Elise Stolte: Edmonton cycling tickets concentrated in low-income areas with no bike lanes
Four tickets for riding on the sidewalk in two months — that’s Shayne Stonehocker’s record. The worst was when he came off 105 Street shared-use path and tried to use the sidewalk to avoid biking on a busy, dangerous 107 Avenue. It was just half a block to the Mac’s Convenience store, but he didn’t make it. “Maybe I look like a drug dealer, maybe because I’m Native American. But, I get it a lot,” says Stonehocker, a bike-maintenance volunteer with the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters Society. When he got that ticket two years ago, he was also off his medication for bipolar disorder and may have been acting erratically, he admits. He was also frustrated at getting yet another ticket and wasn’t exactly polite. But was it necessary to issue a $100 ticket when there are no other safe cycling options? he says. “I get it; they have a job. But they’re giving tickets to the poorest people in Edmonton.”
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Edmonton police wrote up 1,480 tickets for cycling on the sidewalk in the last five years. I asked for the locations of each offense and mapped them. They’re highly concentrated in the inner city, on 118 Avenue, a few along 111 Avenue and on the rougher part of Stony Plain Road. It highlights a couple of things. First, many people bike in low-income areas of the city. Second, those low-income areas have minimal safe biking infrastructure. Third, police have been using a city bylaw in some questionable ways. Zoom in on the map, and you’ll find lots of tickets in locations where the sidewalks are normally empty. It’s too big a stretch to believe all the tickets were related to pedestrian safety. Just to be clear, I don’t think people should ride on the sidewalk in general. It’s a hazard for pedestrians, and it’s not safe for cyclists; they’re more likely to get hit when they come off a sidewalk at the intersection. But issuing a ticket when the person riding sees no better option will not improve the situation. It simply leaves citizens angry.
I brought the map and questions to the police. The number of tickets issued per year more than doubled from 143 tickets in 2014 to 400 plus in 2016 and 2017. Insp. Warren Driechel says that timing and the ticket locations line up with a tripling of Edmonton’s beat officer program. Those officers are often on foot or biking and tasked with being proactive, he says. They get tips about people on bikes breaking into garages or cars and may stop someone from riding on the sidewalk to ask questions. The teams were focused on statistics and certain geographic areas, which can encourage more street checks and tickets, says downtown beat Staff Sgt. Mark Fay. But they’re moving away from that model. The new approach, called offender management, recognizes crime is concentrated in certain areas because certain people are. In any society, it’s a small circle of individuals who are most likely to be offenders and victims. Success in policing comes from knowing those individuals and helping them exit, says Fay. It’s building relationships, “getting people to the right places for the right help.” That change in approach might be why ticket numbers dropped back to 199 in 2018.
I’m eager to see what success they achieve. But this map isn’t just about policing. There’s an idea around bike lanes that they’re elitist — just for middle-class commuters with a car in the garage choosing to brave the elements. That’s not just an Edmonton idea; it’s common across North America. But it’s a myth. PeopleForBikes, a non-profit out of Boulder, Colo., studies bikes and has access to safe routes. People in the lowest of four income brackets have the highest percentage of people riding bikes. Still, the other three income brackets are even, says Kyle Wagenschutz, director of local innovation. Cities see only wealthier people dominating bike lanes when they run those bike lanes through well-to-do neighborhoods.
Edmonton’s poor areas have a pathetic lack of bike lanes. Like the one beside the northeast LRT line, the lanes that are there are hard to get to and include terrifying crossings at intersections. Fortunately, there are plans to add lanes during neighborhood reconstruction for Alberta Avenue. But Stony Plain Road has no hope in sight. The coming LRT work makes no space for bikes. “We’ve spent orders of magnitude more on roads,” says Coun. Aaron Paquette got a warning for biking on the sidewalk beside Fort Road, which is six lanes wide. He has a meeting booked with city staff to see if lanes could be fast-tracked where most needed.