A debate concerning Berkeley Police Department, or BPD, traffic enforcement policies regarding cyclists and pedestrians is coming to a head after BPD announced its partial use of a state grant to hand out citations to cyclists.
While the city of Berkeley attempts to move toward its goal of zero traffic fatalities, some bicycle advocates believe that officers citing cyclists for rolling through stop signs does not contribute to that end.
Using a $250,000 grant from the state’s Office of Traffic Safety, or OTS, BPD pays officers overtime to bolster traffic enforcement. The grant, which ranked Berkeley as number one for injury collisions compared to 57 other cities in California, broadly aimed to reduce collisions.
The topic is especially tense in a community facing frequent automobile collisions, one of which seriously injured a prominent Berkeley Unified School District board member.
Bicycle enforcement operations on Milvia Street — which the city has designated as a bicycle and pedestrian corridor — and other residential streets have become significant points of discussion concerning enforcement targeted at cyclists.
“The focus of our city’s enforcement efforts should be on the violations of cars that cause the most severe injuries,” said Ben Gerhardstein, a founding member of Walk Bike Berkeley. “Why we would take multiple officers off their beat to stake stop signs on Milvia and pull over people for a ‘slow and go’ … doesn’t align with city policy.”
Responding to such criticism, elected city officials are re-evaluating whether resources should be directed to such traffic enforcement. Gerhardstein said Walk Bike Berkeley is in conversation with council members including Rigel Robinson, Rashi Kesarwani and Lori Droste to explore deprioritizing cyclist and pedestrian-focused traffic enforcement.
In a text message, Droste said she intends to meet with BPD to reassess how the city can focus “finite traffic enforcement resources” on busier streets and automobiles. Robinson discussed how the city could explore ways to allow “Idaho stops,” or those permitting cyclists to roll through stop signs.
“Encouraging more people to walk, bike and take transit is the key to transforming our cities and reaching our climate goals,” Robinson said. “We can’t do that if residents fear using our bicycle boulevards.”
Talking about possible policy responses in a recent SF Chronicle article, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he expects a proposal to come before the City Council in the next few weeks, which would make rolling bike stops of low priority for local police.
Still, BPD sees those not driving as equally at fault for collisions. According to BPD spokesperson Officer Byron White, in the first two-thirds of 2019, half of the bike-related collisions were at the fault of the cyclist. A similar time period in 2018 saw 64 out of 171 collisions as being the fault of the cyclist. Since this period, BPD has handed out 36 pedestrian and bicycle violations, as well as 106 vehicle citations.
While the number of citations has led to criticism from some bike advocacy groups, Berkeley city manager Dee Williams-Ridley pointed to a smaller ratio during the previous three quarters.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, Williams-Ridley explained that out of 89 traffic enforcement operations conducted with grant funding, three focused on cyclists and pedestrians. Reports from the city to the OTS during those quarters indicate that those three operations resulted in 24 citations given to non-motorists by BPD.
“We aren’t trying to pick on anybody, but we are trying to keep people safe,” said White. “This effort at the end of the day is about changing behaviors.”
White also mentioned that, for fines which can add up to as much as $300 — the city has no diversion programs, such as safety classes, which could waive punitive fees.
Dave Campbell, the advocacy director for Bike East Bay, called BPD’s increase in citations a “sledgehammer approach to an issue that requires a much smarter response.”
Campbell and Gerhardstein have made calls for a more “data driven” approach. White, however, said data is used to drive current enforcement trends. Even on Milvia Street, with relatively few cars and concrete planters to filter out arterial traffic, White said bike collisions have happened.