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Screenshot from Bensalem Police PSA on children riding bicycles

Bicycle Coalition Vision Zero organizer Lor Song remembers being harassed by the police for riding a bicycle. Being a professional bike messenger for 10 years, he’s had his fair share of police harassment, including one instance where he was stopped by police for jumping on his bike as he wheeled it off the sidewalk and into the street:

“The PPD officer asked me for my PA driver’s license. I complied but I was frustrated because I have been doing that ever since I started working as a messenger. The officer ignored me while I questioned why he stopped me, and he continued to request PPD dispatch to run my name to see if I had any warrants.  After 10 minutes of waiting (when I could have been working), the officer gave me back my license and said, “Don’t do that again.” “Do what?” I asked.

The officer never explained his action nor did Lor want to stay to escalate that encounter, he says.

Now, imagine you are cycling in a group of friends and everyone is enjoying a ride to a different part of town and six police cars stop your group. That’s what kids in Perth Amboy, NJ, recently experienced as shown in a viral video we wrote about last week. Police in Bensalem Township, in Bucks County, are stepping up their own harassment of children on bicycles.

The Bensalem, Pa Township Police Force has devised an alarming initiative, creating a webform for people to “upload photographs and/or videos of bicycle riders that cause traffic issues in Bensalem Township“.

Before moving on, let’s be clear. These recent initiatives aren’t just an effort to get people on bikes out of the street to more quickly move traffic through town — and that would be bad enough.

Rather, this is a deliberate strategy by the police to target “Wheelie Kids” and is spelled out pretty clearly in this one-sided report on CBS 3. The oddest tidbit was the reporter comparing BMX bike confiscation in Bensalem with confiscated ATVs in Philly.

The clip didn’t contain any comments from teens, nor did they reach out to experts who are well versed in how over-policing criminalizes bicycling and deputizes “concerned citizens.” Incredibly, virtually all the reporting on this initiative has done little more than take the police’s talking points and run with them. 

We all should be concerned about this program. Will people be submitting photos of a 3rd shift line cook from Parx Casino bicycling home? Will there be a confrontation with police or an angry resident that results in someone being seriously hurt? 

Stepped up enforcement and fear of vigilante photo-taking will keep some kids inside this summer, after a year-plus of lockdowns and virtual school. And encouraging the public to take part in this local war on children will create new mistrust and criminalization of youth.

Giving people safe spaces to ride is a way to mitigate the conflicts with drivers. The township has no bicycle and pedestrian plan, a true first step to making the streets safer in the Township.

The road network should be redesigned to slow traffic down, fill in the gaps in the sidewalk network, shorten the crossing distance on multi-lane roads, reconfigure the road space to add protected bikeways and complete it’s proposed trail network so people can safely travel throughout the township. 

The protection of pedestrians is a huge issue that doesn’t seem to be adequately addressed. Between 2015 and 2019 nearly half of the 34 traffic fatalities in the township were pedestrians struck by drivers. That is about double the pedestrian fatality rate per capita when compared to Philadelphia. During that same time drivers hit and wounded 26 people on bicycles. Most of victims are residents and essential workers walking along or crossing multi-lane, high speed roadways such as Knights Rd, Route 13 and the aptly named Street Road (A textbook description of a “Stroad”).

When I was a kid we popped wheelies and played street hockey in the street. Playing in the street is now illegal in many places. A younger and more diverse group on bicycles taking the public space in their own version of Critical Mass. For active transportation advocates like me, I am thrilled that children have rediscovered the bicycle and understand this diverse group of kids will grow up to become responsible adults.

Criminalizing youth for doing something that was completely normal until roads were given over to ever-increasing-in-size motor vehicles and their drivers is outrageous, unacceptable, and dangerous. Then Bensalem Township Police should end this initiative now.

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