This summer our car broke. It was old and tired and just decided it didn’t want to cart us around anymore. The good people at the American Diabetes Association came and towed it away for us, and we took to our bikes. Every morning, my 8-year-old son and I would bike from Prospect Park to Minnehaha Academy for chess camp. Then we’d bike to Foss in St. Paul for swimming lessons, often stopping at Izzy’s or the library on the way.
Biking Marshall Avenue with kids on their own wheels is probably not for the faint of heart. You have to trust that your child knows the rules of the road, and understands to watch for car doors, observes carefully at intersections, and will slow down a bit on the uphill so he doesn’t sail through a green light and leave his mother stuck at the red. You also have to trust the drivers.
I didn’t, however, think to warn him that delivery vehicles might cut him off and park directly in front of him in the bike lane. The first time it happened, a UPS truck passed us coming off the Marshall Ave. bridge. My son nearly rear-ended the truck as it slipped into the bike lane and came to a complete stop in front of him. There was no way we could safely enter the traffic lane to go around, and not enough space to get by between the truck and the parked cars. We were stuck while the driver made his delivery. I spoke to the driver when he returned, who shrugged it off, saying, basically, What else could I do? I had to make my delivery and there was no where else to park.
Second graders become indignant when faced with injustice. My son was upset and thought the driver deserved a ticket. That wasn’t going to happen, so we emailed UPS, who said someone local would follow up. No one did.
We kept biking, however, a bit warier, and continued to observe delivery vehicles parked in the bike lanes. I’ll admit that it rankles to have hard-won bike lanes being taken over by motor vehicles because drivers can’t be bothered to find a legal parking space.
Response from St. Paul
We checked out the city’s website and wrote to Public Works to ask about city policy on delivery vehicles parking in the bike lanes. Traffic Engineering quickly responded that by state law, no vehicles should be parking in bike lanes. Public Works suggested we report violations to parking enforcement, while acknowledging it would be difficult for an officer to get there in time.
But the representative also took my query a step further, and sent my question on to Commander Brad Hazelett of the St. Paul Police, who sent me the following response from the St. Paul City Attorney’s office:
I’ve scoured the city ordinances (and also checked the state statutes in case there was anything relating to bike lanes generally) and have come up empty-handed. I can’t find anything relating to proper use of, or violations in the use of, bike lanes. We’ve created them but don’t appear to have begun regulating them – unless I’m missing something.
So I turned my attention back again to the commercial vehicles. Our ordinances appear to give them at least 3 parking exceptions: 1) using metered spaces for free during certain hours while they load and unload (160.08a), 2) using marked/signed loading zones while they load and unload (160.08b), and 3) double-parking while loading and unloading when access to the curb in unavailable (157.09).
This 3rd exception, which actually allows them to temporarily impede vehicular traffic in a traffic lane, would also certainly allow them to impede bicycle traffic in a bike lane. So, while it might be frustrating to bicyclists it’s the same frustration shared by motorists under the same conditions. As long as the commercial vehicle is operating properly under this exception (blocking the bike lane because space at the curb is unavailable) I don’t think the driver of the commercial vehicle is committing any violation.
I was dumbfounded. To equate impeding vehicular traffic in a traffic lane with impeding more vulnerable people on bicycles doesn’t make logical sense to me. But I recognize that’s how many think.
When I was taught to drive, the lesson that was repeatedly hammered home to me–and that I’ve tried to teach my son–is that road safety involves protecting the vulnerable. In other words: the operator of a motor vehicle has a duty to protect more vulnerable road users–people on motorcycles and bicycles, people who are walking. Bicyclists likewise have a duty to protect pedestrians, especially those who are more vulnerable such as the very young and the very old. It’s a simple rule, one that doesn’t negate the responsibility that people on foot and on bicycle have to take appropriate safety precautions.
Commander Hazelett closed out his email to me:
Probably not the answer you were looking for but in an urban environment, businesses rely on delivery trucks to financially survive. Bottom line is that we need to co-exist. I hope this helps.
After musing on this response for a few days, I’ve decided his answer does help. It helps me understand the thinking that inadvertently results in unnecessary injuries and deaths on our streets. We all care about safety, but how can we help untangle the hidden assumptions and bottom-line thinking that prevents us from making the systematic changes that will start making a difference?
Response from UPS
After this exchange, I was left wondering, what does UPS really think about its drivers parking in the bike lanes? I reached out to UPS again, and this time, someone called me back right away. It took some time to get the representative to understand that my issue wasn’t that I wanted a driver reprimanded. The extent to which we see delivery people parking in bike lanes demonstrates that it’s not driver error or even necessarily particular to UPS, but something systematic to the way business is done industrywide.
UPS told me, “Realistically, we train our drivers to park as far out of traffic as possible for them to park in a safe manner. They are trained to block the least amount of traffic possible.” The customer service representative said, “Bikers are different than motorists, and ideally our drivers should pull up farther and park along the curb rather than block the bike lane. If there are two lanes of traffic, the truck should block one of the vehicle lanes rather than the bike lanes.”
But he acknowledged that on busy roads, that might not happen because drivers are taught to block the least amount of traffic overall. I got the sense that safely navigating bike lanes is not a standard part of driver training, and that UPS has no official public policy on this. (At least locally. In New York and probably other places, FedEx and UPS have parking ticket budgets and negotiated discounts on their fines: http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20130526/ECONOMY/305269980/parking-tickets-all-in-the-cost-of-doing-business.)
My Next Steps
This experience has left me thinking that people who care about safe streets in St. Paul have a couple of different courses of action: (1) working with city council members to shape city ordinances regulating the increasing miles of bike lanes available in the city, and (2) working to shape the policies of the delivery industry and the training of drivers.
My son and I will continue to bike and cheer the new bike lanes that become available in both St. Paul and Minneapolis.