My two wheels vs. their badges

  • Article by: SCOTT F. PARKER
  • Updated: November 23, 2013 - 4:46 PM

A bicyclist’s encounter with the police.

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A new type of cycling lane may be coming to Minneapolis if the local bike lobby gets its way on Minnehaha and Washington avenues. They're lobbying for a cycle track, or physically separated two-way pairs of lanes, similar to what is found along Hennepin Ave. across from the Walker Art Center. A cyclist used the two-way bike lane alongside Hennepin Ave. Tuesday afternoon, July 16, 2011. ] JEFF WHEELER • jeff.wheeler@startribune.com ORG XMIT: MIN1307161839081219

Photo: Jeff Wheeler • Star Tribune,

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One afternoon this past summer, as I was cycling north in the bike lane along Hennepin Avenue, a Minneapolis Police Department cruiser also traveling north turned right from Hennepin onto Oak Grove Street and nearly creamed me. It happened suddenly, as these things do — with an abrupt stop, I just avoided the collision. I took a moment to catch my breath, watching the cops drive off. I was certain they hadn’t seen me.

As I proceeded east, I had time to think about this latest close call. Cyclists reading this will know there are far too many. To be an urban commuter is to be made a cautious rider. There’s no sense getting angry at these incidents, dangerous as they may be. Better to have a short emotional memory. At least, that’s how I usually roll.

In this case, though, I couldn’t quite do it. It bothered me that this driver was a police officer. Doesn’t cops’ behavior set an example for others? I thought as I pedaled past Loring Park. Shouldn’t cops be especially attuned to what’s going on outside their cars? I thought as I saw the cop car in question stopped ahead at a red light on Nicollet. I eased off my pedaling at the sight of it, figuring I’d save myself what could be nothing but trouble and let the officers pull ahead.

And had the light changed sooner, that’s the way it would have gone down. But the light stayed red, and by the time I approached the car, I had decided to say something.

I checked myself to be sure I wasn’t acting out of anger. I felt calm and clearheaded, also confident in my complaint and secure in my rights. I signaled to the cop in the passenger seat, who rolled down his window.

Summoning all the good nature I had, I explained that they’d unintentionally cut me off.

The cops, it turned out, understood the situation differently. To wit: “No, we didn’t.”

“Yeah, right back there on Hennepin,” I said, remembering to smile. “You guys turned right across the bike lane.”

A brief consultation with the driver followed before the cop riding shotgun said, “Sir, pull onto the sidewalk.”

• • •

A Portlander by origin, I’ve been in Minneapolis for more than four years now. I can’t begin to recall the number of times I’ve been asked to hold forth on the relative merits of these simpatico cities.

When it comes to cycling, I highlight Minneapolis’s superior trails and the sense of community that emerges from the ubiquity of Nice Ride and self-service repair stations popping up around town. On Portland’s side, I point out the ease of navigation by bike lane, the better condition of the roads, and the weather.

But the real clincher for Portland is that drivers there — because of culture as well as the sheer volume of riders — are more accustomed to cyclists. I remember counting “Share the Road” bumper stickers while I was still on training wheels. This doesn’t mean that cyclists aren’t hit there (often by cars turning right across bike lanes), but it does mean that many drivers there are trying to avoid you as much as you’re trying to avoid them.

It’s this uncommon awareness, more than anything else, that makes Portland the best cycling town in America, no matter what Bicycling magazine says (Minneapolis, if you haven’t heard).

When the cop ordered me onto the sidewalk, I considered apologizing for my insubordination and offering to disappear. I considered it, then I rejected it. “OK,” I said, not bothering to smile.

The driver pulled over to the curb (blocking the bike lane, I noticed), and got out of the car. What followed was (to me) a cliché of low-level intimidation and childish retaliation. The cop accused me of entering the intersection illegally, which made me wonder whether they had seen me and whether this reflected better or worse on the driver. I declined the invitation to admit my guilt and asked instead how it could be possible to enter an intersection illegally riding in a bike lane with the green light. The officer did not appear impressed by my reasoning.

I did my best to stand respectfully without acquiescing, refusing to be intimidated as his version of the event became more entrenched in his memory and as the accusations against me mounted. In addition to my moving violation, he announced, he was charging me with a misdemeanor for interfering with an arrest (of the drunk guy handcuffed in the back of the squad car).

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