Guest Post: Law Enforcement Needs to Understand Traffic Laws

Despite years of effort, we still have a long way to go in educating police officers on the rights of bicyclists. 

It seemed like we had solved the problem, in Los Angeles at least, five years ago when the LAPD worked with bike riders and the City Attorney to clarify the laws governing bicycling, and create a bicycle training module that all street level officers were required to complete.

Yet bicyclists still encounter officers who seem to have missed, or forgotten, that training. And as architect and bike commuter Michael MacDonald learned the hard way, we still haven’t made any progress with the Sheriff’s Department. 

lasd_interaction

By Michael MacDonald

I’m frequently the recipient of harassment, insults, and aggression from drivers who don’t understand that riding on the street is perfectly legal. Commuting by bike around Los Angeles — with little-to-no bike infrastructure within a 5-mile radius of my house, I’ve come to expect the regular rage-fueled driver. And yet as frustrating as this aggression is from the motoring public, it is even more demoralizing to receive similar harassment from law enforcement personnel. Too many officers in Los Angeles aren’t familiar with the fact that a person on a bike is perfectly within their rights to control a travel lane on almost all Los Angeles streets, and that cyclists take the lane for safety.

Before I started riding a bike in Los Angeles, I had thankfully had very few interactions with law enforcement. But then in 2013, I was detained in the back of a Sheriff’s Department squad car because 2 deputies thought that a person riding a bike on the street in Rosemead didn’t look right.

Over the last 2 weeks, motorcycle officers have twice stopped me – for riding in the street, legally.

The first incident was on returning from the wonderful CicLAvia Southeast Cities on May, 15 2016. On my way home by bike, still on a high note from the event, I took Central Avenue. Despite its lack of bike lanes, Central is a critical North/South connector within South L.A. Proposed bike lanes on Central are included in the City’s Mobility Plan 2035, have widespread community support, and are needed to address Central’s horrific safety record. But frustratingly, Councilmember Curren Price has blocked the bike lanes from being installed and is working with Councilmember Paul Koretz to try to get them removed from the Plan, so they won’t even be considered in the future.

While I was waiting at a red light in the rightmost travel lane on Central at 27th Street, an LAPD motorcycle officer approached at a rapid pace and stopped inches from me. He proceeded to aggressively explain, “This isn’t your lane – you can’t ride in the middle.” I have been riding long enough to have nearly memorized California Vehicle Code, not just CVC 21202(a)(3), but 21656, 21760, and 22400 too. I knew he was wrong. And yet his tone and demeanor made it clear this wasn’t a conversation. This was a stern demand with the threat of a ticket seconds away.

As he pulled off, I wasn’t even clear on how he expected me to ride since the lanes on Central are so narrow. I stopped and took some time to compose myself after this demoralizing experience of state-sponsored harassment. Then, I continued to ride in the middle of the lane: where it’s safest when bike lanes aren’t provided, and where California’s Vehicle Code says I have the right to ride.

……..

10 days later, I was again confronted with a similar situation – but this time I had my helmet camera rolling. During the Tuesday evening rush hour on May 24th, a Sheriff’s deputy pulled up alongside me as I rode in the Wilshire Blvd bus/bike lane through Koreatown (Wilshire & Kingsley). Just as before, the deputy clearly wasn’t familiar with relevant California traffic laws, but still felt the need to tell me what I was doing would not be permitted and that I would receive a ticket if I continued on.

First, as an aside, I will say that these Wilshire bus/bike lanes are so frequently filled with dangerous scofflaw drivers that it’s a tiny bit refreshing to see them actually being patrolled, and I commend Metro/the Sheriff’s Department for efforts to try to speed up the 20 & 720 buses on this route. But this deputy seems to be completely unaware that these lanes are also for the use of people on bikes, just as the lane’s signage says.

Photo of Los Angeles’ peak hour bus/bike lane signage, credit: Marc Caswell

Photo of Los Angeles’ peak hour bus/bike lane signage, credit: Marc Caswell

He started by claiming that cyclists are not permitted to use the bus/bike lane whatsoever. After I pointed out the sign ahead saying, ‘Bikes OK,’ he said that cyclists must ride the curb edge, which is dangerous and without legal basis. Finally, he claimed that cyclists are required to get out of the way of buses. Of course, how people on bikes are supposed to accomplish this feat within this tightly sized lane with no turnouts is a mystery to me.

Just to state the obvious: this deputy is wrong on all counts. First, LADOT has designated these lanes for the use of bicycles and accordingly posted signs stating “Bikes OK.” Second, there is no requirement to ride along the curb as CVC 21202(a)(3) applies, since the lane is too narrow to for a bicycle to be safely be ridden side-by-side with a vehicle, let alone a bus. Metro’s own “Bike Guide” even instructs people on bikes to ride at the center of the lane when proceeding straight. Third, there is no requirement for bikes or slower vehicles to turn-out on a multi-lane roadway. CVC 21656, the law requiring vehicles to turn out, only applies on 2-lane highways – and even then, it only is triggered when there is a queue of 5 vehicles behind.

This isn’t the first time someone has been pulled over by LASD in a bus/bike lane in Los Angeles. In 2014, my friend, Marc Caswell, was wrongly ticketed by a Sheriff’s deputy for legally riding in a bus/bike lane on Sunset Blvd. In the end, the deputy failed to appear at the hearing, so the ticket was dismissed.

But it isn’t just being pulled over. Twice last year, I was aggressively instructed by Sheriff’s deputies to ride up onto the sidewalk to let a bus pass while in the Sunset Boulevard bus/bike lane. And when I called to report Tuesday’s incident on Wilshire, the LASD Watch Commander also appeared to be completely unfamiliar that bikes might be permitted to ride in bus/bike lanes or centered within a lane.

If I have been the recipient of these types of incidents three times in the last year, how many other Angelenos have received the same dangerous misinformation, been ticketed incorrectly, or had an unwarranted traffic stop trigger other policing problems? If we are to look to officers to enforce traffic laws, it seems only reasonable to expect that they would understand the law. And, certainly, we should not accept these officers instructing people to endanger themselves by riding in an unsafe way just to speed up motor vehicle traffic.

……..

It’s obvious to me at this point that LADOT, Metro & the Sheriff’s Department need to sit down and get on the same page about bus/bike lanes and the Vehicle Code. There is a simple fix: Sheriff’s Department deputies, who are acting on Metro’s behalf, need to understand the laws they are sworn to enforce. Since these patrols are funded by Metro, the Agency has the responsibility to ensure that these deputies are performing enforcement in compliance with Metro policies.

The bigger picture is that all L.A. law enforcement needs to step up their game on bikes. I am not suggesting special treatment, just that officers take some time to better understand the laws they enforce. Different departments have made some commendable strides, recognizing that cyclists belong on the street and don’t deserve extra scrutiny beyond that which is applied to motorists. But we are well past the point where any law enforcement officer patrolling L.A. streets has an excuse to not be familiar with the fact that people are allowed to ride bikes in the street and legally afforded options to maintain their own safety.

The City, County, and State all have ambitious goals to increase bicycle commuting to increase public health and reduce greenhouse emissions. To paraphrase a friend of mine: People are not going to be attracted to cycling as long as you need to be a traffic law expert – capable of citing Vehicle Code chapter, line, and verse – just to ride on L.A. streets.

We need law enforcement to get on board. And fast.

……..

South Los Angeles-based architect Michael MacDonald is a frequent bike commuter and a steering committee member of local advocacy group, Bike The Vote L.A. His architectural practice, Studio MMD, provided design for Street Beats, one of 8 project teams awarded by the Mayor’s Great Streets LA challenge grant program to re-envision Los Angeles streets.

14 comments

  1. Ed Rubinstein says:

    Here is an interesting thought; I wonder if LA’s anti harassment of cycling ordinance exempts law enforcement? Perhaps for extreme cases well documented with video the City could be sued after a government claim is filed. These would be very similar claims and with enough volume the City Attorney who would have to defend the cases might explore what is going on. Perhaps negotiate for dismissal of the claims in return for proof of additional bike law training. It is just a thought. Something I might research when I am back in my office.

  2. JD says:

    For some unknown reason, the worst harassment while riding a bicycle can come from motorcycle traffic officers. One would think that they have something in common with us, seeing that the main difference is the heavier weight of their machine. One “hot dog on a stick” can sure cause a lot of stomach upset.

  3. Timothy53 says:

    I had to laugh as the deputy in the first video drove away in the center of the bus/bike lane. No, police are not exempt from the law.

    • Chris Keller says:

      Actually, they are. The code says you need to follow the traffic law unless told to do otherwise by a uniformed officer.This makes them exempt from any traffic law simplicity. (or they will state)

  4. Peter says:

    Twice last year, I was aggressively instructed by Sheriff’s deputies to ride up onto the sidewalk to let a bus pass while in the Sunset Boulevard bus/bike lane.

    Yes, legally, you have a right to the lane.

    That said, if there’s a bus behind you, pull over and let them pass as soon as it is safe to do so. For example, at an intersection.

    Look: You have a bus. You have 20 or so people who are trying to get to where they are going. But you figure, “Hey, I got a right to make all of these people late for work and screw up Metro’s schedules. Fuck them, my ride is more important than anything they could be possibly be doing. Heck, if they’re riding the bus, they’re probably poor people while I’m riding a bicycle that costs more than most of these people make in a year!”

    I know, I know. “I let the bus pass and I’ll just end up being stuck behind it when it stops at the next bus stop.” After all, no bicyclist should ever have to wait behind anybody–everyone should be waiting behind the bicyclist! It’s fine if I inconvenience a bunch of people, but God forbid that I should be inconvenienced.

    I used to run into this issue with busses when I rode on PCH. I’d end up with a bus behind me. The bus would pass me. I would pass the bus later on. He’d pass me again. I’d pass him again.

    I finally figured out that it was better for me to just pull over and wait a couple of minutes before continuing. Drink some water. Check my e-mail. Have an energy bar. I mean, it would take me about 30 minutes to get home. Adding two minutes to my commute wasn’t going to make a huge deal. But not being stuck behind me for a few miles would make a much bigger difference to a bunch of people.

    So here you are riding in the bus lane, which you allowed to do, and you’re aghast that some police officer might ask you to think about somebody other than yourself!

    Sorry–you are the jerk in this picture.

    • bikinginla says:

      Sorry Peter, but your comment here simply leaves me aghast.

      There is not one single word here suggesting that the writer of this piece actually delayed a single bus at all; only that a couple of poorly educated cops illegally told him he had to get on the sidewalk to avoid doing so.

      Was the bus stuck behind him for a block? Two blocks? Twenty? Or maybe not at all? Maybe it could have moved into the other lane to pass him, safely and legally. Maybe he was planning to move over to let the bus pass as soon as it was safe to do so, as you suggest.

      I have no idea, and neither do you, because it’s not addressed here. Everything you’ve written about the author’s state of mind is pure projection and speculation.

      Maybe you’re the one who needs to check his attitude a little.

      • Peter says:

        I’ll admit, I got a bit out of line–especially the bit about how his bike was worth more than the income of the people on the bus. For this, I apologize to the author–that was rude and uncalled for. My only defense is that I was similarly aghast when I read the quote.

        Let’s re-read his quote again, shall we?

        Twice last year, I was aggressively instructed by Sheriff’s deputies to ride up onto the sidewalk to let a bus pass [emphasis mine] while in the Sunset Boulevard bus/bike lane.

        If the cop is asking him to pull onto the sidewalk to let a bus pass, that means there was a bus that wanted to pass him. This is not an unreasonable assumption.

        How long had the bus been stuck behind this person? At least long enough for the cop to notice and tell the bicyclist to get out of the way. You’re right–that could have been less than one block or it could have been more than 20. But the fact that, considering Sunset Boulevard has curbs, I doubt the cop was suggesting that he hop the curb onto the sidewalk. So if the cop is telling him to get out of the way of a bus and go onto the sidewalk, the cyclist is either mid-block (in which case, he should hold the lane until reaching an intersection) or at the intersection, in which case he should move over.

        Consider the video shown. Note that this occurred at an intersection. All vehicles were stopped and there was no bus behind him. The cop was wrong–I’ll agree. The cyclist has the right to take the lane. I probably would have done the same thing had I been the cyclist, if there was no one behind me.

        Now let’s pretend there was a bus behind him. Where should he be?

        If it were me, I would be over on the side of the road.

        Remember, we’re not moving. We’re at an intersection. The safest place for me to be is out of the flow of traffic. That means off to the right as much as possible. Remember, I’m not moving. I don’t have to worry about crap in the gutter. I don’t have to worry about getting doored. I can even move to the sidewalk if the pedestrians aren’t crowding it.

        I’m particularly amused by your suggestion that, “Maybe [the bus] could have moved into the other lane to pass him, safely and legally.” But if we even suggest that a bicyclist should leave the bike lane (such as the person who was blocking the bike lane in a story from a month or two ago, where the cyclist dumped water on the driver), OMG! How dare I even suggest such a thing! But, hey, there’s a bicyclist using the bus lane. Why can’t the bus driver just maneuver a 60 foot bus out of the bus lane (which is there to optimize bus transportation) and into traffic to pass the cyclist? That’s not a difficult thing to do at all!

        • One of the frustrations about trying to get around by bike in Los Angeles is that people on the street and commenters like you will invent hypothetical situations in order to try to find fault in you simply trying to get around town. Frankly, a conversation about potential efforts of courtesy isn’t relevant to this article, which is very specifically about a lack of understanding from law enforcement agencies of traffic law. Police and Sheriff’s Deputies aren’t patrolling the street to enforce courtesy, they are on the street to enforce the law.

          The two incidents on Sunset Boulevard referenced were exactly what you assume them not to be: a motorcycle deputy moving at 30 mph approaching a person legally located within a bus/bike lane that was designed for their use and aggressively yelling at them to immediately leave the lane and proceed up a curb cut onto the sidewalk, with no consideration of where a possible safe turn out may exist. As with Tuesday’s incident, this appears because of a lack of understanding from the Sheriff’s Department that bus/bike lanes are also for the use of people on bikes.

          It appears that you are not aware, but people on bikes may locate themselves in the center of rightmost travel lanes and bus/bike lanes (even when stopped at red lights) to make themselves visible and discourage right hook collisions from negligent drivers. You are welcome to make suggestions on how others should ride, just know that it is their choice to determine how to best provide for their own safety.

          Finally, bus/bike lanes weren’t created by Los Angeles’ bike commuters. They were created by the Department of Transportation in their determination of how to best provide mobility for all Angelenos within limited road space. Other cities have taken different tactics: in New York protected bike lanes are located on the left and bus lanes are located on the right side of one-way streets. That wasn’t the decision Los Angeles made. If you take issue with that shared use of roadway, you should direct that complaint towards LADOT, not individual cyclists abiding by the law and using the judgement they are afforded to get around safely.

        • bikinginla says:

          I can’t say I’ve ever ridden the bus/bike lane on Sunset; to be honest, I didn’t know there was one.

          However, I have often ridden the bus/bike lane on Wilshire Blvd, and have never had any problem whatsoever with the buses following or passing me. I move over when I can, they change lanes and go around me when it’s not safe for me to move over. The drivers know it’s a shared lane, and drive accordingly. And from what I’ve seen, most bike riders do the same.

          As for drivers blocking the bike lane, bike lanes are legally considered traffic lanes that are reserved exclusively for the use of bicyclists, with a few minor exceptions, such as to make a right turn, moving into a parking space, or for utility work. They are not parking lanes, loading zones, passing lanes or auxiliary traffic lanes. Nor are they shared lanes, unlike bus/bike lanes.

          Despite that, virtually every bike rider I know goes around the many vehicles that too often block those bike lanes; I do it almost every time I ride. I have never dumped anything on any of those cars, or confronted any of their drivers other than on to on occasion call out “bike lane!” as I pass. And that only in the most egregious cases where they somehow put my safety, or that or others, in jeopardy.

          I have no idea where you seem to have gotten the idea that I think cyclists have a superior right to the road, are entitled to be rude, violent or break the law, or have no need to be courteous or share the road. It is not what I believe, it is not how I ride or drive, and it is nothing I have ever expressed here.

    • Kudos, Peter, for perfectly validating the first line of the article.

    • Jay Williams says:

      Hahaha. This is obviously satire. Or trolling from a disgruntled bus driver too incompetent to utilize the passing lane … to pass a cyclist. Not to mention that buses have to stop frequently so there are very few times when a cyclist is impeding something that is only going to have to stop after another 400 yards anyway.

      I ride with buses 5 days a week and have never seen one stuck behind me or any other cyclist because they can pass us easily by changing lanes and they have to stop A LOT.

      The real problem (and one they have been recently retrained on) is the aggressive speeding-up-to-pass-then-brake-checking-the-cyclist-just-to-pull-over-at-the-next-stop maneuver.

      If the bus would just stay behind you and then pull over at the next stop instead of trying to prove some point everyone would be a lot safer.

  5. Gary Cziko says:

    Pulling over to let a bus (or any other motor vehicle) pass easily is an option that a cyclist may use, but is never required by law on a multilane street. The basic traffic rule is first-come, first-served which means traffic behind must yield to traffic in front, regardless of the speed of the traffic in front.

    One good place to release traffic is when you are stopped at the head of a queue at a red signal and the light turns green. If traffic has accumulated behind, pulling through the intersection and then pulling over in a driveway or empty parking spot, as shown here on Lincoln Boulevard on the Westside:

    I call this “Green and Release” and is just one of the many traffic release techniques we teach in CyclingSavvy where we also teach lane control as the normal, default mode of cycling in traffic.

  6. Chris Keller says:

    I have had several LASD interaction several of which have gone up the chain officially, One was all verbal but the deputies involved have stayed away from the group in question and just ticket solo riders in the area. In the incident, the duty told 25 rider after stopping us that we were violating 21202, he was standing on a sharrow during the stop when he told us “he didn’t care what the code says” and then added insult to injury by specifically refusing to identify himself or his partner. The other which went through several rounds of letters came up with the results that it was “within policy” to tell cycling to do things that are not required in the vehicle code. A motor deputy came up behind a group of cyclists taking a narrow lane and going just about the speed limit of 30 to “Ride single file.” We have been told on a larger regular ride by LASD that we would need to “tear-down” the ride. There is also the problems that have occurred repeatedly on PCH which I believe had been resolved recently with senior LASD assistance. There is a systemic problem at LASD and i’ll leave it at that.

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