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Rochester has a bike lane problem

Brett Dahlberg
Cars stand in bike lanes in Rochester. Cyclists say a lack of enforcement from the city is leading drivers to abuse the lanes and endangering people who ride bikes.

The city of Rochester has installed more than 60 miles of bike lanes since 2011.

But there’s a problem: Those bike lanes are often filled with parked cars. And the city has no way to track where or when it’s happening.

Email Rochester’s Parking and Municipal Code Violations Bureau to report a car parked in a bike lane, and they’ll tell you to call 311 or 911.

Call 311 or 911, and they’ll tell you they’ll file a report.

But those reports have no indication that the parking complaint was about a car parked in a bike lane. The city does not log that information.

The city’s parking violation codes do not include a citation for parking in a bike lane.

And the city’s training materials for parking enforcement officers, released to WXXI News under a Freedom of Information request, do not mention bikes, bicycles or bike lanes.

“It’s frustrating,” said Joe Di Fiore, the youth and family engagement specialist at Common Ground Health, a Rochester-based nonprofit that studies health data.

“You’d like to think you could just call up parking enforcement, and they’d write a warning, have a conversation: ‘Hey, you can’t park in the bike lane,’ and that would rectify it. But that’s not what we’ve got,” Di Fiore said.

Why bike lanes?

Just about 1% of commuters in Rochester travel to and from work by bike. Mayor Lovely Warren has said she wants to increase that number. More people on bikes would ease traffic congestion, spur retail growth, and improve public health, she said when she announced the launch of Rochester’s bike-share program.

Ninety-seven bicyclists were injured and one killed in collisions with cars in Rochester in 2017, the most recent year for which Monroe County crash data is available online.

City planners and transportationresearchers across the country say bike lanes are an essential part of any plan to encourage bike riding.

A large group of people in most cities -- anywhere from 30% to upward of 50%, researchers said -- falls into a category that they called “interested but concerned” about riding bikes to get around.

“They would consider cycling if it was safer, in their perception. And a big part of that safety perception is traffic danger,” said Ralph Buehler, who teaches urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech.

Even if biking to work is safe statistically, people won’t do it if it doesn’t feel safe, Buehler said. That’s why bike lanes work: “They send a message that this is a safe place to ride a bike, where you won’t need to swerve around or dodge cars or worry that you’re going to get hit.”

Buehler said increasing the share of people commuting by bike also increases the share of people who get regular physical activity as part of their daily lives.

“It’s better than going to the gym, which you have to do in addition to your daily routine, while bicycling as a mode of transport can be incorporated into that routine,” Buehler said. “That improves the health of the city and the people in it.”

Bike lanes also help promote equity in transportation and health, said Di Fiore, the Common Ground Health staffer.

“A lot of people want to think that cycling is a hobby, or it’s elitist. But the reality is, a lot of people who ride bikes do it out of necessity,” he said. “It’s the only viable mode of transportation for them.”

What’s happening in Rochester’s bike lanes?

“We see cars parked in bike lanes all the time,” said Di Fiore. “There’s unfortunately an expectation now that you can park in a bike lane and not get a ticket.”

WXXI News checked out this claim, strapping a camera to the front of a reporter’s bike and recording footage from commutes and errands for eight weeks in March and April.

The rides recorded cover only a small portion of the city’s geographic area, but they offer a new glimpse at a problem that cycling advocates said is widespread across Rochester.

Credit Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News
A sampling of cars parked in bike lanes observed by WXXI News across two weeks in April. A full video of cars observed in bike lanes over eight weeks in March and April appears at the end of this article.

We found more than 200 different cars parked in bike lanes. We saw parking tickets on those cars four times.

We found the bike lane in front of School 58, on University Avenue near Main Street, completely blocked on several occasions.

A police car regularly stood in the bike lane in front of the school until March 25, when WXXI News asked about it.

Credit Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News
A Rochester Police Department car was regularly parked in the bike lane on University Avenue outside School 58 until WXXI News asked why it was there.

"Sadly, in this day and age, there are also many advantages to having the high visibility of a marked patrol vehicle parked in front of a school," said police department spokesperson Frank Camp. "It certainly is never our intent to obstruct a bicyclist, set a bad example or influence inappropriate behavior."

Asked whether the Rochester City School District had any concerns about the parking situation outside the school, spokesperson Carlos Garcia said in an email that “city parking enforcement does not fall under the purview of the RCSD.”

“While it seems to be in vogue to make the RCSD responsible for everything under the sun these days, I would humbly refer you to the City Parking Bureau for any comments,” Garcia wrote.

The city’s Bureau of Parking and Municipal Code Violations referred questions to the city communications office, where Justin Roj, the office’s director, said enforcement is only one part of Rochester’s efforts to make the roads more friendly for people on bikes.

“To say somehow the city can enforce itself out of this issue is unfair,” Roj said. “What has to happen is, it’s a social contract issue. People need to be mindful of their fellow citizens. Government and the city is not the solution for that.”

We also found delivery trucks from companies like UPS and FedEx parked in bike lanes a dozen times.

“In every metropolitan area today, especially in the U.S., there’s a scarcity of commercial vehicle parking, which often forces deliveries to be made in a way that seemingly conflicts with other road uses, like biking,” said Kim Krebs, a UPS spokesperson.

Krebs urged cities like Rochester to redefine how they allocate space on their streets to de-emphasize parking for individual cars and allow greater access for bicycles and delivery vehicles.

“Simply put, the curb today in most American cities is overwhelmingly devoted to single-occupancy personal vehicle parking,” said Krebs. That pattern is “unsustainable and not aligned with most cities’ stated transportation priorities” that focus on moving people and goods without using cars.

On three occasions, we saw a truck owned by Action for a Better Community parked on top of a bike lane stencil on Main Street. The truck sported a bumper sticker reading, “Hey Drivers! Let’s make Rochester roads safer for everyone.”

Action for a Better Community apologized “for any inconvenience” in an email and said the organization would counsel its staff “on the importance of parking in properly designated areas.”

Di Fiore said these findings illustrate a pattern of disregard for people “trying to navigate city streets without using an automobile.”

But some drivers said they were left with no other choice.

“It’s a stupid place to put a bike lane,” said Gloria Rivera, who parked in the bike lane in front of School 58 to pick up her son.

“We can’t park over there because of school buses,” Rivera said, gesturing to the other side of the street. “There’s no parking around here.”

Informed that he was parked on top of a bike lane stencil in front of the school, a cab driver who declined to give his name but said he was there to pick up a teacher told a bike rider to “just go around.”

So did a truck driver parked in the bike lane on Andrews Street. So did a taxi driver parked in the bike lane on St. Paul Street. So did a car driver parked in the bike lane on Goodman Street.

“It’s a pattern,” Di Fiore said.

“It’s not safe. It’s not safe at all,” Buehler said. “You’re having to swerve into traffic that’s not expecting you to be there because, after all, there is a bike lane.”

Inequitable outcomes

“The parking in the bike lanes, it doesn’t just discourage cycling; it discourages cycling among certain groups in society,” said Buehler.

Those who are most likely to ride bikes in the city are young and male, research shows.

“For them, it is an inconvenience,” Buehler said. “But there are many people who will not even consider riding a bike if these are the conditions.”

Credit Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News
Cars stand in the bike lane on the Broad Street Bridge in downtown Rochester.

Blocked bike lanes can exacerbate existing social inequalities, researchers and cycling advocates said.

“Now you have this person, who has to ride a bike, who has no other viable way of getting around, who’s forced to swerve into traffic,” said Di Fiore.

Riding on the sidewalk isn’t much better, Di Fiore said. “It’s technically not legal in downtown Rochester,” and, because drivers typically don’t expect bicyclists on the sidewalk, “they’re not looking out,” and collisions are more likely, especially at driveways and intersections.

“Many of us, when we see, ‘Oh, the bike lane is blocked. Oh, the bike lane is blocked again’ -- we have the luxury of getting into our car or calling a ride instead of trying to get through it by bike.”

That means the poorest Rochesterians are the most likely to suffer from blocked bike lanes, Di Fiore said.

Solutions that are ‘more than just paint’

Rochester city planners are developing a “Comprehensive Access and Mobility Plan” that’s supposed to lay out improvement plans for bike infrastructure alongside increased public transit and pedestrian facilities.

That plan was supposed to be finished by March, but it’s still not complete.

People who get around Rochester by bike, including Di Fiore and Jesse Peers, who" target="_blank">teaches bike safety classes in the city, said the plan should include provisions for more protected bike lanes.

Most of Rochester’s bike lanes are what transportation planners call “conventional” lanes -- separated from motorized traffic only by a strip of white paint. Protected bike lanes would use posts or curbs to separate bikes from other vehicles.

Credit Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News
A lack of enforcement of Rochester's bike lane infrastructure is discouraging people from commuting by bike and contributing to a continued dependence on cars even for short trips, says Jesse Peers, the Cycling Coordinator for Reconnect Rochester.

“Some people think they’re parking in a shoulder,” Peers said. “Other people know very well they’re parking in a bike lane. But because there’s no barrier, and it’s not enforced, they choose to do it anyway.

“If we don’t fix this issue,” Peers said, “people are in danger.”

Erik Frisch, who oversees bike infrastructure for the city’s engineering bureau, said more protected lanes are coming. “That’s going feel more comfortable for a cyclist riding,” Frisch said, “and it’s also going to ensure that there are not parked cars on that bike lane.”

Another way to start fixing the problem, said Di Fiore, is tracking the data.

“At this point, we know it’s a problem. But the mayor, who’s been vocal about improving conditions for bicyclists, she doesn’t even have the data to say, ‘Look, we have to do something,’” Di Fiore said. “Without that data, you don’t make those changes.”

In the meantime, cyclists in Rochester can take solace in the fact that they’re not alone. Karl Alexander is the market manager for Rochester’s bike-share system, as well as others across the Northeast.

Rochester is not the only place where bike lanes are clogged with parked cars, he said. “Not at all. That is an American staple.”

Buehler, the researcher, said bike lanes are more than an academic concern.

“In the end, the bike lane is only a stripe of paint on the roadway. And everything else with the bike lane -- same as the car travel lane -- is how we make up and enforce the rules,” he said.

“If we don’t enforce the rules, essentially, there’s paint on the street, but there’s not a bike lane.”

Includes reporting by Jeremy Moule of CITY Newspaper.