In Houston, cops are taking a novel approach to arresting jerks who cut off cyclists. They’re going undercover on two wheels, and when things get too tight for the law, they're calling in for support.
In 2012, if you were cycling around the country, Houston ranked as one of the worst cities to make a stop. Out of 51 American cities in the last Alliance for Biking and Walking report, listed from low to high cyclist fatalities, Houston beat out other lethal cities for number 41.
But Houston could turn itself around, especially now that it’s implementing a "Goal Zero" bike safety program that aims to keep all its cyclists alive. Last Tuesday, Mayor Annise Parker announced a series of changes to the way the city went about its transportation business. Among those changes: Sting operations from plainclothes policemen riding bikes to catch drivers who pass cyclists too closely for the city’s three-foot mandated standard.
"We asked them to put police officers in plain clothes on bicycles with support in the area, so if someone did pass them too closely, they could call on their support to pull over that driver and issue a citation," explains Mike Payne, executive director of BikeHouston, the organization that originally went to the mayor’s office with the idea. "They just started running special missions, if you want to call them that, where they send people out to different neighborhoods to do this. And they start writing citations and warnings."
Last year, the Houston City Council passed an ordinance that called on drivers to maintain a three-foot radius from cyclists when passing them on the road, and a six-foot distance if drivers were following them from behind. But those rules, Houstonians found, were almost impossible to enforce. After all, how were cops supposed to possibly guess who passed too closely?
Since December, the city experienced five cyclist deaths, four of which were hit-and-runs. Two of those crimes remained unsolved, which drew attention to the city’s problem with enforcing its own laws. Perspective changes, though, when you’re riding on two wheels with the traffic.
Houston isn’t the only city to pull this maneuver. Austin has also initiated police stings to catch aggressive drivers. And programs that catch drivers veering into pedestrian crosswalks have existed for some time. Last year, in Fort Lee, New Jersey (yes, they would soon experience even worse traffic problems), the local police department nabbed 56 drivers who motored through crosswalks without slowing down for pedestrians.
Payne hopes that policies like these will turn Houston into a cycling mecca. The city is flat, he points out, and has wide streets—ideal for riding bikes.
"Houston’s one of the fastest growing cities in the country, because of the energy industry and the medical industry here," he says. "We’ve got more automobiles, and we’ve got more cyclists, and this is true all around the country. How we plan for them will determine whether or not we are successful in dealing with challenges of urban obesity."