Aspen police spokeswoman Blair Weyer and staffers of other city departments are working on a code amendment that addresses bicycle safety. A lot of good intent surrounds their proposal, which will be presented in final form to the City Council on April 23.
In the big picture, the code amendment seeks to find a solution to the occasional problem of bike riders - tourists and residents, young and old - who misuse city sidewalks to get around town. It's illegal to ride a bicycle on a sidewalk in Aspen and most other U.S. cities.
Here and everywhere else, sidewalks are designed for pedestrians, and streets are supposed to accommodate vehicles and bicycles. Otherwise, would we call them sidewalks? It's a pretty simple relationship.
But like just about anything else involving Aspen government, the devil is in the details. The plan calls for reducing the current $100 fine for riding on a sidewalk - a measure that police aren't enforcing - for a tiered penalty structure of $5, $25 and $100 for the first, second and third offenses, respectively. The goal in reducing the fines is to encourage police, who didn't feel comfortable writing the $100 ticket, to issue more citations so that illegal riders will get the message.
However, Weyer pointed out to council members when the ordinance was introduced Monday that the fines are secondary to the educational component of the project, which was formulated by members of the police, parks, engineering and transportation departments. The fines, or the threat of them, provide the city with a stick to go along with its carrot, an educational outreach program and friendly warnings from police about the dangers of riding on sidewalks or through downtown's pedestrian malls. The $100 questions: How big should the stick be? How many carrots should be doled out before turning to the stick?
We would like to see a common-sense approach added to the debate. The fines structure should be reduced from where it is currently not so police will issue more tickets, but because the $100 penalty is a punishment that doesn't fit the crime. We trust that police will follow the route Weyer suggested they would follow, and that is to use the new fines as a way of backing up their friendly warnings with a message that reckless behavior has got to change.
Council members expressed concern about the issue of innocent children riding their bicycles along sidewalks in relatively quiet neighborhoods outside the downtown area. Councilman Derek Johnson said he would go "ballistic" if one of his young sons came home with a $5 citation. Under the new rules, children younger than 8 would be allowed to ride bikes on sidewalks, but only if they are accompanied by an adult on foot. The exception would not apply to the Hyman and Cooper pedestrian malls downtown, where all bike-riding still would be prohibited.
We don't envision a police state in which cops will be lurking behind street corners looking for young kids and pre-teens riding off the road. Still, for consistency's sake, the officials and staffers who plan to meet sometime next week ought to take a look at this rule and whether it can be relaxed. Perhaps children between 8 and 15 could be allowed to ride along sidewalks, without adult supervision, outside the commercial core. We still think it's a good idea for kids younger than 8 to be accompanied by an adult when riding the sidewalks.
Right now, it looks as though the current rules and some of the proposed changes aim to discourage people from riding bikes. This runs counter to the community's intent with respect to urging people to walk or ride in lieu of using vehicles in town. We ask those who will be involved in crafting the amendment revision next week to consider this and to incorporate language in the measure that will ensure that Aspen is not about to embark upon a witch-hunt of illegal users of the sidewalks.
Aspen once was a Western frontier town, but few of those traits exist today. We'd hate to see the city further lose whatever edge it still has by cracking down on bicyclists who occasionally use sections of sidewalk as they make their way around town. We also would like to point out that people move to Aspen for its small-town charm and the fact that you can find kids on bicycles roaming the streets and sidewalks. Would Opie Taylor have gotten a ticket for riding his bicycle on a Mayberry sidewalk?
At the same time, we'd like to remind cyclists to use some common sense of their own and avoid the sidewalks when they are crowded and to stop riding through the downtown pedestrian malls. This is an issue for which it should be easy to effect compromise.