, 0.12 percent of the total. People in cars therefore got about 849 out of every 850 tickets. So, do motorists make up 99.9 percent of the total traffic out there?
“We are working toward trying to get that exact data,” said Mercedes Feris, executive director of Bike Austin. She said that cycling movements can be tracked on a variety of apps. But that of course requires cooperation by a fair number of cyclists to get usable data, and someone with the time and resources to analyze that information. Feris was unaware of anyone or any group having completed such an analysis.
“I’m curious too,” she said. “I’d love to see what that data looks like.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, a detailed questionnaire filled out by a subset of people under the census process, just under 1.3 percent of Austinites used a bicycle to commute to work in the most recent year of the survey, 2015. By that measure, a larger share of the tickets should be going to cyclists.
But that figure includes only commuting trips, not the multitude of other ways people use cars, trucks, bicycles and their legs to get around. Beyond that, the percentage doesn’t take into account that many moving violations rarely or never apply to cycling: speeding, lack of a vehicle registration sticker or self-belt use, among others.
And cyclists generally travel much shorter distances while commuting, thus reducing opportunities to run a red light or stop sign, or to make an illegal turn. At least some portion of bicycle commutes occur off the road system on trails, and on neighborhood streets.
“We are generally going through less traveled streets because it’s safer,” Feris said. “And if you think about where police visibility is, it is primarily on those more travelled roads where there’s more (car) traffic.”
The most common complaint among motorists is that they see cyclists coasting through stop signs and traffic lights, often in an understandable attempt to maintain momentum because of an uphill climb after the intersection. Feris said that a cyclist in that situation gets a better, longer look at cross traffic than a motorist typically gets.
“We see a lot more, and we’re still going at a lesser speed than a vehicle would be doing making a (rolling) ‘California’ stop,” she said. “But we do understand that when reckless bicycling occurs, it puts more people at risk.”
Austin police Cmdr. Jennifer Stephenson, who supervises the department’s downtown area, said her officers are trained to ticket cyclists just as they do motorists when they see a violation.
“We think they are both equally important,” Stephenson said. “Our officers take it very seriously, especially in the downtown area where many of them are patrolling on bikes.”
She said that one problem is that bicycles don’t have any sort of identifying number, making it difficult to locate and observe a specific cyclist who has been reportedly riding recklessly.
The American-Statesman, through Fit City columnist Pam LeBlanc’s Facebook page, reached out to the cyclist community to see what its experience has been with ticketing. Several said they had gotten at least one ticket over the years, or in other cases warnings. Running stop signs appears to be the most common offense.
“Yupper. In Cedar Park,” wrote Doray Lendacky. “Fine was $216 but the judge allowed me to do 16 hours of community service.”
Cyclist Chuck Duvall wrote that while he wants people riding bikes to obey the rules of the road, and does so himself, police enforcement of cyclists is “a huge waste of time and money. Those cyclists may be annoying, but they are hardly endangering anyone….Seems like APD could/should spend more time focusing on cars and drivers that text and talk on our roads.”
Cassidy Villegan, in a comment on LeBlanc’s page, said she has logged more than a thousand miles cycling.
“I am all for police cracking down on inconsiderate cyclists that give considerate cyclists a bad name,” she wrote. “This is not a huge waste of police time. I’d rather see tickets written than more ghost bikes on city streets” for cyclists who have died.