Toronto Bike Blitz • Helpful, or Harassment? Part 1

photo by Darren Stehr

photo by Darren Stehr

Yesterday marked the beginning of this year’s Bike Blitz.  Officially, it’s called the “Safe Cycling – Share the Responsibility Campaign”.  It’s a week-long Toronto Police campaign with a stated purpose of “promoting awareness and education” and “reducing the potential for cycling related injuries.” On paper, it sounds like a great idea.  After all, who isn’t in favour of more safety and fewer injuries?

The premise is sound, but the problem lies in the implementation.  There are two different approaches that can be taken for a campaign such as this.  One approach is to use discretion, giving tickets to cyclists who are riding dangerously while educating and warning cyclists who make minor infractions.  This can include handing out printed materials about safety and traffic rules.  The other approach is to embrace a ‘zero tolerance’ model and hand out as many tickets as possible for minor infractions.  The first method increases awareness and strengthens the relationship between police officers and cyclists. The second approach results in cyclists feeling targeted and harassed (some tickets are $100+) while increasing hostility towards the police.

In recent years, the annual campaign has fallen squarely into category #2.  There is reason to believe that this year’s event will be better, but we’ll believe it when we see it.

On Monday morning I rose early to attend a 7am press conference (pdf release) about the Bike Blitz.  I was a little worried.  After all, it was the first press event that I was attending as a blogger.  Would I be taken seriously? Would the TV networks shove me aside?  Would the daily reporters interrupt my questions?  I emotionally prepared myself for the worst as I biked along College to the event. (On the way, I had to swerve around a police car parked in the bikelane…). The two scheduled speakers were Police Officer Hugh Smith and Yvonne Bambrick (from the bike union).  I arrived at College and Bellevue five minutes late and was thrilled to see that the media turnout was low.  Less competition means more interview time for me. In fact, there was only one media person there. Me.

The three of us spent the next thirty minutes chatting back and fourth about the “Safe Cycling” campaign. I talked bout how the blitz is perceived by many cyclists and I gave examples of things that I thought they could do better:

  1. Don’t set-up ‘sting’ operations in locations where cyclists are breaking rules in a harmless way, just to hand out more tickets.  For example, a favorite spot is College and Augusta, ticketing cyclists who are turning south.  Technically, it’s a one way street (northbound), but everyone knows that cyclists go both ways in the Market, and it works just fine. Handing out tickets there does not increase safety. It increases anger.  (Especially when the police are giving tickets to customers of Bikes on Wheels who are taking a bike for a test ride on Augusta – This happened last year).  Riding two-ways on a one way street is considered safe practice in many cities, and in some places it’s actually written into the law.
  2. Let cyclists use a ‘rolling stop’ at stop signs.  This means that they slow down, look both ways, and proceed.  Again, this is common legal practice in some jurisdictions and for good reason: it works and it’s safe.  Toronto’s Bike Blitz often sets up on Beverly, north of Dundas, where officers give tickets to any cyclist who does not come to a complete stop (by putting their foot on the ground).  No discretion.  No warning.  $110 fine.  Please, please tell me how this increases awareness or safety?  It’s annoying, immature, petty and fits my description of ‘harassment’ to a tee.
  3. Don’t just go after cyclists.  You want to “reduce the potential for cycling related injuries”?  Then put tickets on all those cars that are parked in the bike lane!  They are the people who are putting lives at risk, not the cyclists who slow down at stop signs, or bike slowly south on Augusta.
Officer Hugh Smith & Yvonne Bambrick (bike union)

Officer Hugh Smith & Yvonne Bambrick (bike union)

Officer Smith was quite friendly and supportive.  He was a Cycling Officer for ten years (52 Div) as well as a bike instructor. He’s an expert on the Highway Traffic Act, safety education and policy reform.  He assured me that the police want to take a new approach to the Blitz, and only go after the ‘bad apples’ – on bikes as well as in cars. He said that his goal is to get “all users to the share the road responsibly” and to “raise awareness about bike use.”  I asked him what he thought about biking in the city and without hesitation, he said “it’s the way to go.”

Hopefully, the seven day campaign will focus on dangerous drivers and cyclists who are truly riding recklessly.  Bad cyclists give the rest of us a bad name, and I’d be happy if the police confiscated their bikes and threw them in jail for a day or two.  But leave the rest of us alone. Targeting cyclists for minor infractions with expensive tickets will only increase resentment towards the police and make cyclists feel that they are, once again, being treated as second class citizens by a city that says it wants to be green but discriminates against the very people who are actually trying to live sustainably.

The blitz campaign runs from Monday June 22nd to Sunday June 28th.  Share your stories here.  I’ll post updates during the week.

Resource: “How To Fight Traffic Tickets” (by ARC)

17 responses to “Toronto Bike Blitz • Helpful, or Harassment? Part 1

  1. I am likely going to leave my bike at home this week. Although I’m generally a conscientious cyclist, leaving my house will mean either a) going the wrong way on some Kensington streets (as I normally do) and risk getting a ticket, or b) heading out on to Dundas or Spadina and risk getting killed.

    And while I do appreciate that the blitz is also supposed to target “motorists who endanger the lives of cyclists, including vehicles parked in designated bike lanes,” one wonders why cyclists’ lives aren’t valued the rest of the year.

  2. I think I’d better leave mine at home too…
    I’ve always found the police attitude towards the ‘rolling stop’ unfathomable, given that if you actually perform it alongside a car that normally appears to be doing a full stop, it shows that in fact the car is doing much more of a rolling stop than you. yet you’d be the one that would get a ticket. bike != car.

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  4. I was caught in a sting like this in Montreal a few years ago and I fought it in court.

    I told the judge that when I asked the police why they weren’t ticketing all the cars that were pulling into the bike lane to turn right he said “bicycles are the target today; not cars” and added that the sting was called “Operation Cyclist”, the judge threw my ticket out instantly.

  5. Given that the cops were handing out tickets on King St. near Liberty Village for things like not having a bell on your bike, I’m guessing that the goal here is to intimidate cyclists.

    Someone please get a comment from Mayor Miller on this. Surely there are better ways to pass along a safe cycling message to cyclists and drivers alike.

  6. Thanks for this excellent post Mez, and for being the only ‘media’ that didn’t get distracted by the strike ;)

    Check this link for more info – https://bikeunion.to/news/2009/06/21/toronto-police-cycling-safety-campaign-june-22-28

  7. Great post. However, I’d have been interested in finding out what Officer Smith (his real name? joke) and Ms. Bambrick had to say about your actual suggestions. Your account was interesting, but was mostly about you and your ideas, not about what you learned. Any chance of an update?

  8. Hey Mike! Officer Smith agreed with some points, not so much with others.

    I could write more about what he said, but actions speak louder. I’ll be following the Blitz, and posting the final stats on how many cyclists and drivers they actually ticketed. I’m also hoping to catch a blitz in action, and interview the cyclists who receive tickets.

    • Hi Dave. I’d be curious to know which ones he agreed with from the ones you presented. All of the things you said were true, but not accepted in Toronto. I know of a place where they allow cyclists to ride the wrong way down one way streets, for example.

      If you’re going to follow the blitz, you should file an access to information request for copies of the tickets, and see how many of them were for bogus charges like not have a bell.

      I’d also be interested in what Smith said to segue between he only agreed with some of your statements, but that he still agreed that the blitz needed refocussing so that it only went after the real “bad apples” and that he supported cycling.

      I hope you can include some of this in your follow-up posts.

  9. Very good post! I watched two cyclists get pulled over on St.George after not stopping at the stop sign. I was about 30feet behind them and made sure they saw my foot hit the ground. The police ended up not giving the two cyclists tickets but warned them. It ended up being a good cyclist/police interaction.

  10. Thanks for coming out to the campaign launch. I’m glad you got an opportunity to have some one on one time with PC Hugh Smith…yes his real name! (On a side, call me anytime you want an interview or information…I have as much time for bloggers, freelance and SMS media as I do for Mainstream)
    The comments that you and your posters have made are all worthwhile…even the ones that I don’t necessarily agree with. They create conversation which can lead to some great information, education and awareness for both the cyclists and the police.
    We could probably agree to disagree on a few things, (wrong way on one way streets, prohibited turns), while there is agreement on other points (no sting operations just to generate tickets, go after drivers who endanger lives).
    This campaign is based on four equally important criteria:
    1. Education
    2. Awareness
    3. Enformcement
    4. Media
    Education leads to awarenss, enforcement is necessary for when education and awareness are ignored or not suitable and the media is key for introducing the intent, understanding and communication to society.
    Whether anyone agrees with the campaign or not, we believe it is fundamental to reducing collision, injuries and death on Toronto’s streets. And really, isn’t that what we all want?
    Last year tickets written to cyclists for the year accounted to about half of one percent of all the tickets written in Toronto. Rhetorical question here…would it not be great if we couldn’t write any tickets because there was 100% compliance on the laws, rules and regulations…personnally, I’d be extatic with that!!!!
    Thanks for creating the conversation and being there.

  11. This time last year, my partner and I were chased down on our bicycles by a police car with sirens blaring. We pulled over to let the car pass, assuming there was a murderer on the loose. We were surprised to learn that we were the targets of the chase — Our crime was not having bells on our bicycles and we were fined in the $200 range.

    Officer L Petrochko (badge 5182) was terse and rude and treated us like criminals (at one point in the hour-long detainment, she asked whether we had been in trouble with the law before; then she took our personal information to her car, presumably to search us on the police database. When finished, she stuck her arm out of the window and slapped her hand repeatedly on the roof of her car; apparently, this is universal code for ‘Get your ass over here,’ and she was greatly displeased that we did not come running).

    While we explained our opposition to the tickets, she called for back-up, thus aggravating a stupendous waste of tax dollars. The second cop to arrive on the scene played good cop and told us that bad cop was a rookie and that he himself would have given us a warning.

    Before the incident, I didn’t know that a bell was required on a bicycle. I know that ignorance of the law is not a valid defence, but the situation did not warrant the kind of dehumanizing behaviour to which we were subjected.

    It’s very unpleasant for a cyclist to be chased down by a police car with sirens blaring. It is unacceptable to be chased down thus for not having a bell on one’s bicycle.

    It was profoundly depressing to see such a young officer behave like a stereotypical ‘good ole boy’. In this era of ‘sensitivity training’ and ‘community policing,’ how can the police service (remember, it’s a ‘service,’ not a ‘force’) continue to churn out power abusers?! Maybe the rookie cop is just insecure and will mellow as she matures. Or maybe she’ll become more abusive over time and end up shooting a protester or a kid in Regent Park — or a cyclist.

  12. I have a $5 bell on my bike just in case I ever get pulled over. I hardly use it though. Sometimes it comes in handy on the lake trail where a family takes up the whole lane… then they look at you shocked (should be the other way around?).

    Already have the lights covered, as that is much more important to me, for night riding. Even I get furious at other bikers without lights at night. I can’t see them on a dark street, how do you expect a car to?

    My friend got a 2 tickets for no light and no bell, was close to $300. Seems kind of silly, when parking tickets are much less.

  13. Dave, what makes a cyclist “bad” in your eyes? Splitting lanes? Taking the lane? Impure thoughts?

    As long as adult cyclists stay off the sidewalk and go with the flow–i.e. don’t require drivers to stop suddenly or swerve to avoid them–I propose that the safest riding style in heavy traffic is the most highly-visible one:

    –move to the front at every light; take the lane until there is room to move over to allow cars to safely pass
    –never ride in the ‘door prize’ zone, including bike lanes that have cars parked directly beside; splitting lanes to move past slow-or-stopped traffic also reduces the likelihood of getting doored
    –create space around hazards (stopped delivery vehicles, cars pulling out too far waiting to turn etc.) by taking the lane well ahead; this alerts drivers sooner, gives them extra time to process
    –stand up, sit down, point, signal and make eye contact: more information is supplied to the driver who becomes more aware of the cyclist and their space requirements

    When the first driver-fatality-at-the-hands-of-a-careless-cyclist occurs, there will be a strong backlash against bending the Highway Act for the safety of cyclists; until then my motto is “My safety requires your awareness.”

  14. Thanks for the write-up, Mez!

    While out on a 50 km ride through beautiful Scarborough on June 27th, my friend Andy was given a $180 ticket. Andy was cycling north on the Meadowvale overpass and went through an amber light (see http://www.thekingshighway.ca/PHOTOS/hwy401-86_lg.jpg). The unfriendly cop, sitting in an unidentified police car, didn’t agree. He asked Andy: “Did you know you just cycled through a red light?” When Andy responded in the negative, the cop said “Are you blind? Are those rose coloured glasses you’re wearing?” (Andy does wear glasses). Mr. Policeman issued the $180 ticket and when Andy said that was “a bit steep”, the cop said that the amount might decrease in court and that there could be demerit points associated with his driver’s license.

    Because of the configuration of the ramps, Andy told me that it was actually safer for him to ride through the light since the motorists behind him were gunning for the westbound ramp. If he had stopped, our car driving friends would have backed up behind him and possibly even crashed into him.

    I happened to be bicycling through southern Scarborough as part of the Ride for Renewables Tour (www.ontariosgreenfuture.ca/rfr.php). People were surprised to see 25 people on bicycles. Probably the most bicycles they’ve ever seen in those parts. Perhaps part of the reason the cop gave Andy a ticket was to make sure people don’t cycle in that car dependent part of the city!

  15. Bummer about the ticket, Marty. Hope the RFR was less nasty than my bit at Scarborough Bluffs (go wind!)

    Only police interaction I’ve had here in Scarborough was bombing down Birchmount on my old singlespeed, and the speed trap cop calling out “Forty!”. Give the gearing on that thing, I was quite proud …

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