Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tour de Frankfort, Stage 4: exhausted

Today marked another major learning experience. After over a year of trying to get meetings with legal experts regarding the problems of pedestrians and bicyclists struck by motorists, suddenly David Morse and I found ourselves in a room with two key legislators and six of the leading (and most influential) legal minds in Frankfort, to discuss House Bill 88. It quickly became apparent that House Bill 88 is dead for this session. We got new hope, though, of resolving some of the conflicting legal interpretations that have confounded us since the beginning of this campaign.

I still don't know who called the meeting or assembled the invitation list, but Rep. Jim Wayne and Pierce Whites were prominently involved. Pierce Whites serves as general counsel to House Speaker Greg Stumbo, and formerly served as Deputy Attorney General under Stumbo. Also present were House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Tilley, a lawyer from Kentucky State Police, the state's Public Defender, and two key staffers of the Legislative Research Commission (both lawyers, one a leading expert in Kentucky criminal law). Obviously, David and I knew less about the law and about the legislative process than the others present.

I'm too exhausted to give a fair accounting of this meeting now, but wanted to give you the capsule update. House Bill 88 is dead for now. The key sticking points are:
  1. the idea that existing laws already cover most or all of the cases of concern to us; and
  2. the belief that reckless driving resulting in collision with a pedestrian or bicyclist is not so grave as domestic violence or DUI, the only two exceptions in the Kentucky law that otherwise requires a law enforcement officer to witness a misdemeanor in order to issue a citation or make an arrest for it. Lacking this gravity, legislators and law enforcement officials do not want to allow police officers to cite crash-causing reckless drivers without witnessing the crash.
This first opinion marks a stark contrast with the repeated statements of Louisville Metro Police Department officials. The panel of lawyers assembled in Frankfort today seemed amazed that we had been told that police and prosecutors had no options to prosecute the drivers who hit Chips Cronen and Cynthia Flowers, for examples.

Rep. Wayne remains committed to our cause. Rep. Tilley agreed to hold a meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on the Judiciary this summer to address our concerns. Reps. Wayne and Tilley will invite to testify at least one prosecutor and at least one police official, to gain clarity on the lack of prosecutions of apparently reckless drivers to whom various existing criminal statutes would seem to apply. Perhaps we will decide that the answer lies in educating police officers and prosecutors rather than in changing the law. Perhaps we will decide to pursue a change in the law, but take a different approach than used in HB 88. Perhaps we will decide that HB 88 does exactly what we need, and that we merely need to build and apply a stronger citizen advocacy network to pass it. I'm open to any of these options. You can be sure, though, that Bicycling for Louisville will not abandon the cause: Everyone in Kentucky, especially pedestrians and bicyclists, will benefit from a drastic reduction in reckless and inattentive driving. We will not likely see this drastic reduction without serious real-world penalties for reckless drivers who hit people.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tour de Frankfort, Stage 3: stuck in the pack

The statistical brief from yesterday's visit to Frankfort for House Bill 88:
Number in Bicycling for Louisville delegation: 5 (a new record)
Number of conversations with legislators: 6
Number of new cosponsors for HB 88: 0

Yesterday, David Morse, Fred Crismon, Dennis Pastor, Ron Schneider, and I went to Frankfort in an effort to influence Rep. John Tilley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to schedule a hearing and vote on HB 88 in the Judiciary Committee. Without this, the bill will die in committee, never going back to the House for a vote. Based on our conversation with Rep. Tilley a week ago, we knew that we faced an uphill climb.

We hoped to influence Rep. Tilley by getting other members of the Judiciary Committee and the House Democratic leaders to urge him to have the Committee act on HB 88. Three committee members told us yesterday that they would ask Rep. Tilley to do so. A fourth seemed so discouraging about the bill's chances that I chose not to ask her to speak with Rep. Tilley. House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark did not make themselves available to meet with us yesterday. I don't hold this against them - they both have many more powerful organizations and individuals seeking their time on behalf of other issues. We have no idea whether they support or oppose HB 88, if they have thought about it at all.

I left Frankfort yesterday wondering whether our window of opportunity for HB 88 had passed. With the Judiciary Committee not acting on the bill this week, I knew that we might not have enough time for the bill to make it through all of the necessary steps before the end of the short legislative session.

A phone call came a half-hour ago giving me new hope for passing the bill in the current session. Rep. Jim Wayne, the sponsor of the bill, just planned a meeting tomorrow with some key legislators, leading legal experts in the Legislative Research Commission, and outside interests with a stake in the bill. Bicycling for Louisville will have a seat at the table. He hopes that we can work out compromise language to resolve legal issues raised by some members of the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Wayne would not have added this meeting to a very busy schedule if he considered it hopeless to pass the bill in the current session.

I will prepare myself to represent clearly the aims of the bill and how we hope it will work with existing statutes. Even if we succeed tomorrow, our bill faces several other challenges before it can pass. After yesterday's disappointments, the meeting tomorrow is a cause for hope.

I thank David, Fred, Dennis, and Ron for spending several hours yesterday lobbying as citizens for HB 88. If we have success tomorrow, Bicycling for Louisville will put out a call for citizens to join us in Frankfort next week to show support for HB 88 at the crucial Judiciary Committee hearing. Stay tuned to our website for updates!

Monday, February 16, 2009

It was the best of ideas; it was the worst of ideas

On Thursday, the day of the Louisville Bicycle Summit II, the Courier-Journal reported on Metro government's application for federal funding to build a bicycle commuter service station in downtown Louisville. I don't use the term "bike station" because the nonprofit organization Bikestation in California owns the trademark to that term (whether written as one word or two). They have no involvement in Louisville's plans and have made clear that the city does not have their permission to use that term to describe its project.

Predictably, the C-J article gives glowing words from the mayor's spokesperson about the value of a bicycle commuter facility downtown. Almost as predictably, some folks who take issue with Mayor Abramson's budgetary priorities were immediately on the warpath, calling this an "idiotic, limited-appeal project" that will divert funding from projects of more benefit to the community. Predictably, the truth lies somewhere in between.

The Mayor's team sets forth the project as a way to encourage bicycle commuting by people who work downtown. Indeed, many avid cyclists work in downtown Louisville but do not commute by bicycle. On the fiscal front, they defend it as a federally-funded project that will cost the city nothing aside from the dedication of some land already owned by the city. Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) money, for which Metro has applied to fund this project, cannot fund fire stations or Otter Creek Park or libraries, but can fund projects to reduce motor vehicle use by increasing the attractiveness of bicycling.

Many will criticize any government expenditure to increase bicycling for transportation, believing that bicycling inherently appeals to many less people than driving does. They do not believe that bicycling will ever play the central transportation role in US cities that it plays in many European cities. They do not understand how an increase in transportation bicycling can reduce congestion faced by the remaining motor vehicle drivers, or grasp that bicycling can significantly reduce our fuel consumption and pollution emissions. For them, no bicycle-serving facility will ever have an acceptable cost-benefit ratio, because they believe the benefits will be nearly zero.

As a life-long transportation cyclist, I do not accept this anti-bicycling viewpoint. Unfortunately, though, the Mayor may be barking up the wrong tree with the proposal for a bicycle commuter facility downtown. In my view, we lack some necessary conditions to proceed with this project, as attractive as it appears.

Nearly all of the several successful facilities run by Bikestation, as well as the McDonald's Cycle Center in Millenium Park, Chicago (which inspired Mayor Abramson's enthusiasm for a cycle center here), are located close to a fixed-rail transit station used by thousands of people daily. The rail station makes a natural site for a major bicycle parking facility, which makes a bike + rail commute attractive and draws a large enough group of users to support the bicycle-related businesses located at the cycle center. The train serves people who may live quite a distance from downtown, and brings them within easy bicycling distance of nearly any downtown destination. The bicycle makes the train more attractive by replacing a long walk or a transfer to one or more local buses in order to reach one's destination. With no transit hub through which thousands of commuters travel each day, Louisville does not seem well situated to make heavy use of a bicycle commuting center.

People might also ride their bicycles downtown and then use the bicycle commuting center to lock their bicycles and shower before work. This leads to three questions: 1) Will the bicycle center be located close enough to their offices for them to want to walk between the two points? 2) Would the money and political capital to build a bicycle center be better invested providing good parking and shower facilities at workplaces? 3) Do the people who might use the bicycle center feel comfortable riding downtown in rush hour traffic? If most of the cyclists willing to ride downtown are already doing so, then the bicycle center won't do much to increase our bicycle commuting mode share.

When the Louisville cycle center idea first came up a couple of years ago, I had a conversation with the executive director of Bikestation. She agreed that the lack of a transit hub might make it difficult for a bicycle commuting center to succeed here. She stressed two elements of planning for a successful cycle center: a market study to assess demand, and a business plan to determine how user fees or other income could meet the operating expenses of the station. I urged Metro government in 2006 to take these steps; to the best of my knowledge, they have not. Even if money falls from heaven to build a state-of-the-art bicycle center downtown, it will cost money to run it. A bicycle retailer or repair shop, a cafe, a bike rental business, a tourist information kiosk, and any other supportive businesses will need enough customers to keep their doors open. No sane business owner would start a business, or lease space in a cycle center, without a business plan.

In about 2004, Jackie Green bought the building at 107 W. Market Street where he now operates the Bike Courier Bike Shop and CBD Courier service. He immediately called the location the Bike Depot. He searched for a restaurateur to open a cafe there, and repeatedly sought the interest of Metro officials to create a bicycle parking operation there. The location would have required much architectural creativity to serve all of those purposes well. Perhaps that dream was never achievable. But nobody in government or the private sector was willing to partner with Jackie to build the dream, even with Jackie having assumed the financial risk of owning the property.

Against all odds, Jackie and shop manager Russ Hisle have built a successful (or at least surviving) full-service bike shop at 107 W. Market Street. No matter whose money Metro plans to invest in its cycle center, I urge them to give careful thought to its current and potential market, its operating expenses, and the financial prospects of supportive businesses located in or near the center. Without such thought, Metro will likely find itself with a white elephant that anti-bike commentators and politicians will use to torpedo funding for bicycle-supporting projects for years to come.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tour de Frankfort, Stage 2 - the progress continues

David Morse and I went back to Frankfort on Thursday night, a few hours after the end of the Louisville Bike Summit II. We stayed overnight with friends in Frankfort so we would have only a short trip to get to the Capitol Annex for meetings starting at 8 AM Friday. We met with five legislators and spoke with another by telephone. By the end of the day, our bill (HB 88) had eight cosponsors (up from four last week) including three members of the House Judiciary Committee. For the bill to pass, the Judiciary Committee must take action on the bill and send it to the floor of the House with a favorable report.

In addition to initial sponsor Jim Wayne (Louisville), cosponsors now include Mary Lou Marzian, Tom Burch, Reginald Meeks, and Tom Riner of Louisville Metro, along with Charles Siler (R-Whitley County), David Watkins (D-Henderson), and Kevin Sinnette (D-Ashland).

We met with Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. John Tilley of Hopkinsville. He seemed sympathetic to our aims and supportive of giving the bill a hearing, but cautioned us that the committee faces a tremendous workload for the remainder of this short session. He gave us no assurance that he would push HB 88 high enough on the committee's agenda to assure that it would receive a hearing and vote. He was not blowing smoke - over 20 bills face the committee, along with some important matters resulting from the unlawful extension of the 2008 legislative session beyond its deadline set in the Kentucky Constitution.

We are reaching out to HB 88 supporters who live in House District 8 (part of Hopkinsville and parts of Christian and Trigg Counties near the Tennessee border), asking that they contact Rep. Tilley (their Representative) to urge him to post the bill to the Judiciary Committee this week. If hearing from several of his own constituents does not do the trick, we will ask for a broader show of citizen support. Once the bill has a hearing date in the Judiciary Committee, we will ask supporters to write to all Judiciary Committee members who have not already cosponsored the bill.

Each visit to Frankfort includes surprises. As we waited for staffers of House Judiciary Committee members to call us into meetings (several of which never took place), David took advantage of wi-fi access to check the list of cosponsors on the LRC website. Two new cosponsors, whom we had not contacted, appeared on the list - Reginald Meeks of Louisville and Kevin Sinnette of Ashland. We called their offices to schedule meetings with each of them, to thank them for their support and ask their advice on how to move the bill forward. It was Friday afternoon and the House and Senate had adjourned. Most legislators had already headed homeward. Reps. Meeks and Sinnette were not only in their offices, but answered their own phones!

I thanked them both and asked for a few minutes to see them. Rep. Meeks had no time to spare, but told me how to reach him in Louisville on Monday. Rep. Sinnette said he could give us a few minutes. We rushed to his office, shook his hand, and asked how he had taken an interest in HB 88. He replied that he is a cyclist and rides with his hometown club! Developing relationships with individual legislators is a crucial part of lobbying. The work we do this year may not result in passing HB 88, but might lead to even more important lobbying victories in 2010 and beyond. Making a connection with a bicyclist in the House can serve us well in the future, as long as he keeps his seat!

To address a comment on my previous post, passing HB 88 will not automatically usher in a new era of peace and tranquility on the roads of Kentucky. It can, however, help in some important ways:
1) providing an understandable state law on which to base simple statements in driver's ed, traffic school, and public service announcements: driving recklessly and hitting a bicyclist or pedestrian can land you in jail - the law says so right here...

2) providing a basis for prosecution of reckless drivers specifically for hitting pedestrians and bicyclists - not because they were DUI or fled from the scene or had drugs in the car. The resulting news stories will convey that reckless driving is no longer acceptable and that we no longer look at reckless driving crashes as "accidents."

3) giving sincere, concerned police officers an easy way to press charges against reckless, crash-causing drivers in many cases in which they have no easy option now.

4) eliminating an excuse that less-concerned officers may use for not filing charges against reckless drivers for hitting pedestrians and bicyclists.

5) eliminating an excuse that some bicyclists use for their failure to abide by traffic laws - "the law doesn't protect me, so I can't be bothered obeying it."

6) beginning a public dialogue on the traffic laws and how to make them more effective in reducing the carnage on our roads.

7) demonstrating that bicyclists and pedestrians in Kentucky can work together effectively to win changes in state law.

The campaign to pass HB 88 is the beginning of the journey, not the end. It may be easy to dream of laws that will solve huge problems in one fell swoop, but difficult to write them and even more difficult to get them passed! We chose to bite off a small chunk with HB 88 in hopes of winning incremental progress.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tour de Frankfort, Stage 1 results

When in Frankfort with friends last week to lobby for House Bill 88, I realized that our legislative advocacy effort had much in common with a stage race. Many months of preparation took place before we made our first appointment to visit a legislator, just as a racer puts in months of training before entering a race. The effort to pass this bill will unfold over several weeks; each day's results contribute to the overall cause, but a single day's success or failure usually does not dictate the outcome. If we do not win this year, "there is always next year" as in racing. Those of you who follow bicycle racing might think of this post in the same light as blogs kept by racers between stages of stage races. I'll keep it short in order to get back to work on the campaign.

HB 88 defines a new criminal violation, "vehicular assault of a bicyclist or pedestrian," as a vehicle operator hitting a bicyclist or pedestrian while driving recklessly. It authorizes law enforcement officers to issue a citation or make an arrest for this violation on the basis of probable cause (in other words, good reason to believe that the violation has been committed). Current law prohibits officers from issuing citations or making arrests for non-felony traffic infractions unless they witness the infraction, except in cases of DUI. For this reason, police rarely file charges when bicyclists are hit, regardless of the severity of injury suffered by the cyclist. HB 88 would change that.

We visited several members of the House Judiciary Committee, which must report favorably on HB 88 in order for it to progress to the full House of Representatives. Three legislators decided to cosponsor the bill, and three others said they would consider supporting it, perhaps with some modification. It was clear to us that face-to-face conversations with the legislators helped us make the case for the bill and build support for it. We learned quite a bit by listening to them, too. I would say that we had a very good day for Stage 1.

Stage 2 takes place on Friday, when we return to Frankfort to meet Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. John Tilley (D-Hopkinsville) in hopes of winning swift committee action on the bill. The legislative session lasts only three more weeks, with the committee meeting probably three more times. We have a small window of time in which to get the committee to act on HB 88. For now, our full effort must go toward winning the support of Rep. Tilley and Judiciary Committee members. If that goes well, we will return to Frankfort to lobby the entire membership of the House. If our work with the Judiciary Committee does not bear fruit, our race is over... for this year.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Strong opinions, needlessly strong language

I'm thrilled that some folks find this blog helpful for starting discussions about important issues in cycling safety, the cycling environment, and behavior of road users. The burst of comments regarding my post about red lights and stop signs encourages me. A reader wrote that he found the language of some recent posts offensive, although he appreciates the blog. I agree with him that the foul language (whether in the post itself or in an avatar) adds nothing to the discussion and puts off people who might otherwise find it valuable.

Rather than moderating comments, I prefer to urge readers to post their comments using language that you would consider inoffensive in conversations with your children (or grandchildren) and your parents. I will moderate comments only if self-moderation by comment-posters does not do the trick. Please continue to bring your passion and your best thoughts to the discussion, but please leave the crude language to private venues.