For all its benefits, cycling is still an imperfect science for city planners and policymakers. A new report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NATCO) released on Aug. 11 found that many policies regulating cycling have unintended consequences.
Analyzing the three most common kinds of ordinances and policies (equipment, behavior and location), the report found that regulations and infrastructure overwhelmingly discourage and over-police Black and Latino cyclists, who account for the majority of bike-related citations. Meanwhile, Black cyclists have a fatality rate 25% higher than then White cyclists, according to the report’s accompanying press release.
The report states that policies regulating equipment “are typically buried deep in state, county, and municipal codes, and have minimum bearing on safety, even in name.” NACTO pointed to Kansas City, Missouri’s ordinance on tire cleanliness as an example. But more prevalent instances include bike registration and licensing.
Such laws were ostensibly created for law enforcement to facilitate the process of receiving stolen bikes. Yet the report found that police rarely instigate investigations or find stolen bikes. More often, such laws have the opposite effect, and instead prompt police to ticket Black and Brown bike riders for not registering their bikes.
Many municipalities treat bikers like automobile drivers, requiring them to do things like come to a full stop at stop signs and redlights. While these regulations are intended to ensure the safety of pedestrians and bikers themselves, the report found that “these laws are unlikely to provide meaningful safety gains because they ignore the ways in which bikes are different from cars.”
For example, bikes are not large enough to trigger a red light. This forces many bikers to engage in risky behavior like traveling parallel or behind automotive traffic which increases the chances of riding in cars’ blindspots and thus collisions. It is much safer for cyclists to pull ahead of cars to be in full view. Many cyclists do choose to treat stop lights like yield signs, but are penalized for it.
The report also found that historic underinvestment in bike-friendly infrastructure, particularly in low-income communities, increased the likelihood of dangerous cycling habits. Where proper infrastructure such as dedicated bike lanes are lacking, cyclists are forced to engage in dangerous behaviors such as riding on the sidewalk.
The report notes, while in-depth research may be lacking, “there is little reason to believe that further investigations—in more cities, of more laws, of other over-policed groups—won’t tell a similar story.”
NACTO suggests several actionable solutions, looking to cities such as Kansas City and Seattle as case studies.
In Kansas City, rooting out racist language within biking laws was a major part of rewriting policies. But that only became abundantly clear through significant data collection on the side of law enforcement. Ultimately the numbers reinforced that there were particular policies and practices that increased the unequal treatment of particular demographics, and after months of advocacy, bike inspections were eliminated.
Similarly in Seattle, further investigation of helmet laws set up by King County Department of Health found that the law was used as a pretext to stop certain demographics like people experiencing homelessness and Black and Brown people. Worried about the perception of repealing such a law, the King County City Council invested in bike and road safety education, partnering with several public safety and biking groups. After months of advocacy, the council chose to repeal the law.
NATCO also proposes short-term solutions in order to reduce traffic death and increase accessibility, including handing out free helmets, training police officers to understand why people may break the law, and robust public health and road safety education.
Marielle Argueza is Next City’s INN/Columbia Journalism School intern for Summer-Fall 2022. She’s a journalist based in New York City with more than ten years of experience. Her beats have included education, immigration, labor, criminal justice and climate. Her work in K-12 education is award-winning and she was recognized multiple times by the California News Publishers Association. She is a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School, where she was Toni Stabile Investigative Fellow. During her time earning her master’s degree, she drew from her extensive knowledge of local journalism to report stories on the city, state and national level. Her work includes a story on Harlem’s last assisted-living facility for people living with HIV/AIDS; a profile on New York State’s first Farmers Union; and a database of deaths within the Milwaukee County Jail. She is also a recipient of other fellowships and scholarships from several notable organizations within the news industry including the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA), Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN), ProPublica, and the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS).