Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on June 13th, 2012 at 11:06 am
During the BikeBOT Radio Ride on Monday night, Kevin Stone received a citation for impeding traffic. The ride is part of Pedalpalooza, a nearly month-long celebration of bicycling that includes hundreds of group rides.
Stone was approached by a Portland Police officer at 7:45 pm as he straddled his bike in the intersection of SE 34th and Belmont. The officer cited him for violating ORS 811.130, "Impeding traffic". Stone was fined $110. That statute reads (in part):
"A person commits the offense of impeding traffic if the person drives a motor vehicle or a combination of motor vehicles* in a manner that impedes or blocks the normal and reasonable movement of traffic" [*Note that ORS 814.400 applies vehicle laws to bicycles.]
I happened to be on the ride, but had peeled off just a few blocks before Stone was pulled over. Stone contacted me after the ride to share his version of what happened. Turns out he was "corking" an intersection (when riders hold up cross traffic in order to let a larger group of riders stay together and safety pass through) and one of the vehicles he held up happened to be driven by a Portland Police Officer.
Here's Stone's version of what happened:
"Our group was riding south on SE 34th Ave, and I believe the whole group got caught at the light. I was midway back in the pack, and as folks were riding though the intersection it became clear to me that the group would not all make it through under the green light. In the interest of the safety of individuals in the group I slowed to a stop at the head of the eastbound lane of Belmont, and straddled my bike while the last of the pack came filing through the intersection. There was a second corker in the westbound lane.
As the last individual passed the midpoint of the intersection I waved to the several cars backed up, and mouthed "thank you."
Immediately, Officer N. Phothivongsa (who I believe was the second or third car backed up at the intersection) pulled in front of me, blocking both the westbound lane of Belmont and the southbound lane of 34th. I stopped immediately. and waited
for the officer to exit his car. He asked me what authority I had to block the intersection, and I told him that wasn't really the issue. He asked for my ID, I gave it to him, and was told that I was not free to leave.
Officer Phothivongsa made a number of comments, mostly in the form of rhetorical questions that I chose not to answer. He repeatedly hit on three themes during this lecture: that my action was not acceptable, that I had inconvenienced the automobile drivers, and that in an collision with a car, that the car would "win." He told me repeatedly that he could take me to jail, and after an eventual inquiry, said he could charge me with Disorderly Conduct 2. He asked me repeatedly if I wanted to go to jail, and if I thought "it was worth going to jail for." I eventually told him that I did not want to go to jail. I probably said less than 30 words during our conversation of roughly ten minutes.
He wrote me a citation, suggested that he was cutting me a break by not taking me to jail, and for only citing me for a violation. I tired of his lecture and requested my ID and the citation. He was very clear at the end of our interaction that he wanted me to "tell my friends" that behavior such as I exhibited was not allowed, and would not be tolerated. I have not had many interactions with Portland Police during the many years I've lived in the city, but would say that I was not treated with the level of courtesy and respect that I have come to expect from Portland Police officers."
The way Stone tells it, this is an unfortunate situation.
Managing the flow of group rides is done without incident about 99.9% of the time. In fact, during the many group rides and parades I've been a part of, I have never heard of someone being cited for corking traffic. Yes, sometimes words are exchanged and tempers flare between the people waiting and the person corking, but it's usually handled with calm heads and smiles all around. Obviously the practice of holding up cross-traffic to let a group of people roll through a red light is illegal; but it also happens to be much safer. Without corking, rides would split up into many tiny groups and chaos would reign. When a group stays together, it seems to work much better from a safety standpoint (which is why police themselves do it on rides that have police escorts).
It's also worth noting that in 2009, the PPB released an internal training video directed at officers about "common bike enforcement situations" and how to use discretion in enforcing the law. The video had an entire section on "themed group rides" (beginning at 6:28 or so). The video specifically mentioned Pedalpalooza. Here's a snip narrated by a PPB officer:
"At first these groups may look like a protest or Critical Mass... But they are often nothing like Critical Mass. These are semi-organized processions of good humored funseekers who don't want confrontation of law enforcement... Your goal should be safe and efficient movement of these large groups with minimal disruption to other modes of traffic... To move groups through intersections... require group to obey traffic lights... That might break the group up but that avoids what has been a volatile clash point... But if you feel the goal is better served by blocking cross traffic you also have have discretion... Officers who need to alter the behavior of a group ride might first attempt to communicate with a ride leader about their concerns..."
It's important to understand that corking can be abused. According to an expert I spoke to for this story, smaller rides (this one had only about 50 or so people) shouldn't always be corked. If not everyone makes it through the green light, there's nothing wrong with the front group pulling over and waiting for everyone else. Once rides get into the 150-200 person range (filling an entire blockface and then some), corking is generally seen as more of an imperative (and therefore more likely to be accepted without incident by people held up by it).
The issue also falls onto the shoulders of ride leaders. It's helpful if ride leaders announce at the start of a ride whether they'll be corking or not (and have designated corkers identified). Shift, the group behind Pedalpalooza, has done ride leader trainings; but that's an effort still in its infancy.
In years past, people from the community have met with PPB officers to discuss what to expect during Pedalpalooza. That hasn't happened in a few years, so perhaps it's time to restart that dialogue.
It's too bad this incident occurred. Let's use it as a reminder to be smart, be aware, and be as courteous as possible out there.
Can some experienced corkers share their insights and experiences?