Guilty, Please 

Challenging an unfair bike law

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In the obvious absence of an attorney’s advice, I publicly declare: I want to be found guilty in Salt Lake City Justice Court.

On Sept. 24, 2011, roughly 2,700 people set a Guinness World Record by running from Gallivan Plaza around the Capitol and back in their underwear. I was among the “Undie Runners,” but was tastefully clothed upon arrival at the event. That’s when I violated one of our town’s least-publicized rules for genteel behavior: I crossed the sidewalk while pedaling a bicycle. A “no bikes on sidewalks” ordinance in the Central Business District also prohibits skateboarding and rollerblading.

OK, I get it. Some sidewalks can be crowded, and bikes in the mix could be dangerous. The city has, in recent years, created several dedicated bicycle lanes and painted others green, informing motorists that cyclists must be accommodated like any other vehicle.

Excellent. Salt Lake City is now a bike-friendly city, which feels good to this regular cyclist. Thanks, Rocky and Ralph.

I personally don’t cruise most sidewalks because I’m a good cyclist and travel faster in the street. I constantly monitor a helmet mirror and don’t bet my life that the teenage driver on a cell phone approaching from behind knows that I have a legal right to a traffic lane—or even that I’m currently in it—so I ride to the right and use the shoulder where possible.

On a few bike-unfriendly streets without shoulders or bike lanes—like 400 South, 700 East and 2100 South—I reluctantly use the walkways. In most parts of town (and in the rest of the state), cycling on sidewalks is perfectly legal if done safely, and bikes must yield to pedestrians. Sounds reasonable to me. I “pedest,” too.

But let’s go back to downtown’s no-bikes-ever-on-the-sidewalk zone. Where is it, you ask? Great question. To be enforceable, most traffic laws require visible signage. Cities can’t secretly drop the speed limit from 45 mph to 25 and start handing out tickets. That’s an illegal speed trap. But for the sidewalk rule, only 22 barely noticeable signs are posted at the roughly 195 corners where the law is in effect. Only two mark mid-block crosswalks. You’d never know about the rule if you don’t enter the sidewalk at one of those 22 points and see the smallish sign. I’d never noticed one before.

Even the city’s otherwise helpful Bikeways map (free at bike shops and city offices) shows a shaded area, but fails to label it. The cluttered print on the back of the map refers to the zone, but in the wrong color. Cyclists must obey the same laws as drivers, but the map omits that cyclists in “the zone” have an extra responsibility. Motorists don’t have to push their cars across sidewalks into parking lots. Even a scooter weighing little more than a bike may drive across the walkway to park. Not so with bicycles, and that’s how I became an “offender.”

I was entering Gallivan Plaza from Main Street at mid-block, pedaling slowly to the bike racks just inside the plaza. They looked full, so I approached two bike cops whose heads were down writing citations for other cyclists. When about 15 feet away, I said, “Excuse me, is there more bike parking somewhere?” One officer looked up and ordered me to stop. My explanation about just crossing the walk fell on deaf ears. “Everybody gets a ticket today,” he replied.

And here’s problem No. 2. This law is selectively enforced. Ask cops how many tickets they’ve written to children with training wheels learning to ride at Pioneer Park. Ask how many they’ve given to senior citizens slowly pedaling down the walk on big trikes, who feel unsafe in the roadway. Ask the exact boundary of the zone. I’ve heard up to the perimeter roads, the inside walkways of those roads and the sidewalks on the far side. One cop carries a cheat-sheet map of the zone. Nice.

I recently attended a Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting. The MBAC is a volunteer advocacy group with representatives from the city’s departments of transportation, planning and public works, the mayor’s chief of staff and a police lieutenant. Also attending were some bike-shop owners, a cycling-magazine publisher and several concerned citizens. There was near-unanimous consensus that the current law is not viable, but opinions vary about fixing it. A solution will take months, or years, to deliberate and implement.

So if I can prove the restriction is unfairly and capriciously enforced, why do I want to be found guilty? I was technically in violation, but I want to appeal a conviction to a higher court where the ordinance can be struck down. Making the current law go away will speed up the correction process.

The current, poorly marked zone, random enforcement and prohibition against just crossing walkways simply must go. One alternative would be stencils on the sidewalks reminding cyclists to yield or travel slowly.

A court clerk offered to settle the $90 fine for $40. I refused. At trial, even if it’s reduced to a dollar, I’ll appeal.

If anyone knows Judge Sydney Magid, tell her that no matter how brilliantly I represent myself, to please find me guilty. She’ll be performing a public service by letting me appeal to a court that can invalidate a flawed regulation.

I could even use the help of a lawyer to creatively get convicted. If any two-wheeling attorneys can help me lose in the minor leagues so I can win in the majors, please let me know. Pro bono, of course.
If you’re a sympathetic cyclist, join the gallery on Jan. 19 at 9 a.m. at 333 S. 200 East. Wear your helmet to court. I’ll be wearing mine. 

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Jim Catano

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