Public Comment

Commentary: Do Berkeley Police Have It In for Bicyclists?

By Michelle Lerager
Tuesday August 07, 2007

I am a 56-year-old woman who has enjoyed riding my bike all over Berkeley for over 25 years. I bike to work daily; I do most of my errands by bike; and I ride to reduce my carbon footprint and for fitness—I’m proud to say I ride up Spruce Street regularly for aerobic exercise. I am a very safe, conservative bicyclist. I stop at all stop lights and proceed cautiously at stop signs, slowing or stopping and taking my proper turn when entering intersections. I avoid main streets and appreciate the “Bicycle Boulevards,” which I use whenever possible. 

Much to my dismay and torment, in recent months I have twice been pulled over by police officers in patrol cars while riding my bike and admonished and/or threatened with a citation, when I was proceeding with caution and alertness and the road courtesy I always employ. In the first case, I was scolded by an officer for not dismounting from my bike at a stop sign while proceeding east on Blake Street at Milvia Street—an intersection whose south side is blocked by a traffic barrier that prevents the entry of any through traffic from the side where I was crossing the intersection. In the most recent instance (just today), as I was traveling north on California Street at Addison Street, I was threatened with a moving-violation citation (whose fine, the officer said, would be $275) for not coming to a full stop, although I had slowed my bike from a modest pace to a very slow pace as I approached the stop sign and proceeded through the intersection. A car traveling east on Addison Street arrived at the intersection (which is controlled by a four-way stop) at the same time as I did, and the car stopped at the stop sign. I felt it was very safe for me to proceed and that my doing so did not impede the movement of the car or violate its right to proceed. 

I do not understand why the police seem so concerned with such a relatively minor infraction. Do bicyclists really need to get off or completely stop their bikes on quiet residential streets where there is little traffic and their proceeding does not put anyone at risk for an accident? I am confused and upset. What has always been a pleasant activity for me is now fraught with worry that I will be pulled over again by the police if I don’t get off my bike at every stop sign. 

I know that some bicyclists ride dangerously, and I strongly disapprove of reckless driving, whether by bikes or cars. But really, if a bicyclist comes to a four-way stop and no other vehicles are anywhere nearby, must the bicyclist stop and get off her/his bike or risk getting a ticket? And what constitutes stopping? How many seconds do you have to be stationary on the bike to prove you stopped? Also, is the bicyclist required merely to stop, or is s/he also required to get off the bike? The officer who confronted me today said, “It’s my opinion that you just have to stop.” The other officer was of the opinion that the law required bicyclists to step off their bikes at stop signs. Do we bicyclists have to guess what police officers’ opinions of the law’s requirements are? 

I admit that I did not come to a full stop in either of the instances mentioned above. But is it reasonable to expect bicyclists to do that in a situation where common sense determines there is no risk to anyone created by a bicyclist’s slowing down, checking traffic in all directions, and then proceeding without stopping? I have never seen any other bicyclist actually get off her or his bike at stop signs if conditions were clear for proceeding. (If we did do that, it would take all day just to get across town!) 

I appreciate the difficult, vital work that Berkeley police officers do every day, but I don’t understand the way in which they seem to be enforcing traffic laws with respect to bicyclists. What is accomplished by harassing conscientious bicyclists who are not endangering themselves or others and who, after all, are contributing to the city’s livability by reducing car emissions, noise, and traffic congestion? I would appreciate hearing an explanation on this from the Berkeley Police Department in your pages. 


Michelle Lerager is a Berkeley resident.