Monday, April 28, 2008

Beyond Critical Mass: More Cops Gone WILD

Published April 28, 2008 by The Oregonian

By late last week, six bright green bike boxes were installed, and eight more are on the way. But the biggest changes in Portland's efforts to make cyclists safer are far less obvious.

The Portland Police Bureau changed its policies for investigating crashes involving cyclists and appointed a liaison officer to work with the cycling community. The city, meanwhile, is retrofitting its truck fleet with "bike guards" to protect riders. It also invited cyclists and truckers to meet and mingle on Southeast Clinton Street during the evening commute on Tuesday.

Although the bike boxes and other safety measures were on the drawing board for some time, those efforts took on a new urgency in recent months following the deaths of two cyclists in high-profile crashes in October.

Now the city and the cycling community are working more closely to put new policies and equipment in place to make bike lanes and intersections safer for two-wheeled commuters.

"Those two deaths were a catalyst for positive change," said Mark Ginsberg, an attorney who is chairman of the city's bicycle advisory committee. "It has definitely accelerated."

Capt. Larry O'Dea, who heads the Police Bureau's traffic division, plans to meet with attorneys, judges and cycling advocates in May to better understand language in several bike-related state laws. The bureau has appointed an officer who used to be a bike messenger as a liaison to the cycling community.

O'Dea also has begun talking with members of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and regularly attending bicycle advisory committee meetings.

"In being at all these meetings, I'm getting very strong feedback from the bicycle community," O'Dea said. "They want a good relationship with the Police Bureau."

Perhaps the biggest change at the bureau came in February when Chief Rosie Sizer issued an executive order that changed the policy for investigating crashes involving cyclists, as well as pedestrians, skateboarders and others defined as "vulnerable road users."

Before, there was no separate standard for crashes involving such users. Investigations were mandatory only if there were serious or life-threatening injuries.

Now any collision in which a cyclist is taken to a hospital by an ambulance is investigated. The traffic division investigated nine such crashes involving cyclists last month, compared with five in March 2007, O'Dea said.

Ginsberg credits the bureau for building a better relationship with cyclists, adding that it was especially helpful for officers to hand out educational brochures instead of tickets when the bike boxes were initially installed.

But he'd still like to see the bureau pursue reckless and careless drivers more aggressively, even if cyclists aren't injured. O'Dea said he has already asked the Bicycle Transportation Alliance for help in determining where the bureau should focus its efforts.

Cyclist Tim Calvert said he's glad the city is listening to the cycling community and taking even incremental steps to make the streets safer.

The bike boxes are an especially vivid reminder of the changes Portland has undertaken in recent months.

"I think anytime bicycling is elevated on the street level to a more equal status with cars," Calvert said, "it helps both the drivers and cyclists acknowledge that they're both commuters, and they're both trying to get to work safely."

Stephen Beaven: 503-294-7663;

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