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Ordinance would curb messengers' pedal privileges

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 8, 1999
By Christopher Keough and Julie Hannon

Bike messengers flit among traffic Downtown like pedal-powered water spiders in a sea of larger, petroleum-fired fish.

Sometimes, messengers run red lights and stop signs and pedal the wrong way on one-way streets. Councilwoman Valerie McDonald wants to hold them accountable.

McDonald introduced a bill on Tuesday that would require permits and attached flags for all commercial bikes in the city. Motorists, pedestrians and police would be able to better spot careless couriers.

The ordinance, which has no co-sponsors and which council members aren't expected to deliberate for at least several weeks, would require bike messenger companies to get permits and to register each bike in the fleet. Riders would be required to use hand signals, wear reflective vests after dark and carry a photo ID.

"This is outrageous," said Malah, a 22-year-old bike messenger from Oakland, who only gave one name. "All it does is place restrictions on us."

Messengers on the street yesterday afternoon reacted differently to McDonald's proposal. Some shrugged, some became indignant, but almost all suspected one of their brethren must have crossed a city politician.

That's kind of what happened.

McDonald said the idea was born from personal fear after her own brush with a bicycle messenger.

She recently encountered an unhelmeted messenger heading the wrong way on Fourth Avenue as she was driving to her office in the City-County Building on Grant Street, Downtown.

"I'm not playing when I'm driving," McDonald said. "I'm not very nice going around the corner."

Police said bicycle messengers occasionally hop onto sidewalks or blow red lights to squeeze through gridlock. But officers receive few complaints, said Sgt. Michael Piasecki of the Special Deployment Division.

"I've seen (a bicycle messenger) run a red light, sure," said Piasecki. "But overall, it hasn't been a serious problem. I can't say I ever saw a formal complaint in this office."

Cyclists are bound to the same rules of the road as motorists and face the same fines if caught violating the law, Piasecki said. The violations are not separately tracked within the department, he noted.

Bill Jones, president of Triangle Messenger Service Inc., Bingham Street, South Side, said he understand's McDonald's arguments.

"I think that could cut down on a certain amount of recklessness when riders know they could be identified," he said.

Triangle messengers are easy to spot, though. They wear blue shirts with yellow writing on them. Many carry a basket over the front tire that bears the company name and phone number. Jones said the proposal is not meritless, but some of the details are problematic.

Jones said requiring a hand signal for the last 100 feet leading to a turn is not a good idea on Pittsburgh's less than smooth streets. One of his riders agreed.

"If I'm carrying 200 pounds in a basket, if I have to take a hand off to signal, my bike's dumping in the middle of the street," said Keith Smallwood, 24, an 18-month veteran from Mt. Oliver.

Registering individual bikes is pointless, Smallwood said, because messengers frequently swap steeds when someone gets a flat or for other reasons, and he has ridden as many as four bikes in a given day.

It would be better motorists and pedestrians respect bikers and learn the laws governing bikes on the street, Smallwood suggested.

"A lot of it, too, is the drivers. People don't look for you. They're looking for the other cars or talking on their cell phones," Smallwood said. "If I had five cents for every time someone says I'm supposed to be on the sidewalk, I'd be a rich man."

Marty Strogen, 25, delivers for Jet Messenger of Tustin Street, Uptown. He conceded that not all messengers follow all traffic laws, particularly stop signs and red lights.

"I yield at them; I don't necessarily stop," Strogen said. "Just as a pedestrian crosses, I'll cross also."

Another Jet messenger, Jason Schmitt, said the city should do something constructive for bikers if it's going to put restrictions on their progress through town.

"There's so many bikes out here, dude," said Schmitt, 21. "I know some of them are nuts, but there's no bike lanes, and we can't ride in bus lanes."

Chris Bobnar, manager of Jet Messenger, wondered why McDonald would pick on messengers when there are plenty of other bikes on the streets.

"It doesn't make much sense, honestly," Bobnar said. "What about all the people who aren't messengers. What are they going to do to them?"

As for daredevil messengers who risk broken limbs and dented bumpers, Bobnar doesn't think bike messengers differ from the general population.

"I'm sure there's renegade everything," he said. "There's renegade pedestrians, for that matter."

In the end, too much regulation just would wipe out the only competitive advantage bike messenger companies have, Smallwood said.

"Look at it this way: If we have to obey every single traffic law that cars have to obey, why not have someone in a car deliver?" he said.

Police surveyed in similarly sized cities - Cincinnati, St. Louis and Portland, Ore., said no such ordinances exist in their towns.

Nor did an officer see an immediate need for one.

"Bicycling is big here. We're actually considered one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country, and I've never heard of such an ordinance," said Portland police Sgt. Bob Moyer.

"It's a mixed bag of those who obey and those who don't, but the bulk follow the law. A ticket on a bicycle goes against a person's driving record just like it does with a good old-fashioned speeding ticket."

Proposed bicycle laws

Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Valerie McDonald proposes regulating bicycle messenger services Downtown. While acknowledging city support of bicycles as a means to cut down traffic congestion, McDonald wants to make bike messengers accountable for their driving and ease apprehension among motorists sharing the streets.

McDonald proposes:

Hand signals required continuously during the last 100 feet traveled by the bike before making a turn unless both hands are needed to control the bike.

Bike messenger services must obtain a permit from the city. Each bike must be registered with an individual alphanumeric identification.

Bikes shall be clearly marked on both sides and back with the name of the messenger service and the registration number.

Bikes shall be equipped with a flag extending one foot above the operator's head.

Bike operators must wear reflective safety vests between sunset and sunrise and carry a photo ID.


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