There are plenty of really good reasons to improve micromobility infrastructure. While EVs are better than gas or diesel-powered vehicles, an e-bike, electric scooter, or human-powered vehicle is even better. Not only does micromobility emit less pollution and greenhouse gases, but it also contributes far less to pollution, space issues, and loss of life in cities. These reasons alone are enough to build protected micromobility lanes in cities. What I didn’t know until today is that it’s also a civil rights issue. The lack of cycling space in Los Angeles County forces cyclists to commit a petty crime, which is technically enough justification for LA County Sheriff deputies and police officers to deny cyclists their civil and human rights.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution Has Been Hacked
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” — US Constitution, Amendment IV
One thing I like to point out about the US Bill of Rights is that none of the first nine amendments says “we hereby grant…” or “this constitution gives citizens…” They all mention pre-existing human rights people have, and demand that governments protect rather than violate those rights. Why? Because as the Declaration of Independence says, people have a right to “alter or abolish” governments that don’t protect their human rights. This was a radical concept in the eighteenth century to most European powers, but it’s something we take for granted today in civilized countries.
There’s one problem that the ratifiers of the Fourth Amendment didn’t anticipate, though. They didn’t foresee the time when governments make all sorts of innocent things a crime. It seemed reasonable at the time to include “probable cause” as an exception to the right to be free from warrantless detention, search, and seizure, but that exception is now heavily abused by police officers.
Something as trivial as a cracked windshield, a broken tail light, or even riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is now used to rob people of their human rights.
The US Cyclist’s Catch-22: Risk Riding in Fast Traffic or Risk Losing Your Rights
If you live in a country with good bicycle infrastructure or streets that otherwise are friendly to cyclists, you may think criminalizing riding a bike on the sidewalk is a good idea. While a car is probably going to be more deadly, getting run into by a cyclist or scooter rider can cause fairly serious injuries and even death. This is especially true for electrified micromobility, where the speeds can be much higher.
But much of the United States doesn’t have good streets and roads. Instead of having low-speed streets and high-speed roads and highways, we have a bastardized mix of street and road that some cycling advocates call “stroads.”
These stroads have cars going 40-60 miles per hour, and usually don’t have a bike lane. When they do have a bike lane, it’s just a stripe dedicating the last 3-4 feet on the side for cyclists, and not a protected lane, so people looking at cell phones often drive into them.
So, cyclists are faced with an awful choice: ride on the stroad with fast cars driven by distracted drivers, or ride on the sidewalk and hope the cops don’t bother you.
Cops Go Far Beyond Citing People For Riding On Sidewalks
When cyclists make the sane choice and use the sidewalk, the cops aren’t detaining them to give them a ticket for riding on the sidewalk. Instead, they use this “crime” as a pretext for long detentions, searches, and seizures.
As you’d probably expect if you’re familiar at all with the US “justice” system, the cops don’t pull over just anybody driving a bike. According to the LA Times, the LA County Sheriff and other police are targeting minorities. 7 out of every 10 people detained for riding on the sidewalk are Hispanics. 85% of people stopped on the sidewalk are searched for illegal items, and only 8% have something illegal, probably mostly drugs. Weapons are found only one half of one percent of the time.
In other words, there’s no real arguable public safety benefit that comes from depriving tens of thousands of cyclists of their human rights. Even worse, some cyclists have been detained like this multiple times, but have no choice but to continue riding their bike on the sidewalk in a city where only 1% of roads have a bike lane.
How We Can Fix This
The obvious first thing that’s needed is police reform. Instead of focusing on real community safety and crime problems, police are wasting their time hassling citizens of low-level “crimes” where there’s no victim and no harm done. Riding a bike on the sidewalk on a stroad with no bike lane, broken or missing lights, or other petty things shouldn’t merit the time of police officers.
Instead, Los Angeles County and everywhere else should do what they’ve done in Philadelphia and completely eliminate low-level traffic stops. It’s a waste of police resources, a drain on the time and human rights of the citizenry, and just generally makes no sense to stop people over minor things. Motorists with missing equipment can still be mailed a notice that they need to fix their headlights or whatever it is that’s a problem, while police can spend their time actually doing community policing.
We also need legislators to repeal laws banning riding on sidewalks until we have much better micromobility infrastructure. If there’s not a safe alternative to the sidewalk, police have no business criminalizing cycling.
Finally, we need that micromobility infrastructure to actually get built. We need protected bike lanes on stroads, and not “protected” with a stripe. Bollards, Jersey barriers — whatever it takes. We need these lanes to be open to both human-powered and electric micromobility, with some “rules of the lane” to make a safe mix between slower and faster micromobility traffic. We also need new roads built to have a sane separation between streets and roads, and not a haphazard mix that serves no user truly well.
Featured image by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office.
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