Council may allow bikes on sidewalks

Stancil introduces bill to lift city ban set in 1958

July 19, 2004|By Malena Amusa | Malena Amusa,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore City Council is considering a repeal of its longtime ban on riding bicycles on sidewalks, a response to concerns that police officers are abusing the prohibition as part of the department's crackdown on quality-of-life crimes.

Councilwoman Lisa Joi Stancil said she introduced the bill to deter what she described as the Police Department's "overzealous" use of the law.

"There is a legitimate problem getting people in court, and using that law as an excuse to detain someone," Stancil said. "That's not right."

Stancil's effort is supported by some bicycle riders and parents who complain that the ban forces adults and children to ride in the streets, risking accidents and injuries.

For more than 100 years, the city has regulated bicycles. The first ordinance, approved in 1890, required bikes to have lighted lamps after dark. Later regulations prohibited riding a bike with no hands or feet. In 1958, riding on the sidewalk became a crime, punishable through a criminal citation - an order to appear in court to receive community service or a fine.

Under Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark, officers have increased the number of citations they are issuing for quality-of-life crimes - including bicycle violations in high-drug trafficking areas - as a tactic to detain more suspected drug dealers, said Matt Jablow, a department spokesman.

As dealers find more creative ways to avoid police scrutiny, officers are finding more creative tactics, such as enforcing bike laws, he said. After noticing an increase in the number of drug dealers on bikes, police heightened criminal enforcement of the law. "We're not going to family neighborhoods [to make these arrests]," Jablow said.

Police officials could not offer specific data on the number of bicycle-related citations, but Jablow said the number has increased significantly.

Stancil questioned the need for that apparent increase in enforcement. "There needs to be sufficient cause for police interaction," she said. "Police say it's for public safety, but in five years I haven't gotten one complaint [about bicycling on sidewalks]."

Some bicyclists also argue that the city's streets are narrow, with few bike routes - making it safer to ride on the sidewalks.

"My kids ride their bike in Baltimore City, and cars threaten my kids' life every day and the police do nothing to help," said Barry Childress, a father of five.

But the Police Department said the ban protects the safety of pedestrians.

In a statement, the department said repealing the ban "would pose a safety issue for those for whom the sidewalk was designed, namely pedestrians."

It's not clear how much support exists on the council for Stancil's proposal.

Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, chairman of the Transportation Subcommittee, held a hearing on the measure this month, but he indicated that he is frustrated at the lack of data from the Police Department on the number of citations.

"If 900 out of 1,000 citations were criminal, then I'd have a big-time problem," Stukes said. "But the bill is not going anywhere" without an analysis of the numbers.

Stukes said he wants to plan a work session to address bicyclists' safety and their relationship with the Police Department, but he couldn't offer a timeline of action. He predicted that the issue will require another hearing before it moves forward.

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