Sunday, July 24, 2011

Open Letter to Mayor Sam Katz

There's lots to say about cycling, cyclists, and bike paths and the like these days. If it is coming from me, chances are it will be pretty critical. I was made aware of this open letter via Twitter, and after reading it couldn't help but shake my head. I'll stand with the cyclists on this one.

To make perfectly clear, this was not written by me, and was also not written as any kind of "guest contribution" for my site.

* * * * *

Mr. Mayor,

My name is Jean-Francois Ravenelle, and I am the President and General Manager of Gord's Ski and Bike.

Excuse me if I feel the need to bring this recent situation to your attention:

First off, I'd like to preface this letter with the following: For the record, I fully support the men and women of the Winnipeg Police Service. I think they are doing a phenomenal job and should be commended more often. This is not an issue with the WPS, this is an issue with people like this officer who decided, for whatever reason, that biking on 12 feet of sidewalk is deserving of threats and intimidation tactics.

We have been hosting Nightly group rides in the city for the past 10 years under my leadership. Our bike club has a membership of over 300 members and these members include members of Winnipeg's Police and Firefighting services as well as people of all walks of life who simply wish to ride our extensive network of paved and unpaved trails... respectfully using roadways to connect said trails... Sometimes using short portions of sidewalk to access these trails.

The "cyclists" on these rides are not zealots, we wear very little spandex, we are responsible citizens that practice safe, COURTEOUS, off-road biking along the rivers and pathways of Winnipeg. Our groups vary in size between 10 and 40 riders and we enforce the use of helmets, safety gear as well as the respect of property and laws. We promote safe, responsible and sustained cycling as well as maintain trails and offer education to cyclists throughout the city.

Our latest experience with a member of the Winnipeg Police Service was at about 7:30pm July 20th near the Maryland bridge at Miserecordia. There an officer was doing laser speed enforcement on the north side of the bridge (pointing his 'gun' towards the northbound oncoming traffic, we rolled by (coming up Cornish avenue) going down to the trail that begins under the Mariland bridge... We rode on 12 feet of sidewalk and because of that, this officer took exception, told everyone to get off their bikes and walk towards him (at that point we were on the lawn of the Cornish Library, waiting for other riders to join us and making sure that the path ahead was clear of pedestrians, as we always do).

He then pointed out that if he so chose to, he could very well issue citations for all 28 of us ... He asked who the 'group leader' was and I stepped up. I listened to him calmly as he was clearly upset and agitated with us. Probably because someone in the group had humorously yelled "sneaky" a few minutes earlier as they rode by (presumably because he was crouched behind a recycle bin with his laser gun 30 yards away from his car that was parked in the Miserecordia BFI bin parking lot).

When we asked several questions in order to make certain that we could ride away without breaking any more laws, we were clearly informed of his by-the-letter interpretation of the HSA. But to be informed that bike tires "killed grass" and thus we would not be allowed ride our off-road mountain bikes off-road was a shocker... almost as much as to be told that no bikes are allowed to ride on city property (in this case next to the Cornish public library) as this would constitute trespassing. This Officer clearly implied that bikes should only be ridden on asphalt and more particularly on roadways.

The officer was wearing his WPS uniform with a safety vest over it, we could not see his number but he had blond hair clean-cut hair, about 5'8", told us he was a bike patrol officer who was putting in overtime doing traffic control that particular night... Reminding us, once again that it was illegal to ride on grass, that we should only ride our bikes on the road with cars (he added that paved trails are for pedestrians only)... we mentioned kindly and politely that we were simply just trying to link bike trails. To that he added "these are not bike trails, if you ride on property, even if it's city property you are trespassing".

He kept on saying "I'm exercising restraint, I could write every single one of you for $111 for riding on the sidewalk".... Then, as he was giving his speech to everyone, a drunk individual on a bike rode by on his bike, cursing us for blocking the sidewalk (something that we were ordered to do as we were on the grass in front of the library before that officer decided to separate us from our bikes)... Mid-sentence the officer then chose to run after this cyclist, grabbed him by his backpack and wrestled him off his bike... talked to him for a few seconds and then walked back towards our stunned group to resume his lecture.

The officer was clearly agitated by this entire episode.

I remained calm, shook his hand at the end of our "chat". We had 27 witnesses that were present during this exchange ... Many have come forward offering to voice their concerns that this kind of behaviour does nothing but further fuel the growing issue that is Bike vs WPG.

This issue could have been handled MUCH differently and with a much more positive result. Instead this officer chose confrontation and intimidation as a tool to enforce a law that is clearly flexible.

As a business owner, bike rider and concerned citizen, I am worried that this is just a small indicator of what is turning into a contentious and dangerous issue... one that is on the cusp of reaching a boiling point... One that makes people think twice before hopping on a bike, one where zealots are taking control of the issue, one where the simple joy of riding a bike in this city is dismantled by people like this officer, who's ill temper and zeal to enforce questionable laws to the letter will turn this city into the opposite of a bike friendly municipality.

I will be sending this email to as many councilors and media outlets as I can, to whoever can help spread the word... with the hopes that cooler heads will prevail and that something good can come of this.

Not all "cyclists" are activists, not all "cyclists" even like that descriptor as we don't own safety vests or anything made of hemp, in fact many of us own nice cars, we practice "cycling" as a recreational sport, not a lifestyle, we are business owners, physicians, police officers, firefighters, government employees, students and parents, we just like to ride bikes in a respectful fashion and most of us don't commute to work simply because it's not safe to do so yet in this city. We'd like our voice heard.

Oh, one last thing, and forgive me if I conclude this email tongue in cheek... I don't know if anyone at city hall or at the WPS knows this interesting fact: The sport of biking is not limited to asphalt.

Thank you for your time.

Jean-Fran├žois Ravenelle |
President, General Manager

Gord's Ski and Bike |


Jay said...

no matter if you are a bike or a car, if you can't follow the highway traffic act you should be ticketed. No fucking exceptions and no fucking Idaho stops should be tolerated unless specifically passed by the provincial legislature.

bwalzer said...

I once got caught crossing a police line. The "line" in question consisted of some tape that extended across the sidewalk on a busy street. It only did so because whoever laid out the tape could not find a better place to anchor the corner, the place being cordoned off was on a side street. It meant that people walking on the sidewalk had to either backtrack a block or climb a high snowbank into traffic. My total transgression lasted a fraction of a second.

A member of the Winnipeg Police Service observed me doing this and ran over and just tore into me. In some detail he informed me that what I had done was wrong and could incur a heavy penalty. The police officer was quite angry, apparently I was not the first to duck under the tapes.

I was quite upset and angry. Eventually, though, after some reflection, I ended up concluding that I was entirely wrong and the cop was entirely right. His entire job at that point was to enforce the line and he was seeing a series of people cross the line. What else could he of done that would of been more reasonable?

I was not there but perhaps the thing with the group of bicyclists was kind of the same. Someone who works in law enforcement witnessing a whole series of minor infractions. These infractions were at the level of spitting on the sidewalk, but if a whole bunch of people spit on the sidewalk where a cop could see them you might expect a lecture to ensue. I guess what I am saying is that perhaps the cop might of at least been doing his job correctly.

I don't have any strong feelings about the riding on the grass thing but I do agree that the local blanket prohibition on riding on the sidewalk is pretty dumb. Sometimes it makes a lot of sense to do that.

Ed said...

A couple of thoughts on this:

1. off-road biking in urban areas damages whatever paths they use, does this group maintain or fund raise to help maintain particular trails heavily used in the city? I think limiting these activities would be entirely legitimate

2. bike trails and lanes in this city are totally disjointed and it is not often clear where one is in compliance or not in compliance with traffic law.

In any case, another shining example of the consequences of poor planning and poor communication in our dear city.

bgilchrist said...

Just so we are clear Ed, when you say riding your bike on an urban path damages it, do you also believe that cars should be prohibited from roads, lest they damage them as well?