Bike Safety Comes Belatedly to USC

Bike USC logoAcross the wire comes news that the University of Southern California is doing a little bit of bike planning! That sure comes as a surprise to alums who watched its Department of Public Safety stand by the increasing number of student cyclists coped with scant safety information, too few bike racks, and a ticket-happy LAPD ever ready to pounce just outside the campus gate.

We at Better Bike will always encourage trading four wheels for two, but problems with increasing bike-ped conflicts in and around the USC campus have been on the increase. Without any official guidance from the Dept. of Public Safety (DPS), tyro riders have taken to the streets, often riding against traffic and, at every light change, creating a bike-ped vortex at Hoover & Jefferson. They ride through crowded crosswalks and sometimes tumble when their cruisers’ inexplicably wide handlebars catch on a pedestrian.

To bring order to that chaos, USC has finally embarked on a campus-wide bicycle planning effort. The purpose is to inform, educate, and “develop a collaborative plan to improve the safety and convenience of bike and pedestrian routes and facilities.” And they’re asking for your input.

As a grad student there in the mid-2000s, I have given mine. I initiated a conversation exactly five years ago with DPS about the need for safety awareness and specifically the obligation (as I saw it) to inform international students about our road rules. You see, USC has long had the largest proportion of international students for 4-year universities, but relatively few had a driver’s license or probably much formal drivers’ ed.

But ride they did…and they often got ticketed. At any time of every day, one saw students ride against traffic on Hoover and – inevitably – they got stopped by the cops. It pained me to have to explain to my international student friends how our citation adjudication process works, and then send them off into the maw of the beast at County Court on South Hill St.

Many of those citations (and presumably some injuries) could have been avoided had DPS simply sent an email or circulated a paper flyer to inform students that on public roadways, cyclists must obey the traffic laws just like motorists.

In fact, I emailed DPS to suggest as much. But I heard nothing back. So I followed up with this message:

Dear Chief Drayton: A couple of weeks ago I sent the appended email message regarding bicycle safety in the campus vicinity and USC Public Safety department communications to students. I had not heard back, and I am wondering if there is a next step that we could take to bring bicycle safety regulations and policies to the attention of our students.

I received this response (here in its entirety):

Education without enforcement does not work in my 25 years+ experience. Dr. Jackson has recently directed a task force to discuss bike use and bike parking. If you are interested in participation please let me know.

So much for good deeds. I did sit in on a few “task force” meetings organized through Student Affairs, but it was clear that any real safety effort was going nowhere. For its part, DPS was more concerned with policing car parking permits.

Fast forward a couple of years to 2009, and there was still talk about some kind of task force, this unfortunately that initiative was focused on enforcement with LAPD, not on bike safety education.

The Daily Trojan then noted that the stepped-up enforcement could cost more cyclists up to $250 (and a court appearance). DPS Assistant Chief John Thomas told the Trojan, “You don’t want to write a citation if you don’t have to, but we have to clean up those intersections because we have seen accidents occur there.” Indeed.

In lieu of educating students, though, DPS officers for the first time would begin to crank out their own citations. “The idea is not to punish, it’s to change behavior,” said DPS Captain David Carlisle, perhaps eliding the revenue-generating part of the coming crackdown.

As if to put a point on the most obvious problem with it, Nicole Katekaru, then a sophomore, told the Trojan, “I’m not from here, so I don’t really know the bike laws and I don’t want to be punished for something I’ve never been educated about.”

Can the University do better this time? Well, it’s created a bike website and will work toward a campus bike plan, according to its mission. But the tip-off that USC still hasn’t gotten it? This initiative, like that in 2006, is brought to us by Student Affairs. The office is also launching a “be considerate” campaign to improve bike-ped conflicts. That sure has a nice ring to it, but shouldn’t the focus be on safety education – and a formal program through DPS?

If you’re interested, attend one of the public workshops on January 18th & April 18th and tell them Better Bike sent you. Let us know how it feels.

While you’re chatting up Student Affairs, ask them if they’ve tipped students to the questionable privacy practices of the USC Credit Union. Maybe that should be the next Student Affairs campaign? Like DPS and bike safety, they can’t say they weren’t already informed about the problem.