Duluth Streets Should be Safe for Cyclists

3 09 2009

Although Duluth streets should be safe for cyclists, they’re not.  And the Duluth P.D. is now ticketing cyclists who are following state statutes, riding 3 feet away from a parked car, and not weaving in and out of parked cars.  Read the following Duluth News-Tribune article for more:

“They’re Our Streets Too”

Duluth News-Tribune – Brandon Stahl

The volunteer bike-riders who pull a trailer load of donated food to the Damiano Center each week are willing to deal with bad weather, Duluth hills and dangerous brushes with cars.

But they draw the line at traffic tickets.pxbike0902_300px

“We take it as an issue of discrimination,” said Alex Strachota, 22, who graduated from the College of St. Scholastica last year with a degree in biology.

To the Duluth police, it’s an issue of public safety.

Police officers have ticketed Strachota, Greg Schultz and Sadie Sigford twice for impeding traffic.

Every Friday and Saturday for the past two years, Strachota, Schultz and Sigford have ridden bikes up from their home at the Dorothy Day House in the Endion neighborhood to the Whole Foods Co-op on Fourth Street, picked up about 100 pounds of food that otherwise would be thrown away, and taken it to the Damiano soup kitchen to donate.

Even if the thermometer reads 20 below zero, they’ve never had problems on the route, the three say. That is until July 31, when they were riding back from the Damiano Center and were given a traffic ticket.

Two weeks later they again were stopped and ticketed. They say they plan to fight the tickets, alleging their civil rights were violated.

But the police say the bicyclists were riding in the regular lane of traffic and that their slow speed was a safety hazard.

“They were impeding traffic,” police spokesman Brad Wick said. “In both instances there was an opportunity to move to the right, and they did not.”

The volunteers don’t deny riding in the traffic lane, but they say they have the legal right to do so.

The problem stems in part from the route they take to deliver the food, Fourth Street, which, though it’s designated as a bike route and directly connects the Co-op to the Damiano, is a difficult ride because it’s a single-lane traffic and filled with parked cars along the streets.

Compounding the problem for the three riders is that their rig to tow the food takes up almost two bike-widths. To keep that rider safe from being rammed from behind, the other two follow behind two abreast.

Though they say they ride 10 to 15 mph, cars still back up behind them.

“It would be illegal for any car to pass us,” Sigford acknowledges.

So why not take another mode of transportation?

For starters, the three have no cars and use bikes as their way to get around, including to school and work. And they say they’re following bike statutes, which includes riding 3 feet away from parked cars. On Fourth Street, that means riding into the traffic lane.

“It may seem like hyperbole and we’re being over the top comparing what’s happened to us to the civil rights movement,” Strachota said. “But we feel very much marginalized when we ride on our bikes.”

Adds Schultz: “It’s not a stretch to consider ourselves as second-class citizens in regards to transportation.”

Ironically, when they got their tickets on July 31, a friend visiting from out of town, Erin Cartwright, was riding illegally — too close to a parked car — when she got “doored” — someone opened their car door and she was sent flying.

She wasn’t injured, but a block after the accident she was pulled over by a Duluth police officer, who later called for two additional squads as backup. Not to check on Cartwright, but to give Schultz and Sigford tickets.

According to the report filed by Officer S.R. Peterson, he gave the tickets because he believed the bicyclists weren’t following state statutes and they needed to follow the right side of the road and weave into empty parking spaces when possible to let cars pass.

“My intent was to educate the riders keep them from impeding traffic in the future,” Peterson wrote.

But the three insist that what Peterson recommended is unsafe — and illegal.

Which is why two weeks later, the three were riding home again from the Damiano Center in the traffic lane of Fourth Street when they were stopped by an officer who had been called for backup on the first incident. In his report, Officer Scott Williams noted that 12 cars were backed up behind the riders.

So who’s right? State statute has some gray area on this, saying that bike riders should ride as close to the right-hand curb as possible, except when it’s “reasonably necessary” to avoid cars or other conditions that “make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge.”

Generally, said James Gittemeier, a planner for the Arrowhead Regional Development Council who has designed bike routes, said bike riders have the same rules of the road as a car and can ride in a traffic lane — and riders shouldn’t weave in and out of parked cars.

But if they’re backing up traffic, should they move out of the way?

“Common courtesy says they should, but they don’t have to,” he said.

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