On Tuesday, the Portland Bureau of Transportation proudly boasted about their traffic law enforcement crackdown around the light rail construction zone in inner southeast Portland. They issued 316 citations, 104 warnings, and arrested four people in just over two weeks of patrols. In press statements, PBOT says this stepped-up enforcement effort is being done in the name of safety and that their efforts are — understandably so — directed at speeding and, “motorists who are distracted, impaired, or aggressive.”
But what they haven’t said is that people on bikes are being ticketed simply for failing to properly navigate the confusing, stress-inducing, and inadequate detour signage.
The same day PBOT’s latest press release went out, we heard from a reader named John M. (he didn’t want his last name used) who received a $260 ticket while trying to get to SE Division from the Springwater Corridor. “I’ve been riding there for years,” John said via a phone interview. “I went the way I normally go, but everything was blocked.” Confused, he swung right down a road to look for help from a flagger. Not seeing anyone, he then did a u-turn, hopped up a curb and onto a sidewalk. Then he noticed the sidewalk had some sort of freshly laid substance on it, so he jumped back down onto the road. Looking north, he noticed a freshly paved crossing of the railroad tracks that looked wide open (see photo below), so he rode right on through.
What he didn’t realize was that the area was technically closed. He claims he never saw the sign due to his u-turns, sidewalk ride, and general confusion. Then he got pulled over. “There was a cop waiting right there for me and he gave me a ticket.”
John read me the words on his ticket: He was cited for “Failure to obey a traffic control device – road closure.”
During their conversation, John said he tried to explain to the officer that he was genuinely confused and that he is a very careful rider. “I was lost at that point, so I asked the officer if I could go back the way I came,” John recalled, “Then as we looked back a woman did exactly what I just did. I waved and yelled, ‘You’re going to get a ticket!'”
As part of the light rail construction, there are a lot of new sidewalks and paths in the area. John rode on a path across the tracks that looked very wide open and passable from his perspective. “There is no barrier and lots of people were biking over the path and through the closed street,” he shared.
John claims the police officer went over and photographed the “Road Closed” sign that was further up the block, as if the officer was proactively prepping the case in traffic court.
As is common policy, the officer gave John the option of paying $30 to attend the Share the Road Safety Class in lieu of the $260 fine and mark on his record. But that’s hardly a consolation for John. “I don’t have $30 for that,” he said, “I’m just so mad about this.”
The day after we heard about John’s case, we noticed several people writing about the situation on the Shift email list. Erin Flasher saw the officers writing tickets that day and wrote, “The signage and routing in that area are so confusing and change every day… Giving pricey tickets instead of warnings is crazy.” Local author Joe Kurmaskie also saw the incident and wrote that the two motorcycle officers were “working in tandem — one waiting just south of division and circling back around after handing out tickets — round robin style. They just reopened the road and have lots of confusing/detour signs still up in places. It does seem ridiculous to hand out tickets instead of education.”
In an interview yesterday, PPB Traffic Division Lieutenant Chris Davis told us his officers are simply focusing on keeping the area safe. He said officers based their decision on whether or not to cite based on several things, including the nature of the violation, someone’s driving history, and so on.”We really don’t target bikes, and it’s never been my intention to target bikes specifically, being a cyclist myself.” Then Lt. Davis added, “That being said, as supportive as I am of all things bike, I’m also very concerned about safety and if folks are doing things that are dangerous, I want to change that behavior.” (Note that John’s ticket was for not obeying a “Road Closed” sign, not for engaging in dangerous behavior.)
At this point, John has started a discussion with a lawyer and is likely to contest the ticket in court.
If safety, speeding, and other dangerous driving activities are truly the City’s focus with this stepped up enforcement, we’d love to see them devote as much police resources to those things as possible. And if they see someone doing their best to navigate what is obviously a confusing area, perhaps an offer of help is a better policing strategy than punishment?