Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Shootout at the Bluebonnet Express

My wife and I have been unable to participate in our favorite group rides lately. (In a recent post, "reasons" for missing these rides were not explained.) However, shortly after this year's Bluebonnet Express, reports began to filter in from the Critical Mass group on Facebook which suggested we may have been lucky to have missed this one. Apparently, the local Sheriff had turned on the cyclists, targeting them in a ticketing campaign. Of course, things rarely are as bad as the worst rumors from the most opinionated observers might suggest, and most events can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, leading to different narratives. We were not there and so I cannot provide any direct observations, but I have been following the story carefully and have come to some conclusions. I think there was a real backlash of the sheriff's department against the ride, I think that despite the complexity of the situation, this backlash was fundamentally unfair to the cyclists affected, but that said, I think the issues that triggered this backlash are worthy of careful consideration by the cycling community.


I have previously posted on the Bluebonnet Express, but I want to describe some relevant details that I had not previously covered. There are about a 2,200 riders on the ride. It has an "at will" start (each rider leaves when they are ready, there is no mass start) which helps distribute the riders along the road, but nonetheless, a lot of riders end up clumping together at various points along the route. Many are there with friends with whom they enjoy riding side by side and chatting. Riders ride at very different speeds which leads to a lot of passing. This can cause cyclists to sometimes "take the lane" in its entirety. Some roads have nice, wide paved shoulders, some have no shoulders at all. Where there are shoulders, some cyclists prefer to stay out of the lane entirely and ride on the shoulder, others prefer to ride in the lane. Rumble strips impact this decision. Speed limits vary, some being over 60 mph. Honestly, we cyclists do not like to stop for stop signs; it is harder to come to a full stop and restart on a bicycle than it is in a car. On the other hand, bicycles are less dangerous than cars and move more slowly such that it is very possible for a cyclist to slow down as they approach a stop sign, look carefully, stop if necessary, and roll on through if it is safe to do so. This is why the State of Idaho developed special rules for cyclists. To accommodate this, the ride organizers had hired off-duty sheriffs to man intersections, controlling traffic and waving cyclists through. Shouldn't cyclists obey the law? Why should participants in the Bluebonnet Express get special treatment at intersections? I will return to these points later in the post. For now, I just wanted to set the stage.

What Happened

A total of 25 to 30 cyclists were ticketed during the 2016 Bluebonnet Express, just over 1% of the riders. Tickets were given for riding more than two abreast, impeding traffic, and running stop signs. To avoid getting bogged down in the intricacies of Texas State Law as it pertains to bicycles, I will concentrate on the stop sign violations, which are pretty black and white. Or are they? Consider that off-duty sheriffs in uniform were at some intersections waving cyclists through stop signs. At other intersections, on-duty sheriffs in the same uniform were waiting at stop signs, but instead of waving cyclists through, they ticketed cyclists for not coming to a complete stop. Some of the riders so ticketed threatened to fight their ticket on the basis that it represented entrapment; that the presence of sheriffs at earlier intersections had sent the message that, for this ride, stop signs were not being enforced. When you combine that with the much murkier law around riding abreast and impeding traffic, you can see that this could be turned into a field day for the legal profession, an outcome nobody wants (except perhaps for the lawyers.)

But really, what's the beef? The sheriff's department saw what they viewed as traffic violations, and issued citations for the same. As often happens, those ticketed begged to differ and are free to make their case in court. The beef is that the sheriff's department appeared to be gloating over the ticketing, posting a running update on citations issued on their Facebook page. At the same time, they announced that, in the future, off-duty sheriffs could not be hired to help with group bike rides. Rather than this being a simple case of enforcement of traffic laws, it seemed more like expression of anger towards cyclists.

What Really Happened

The Waller County Sheriff's Department has been remarkably transparent and frank in their discussion of this event. They could have stonewalled and stuck to their story that they were just enforcing the law. Instead, they chose to describe the chain of events leading up to their actions, implicitly admitting that there was more to it than just traffic enforcement. So here is that chain of events:
  • Flooding is a fact of life in Texas; when it rains, it pours and it is not at all unusual for roads to become impassible. During the weeks leading up to the Bluebonnet Express, it had poured, closing many roads in Waller County, trapping people in their homes. 
  • The Bluebonnet Express was on Sunday. By chance, there was an unrelated, large group ride on Saturday. Roads had just reopened from the flooding, folks were anxious to take care of errands that had been postponed by the floods, and found their progress impeded by large numbers of cyclists on Saturday. 
  • Worse (from the residents' point of view), the Waller County Sheriff's Department seemed to be complicit in this blockade, the organizers of this ride having also hired off-duty sheriffs to control intersections. Folks complained. The Sheriff's Department does not succeed by annoying the citizens who employ them, thus the head of the department decided that these off-duty sheriffs were not doing him any good and to not allow this to happen again.
  • Except that it did, the very next day. 
  • One final aggravating condition in this perfect storm is that the Bluebonnet Express, like many group rides, is organized as a series of more or less concentric loops so that riders finish at the start where they left their cars and to accommodate rides of varying length. Thus, some residents found themselves (somewhat) trapped within not just one but two or three circles of cyclists, after just having gotten through the floods. In turn, they flooded the Sheriff's Department with phone calls, who felt they needed to do something, so sent out officers to enforce the law. 
  • Making matters even worse, the Sheriff's Department felt blindsided. Due to the way state and local governments are organized and the way events played out, they had not been "warned" that these rides were happening and were taken by surprise.

What Does It All Mean, Mr. Zombie?

Obviously I write from the point of view of a cyclist. My first reaction when this story broke was anger at the residents of Waller County and their law enforcement division. But, as my anger faded, I tried to put this into some kind of context. As I see it, it would be easy to take this story in a lot of different directions, which, while valid, are not really relevant. Should there be special rules for cyclists and stop signs like in Idaho? Who breaks the law more often, automobile drivers or cyclists? Are traffic laws being evenly enforced, or are cyclists discriminated against? All excellent points, I have posted on some of these before and will continue to post on these issues in the future, but none of them really speak to the issue. This not the usual motorist v.s. cyclist disagreement, the problems resulted both from unusual circumstances, but more generally, because this was a large group ride. So now allow me to return to the questions from the top of this post: Shouldn't cyclists obey the law? Why should participants in the Bluebonnet Express get special treatment at intersections?

It is simply a fact: very few laws are black and white. Selective enforcement is almost universal, sometimes used as a tool of cronyism and corruption, but sometimes in the service of common sense. Being the person that I am, I wish this were not so. I wish we had fewer and more reasonable laws that were strictly and universally enforced. However, here on Planet Earth, that is not the way things work and I simply have to deal with it. So, if I barrel through an intersection, forcing drivers to screech to a halt, endangering not only myself but others as well, I fully expect a ticket. If, on the other hand, I slow to under 10 miles an hour at a quiet, high visibility intersection, look both ways, see no car in sight, and roll on through, I will feel annoyed by a legally equivalent ticket. (Of course this begs the question of why, if I was being so careful, I did not see the policeman.) If I get that ticket, I am then going to grumble about the unticketed drivers who are traveling 5 mph over the speed limit or whose tires rest on the crosswalk at a red light. I was not at the Bluebonnet Express, I did not see what happened. However, I cannot help but think that a better response to this year's problems would have been to have a realistic discussion between the Sheriff's Department and the ride organizers, followed by clear, realistic instructions to next year's participants, not just in the registration packet, not just at the starting line, but all along the road, as to what behavior must be avoided to minimize inconvenience to residents.

Are cyclists asking for special treatment? Not as I see it. Two blocks from my house is a large Catholic church. It is on one of the busiest intersections in this part of Houston. Every Sunday and every Catholic holiday, they hire off-duty police who stop traffic on these busy streets so that congregants and enter and exit the church parking lot. The same thing is done for all kinds of special events from school carnivals to yard sales and has been common practice throughout my life. I remember my father, a "by the rules" kind of guy, being furious about this. He felt that traffic laws should be followed regardless. I admired Dad greatly, but on this issue, I disagree with him; I think we need to be realistic. Having the off-duty police direct traffic for our neighborhood Catholic church simply makes a difficult situation better, a triumph of common sense. All I am asking is that large group rides be treated the same.


The MS 150, an annual two day group ride from Houston to Austin with 13,000 participants, is the gravitational center of cycling in my city of Houston, Texas. This event is a significant fundraiser for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Many if not most group rides in the Houston Area are training rides for the MS 150 and many of these raise money for some charity or another. The 2016 MS 150 is scheduled to go through Waller County on April 16th. Thus, the MS 150 organizers were appropriately concerned by the events at the Bluebonnet Express (an official MS 150 training ride.) Shortly after that ride, the MS 150 organizers met with the Waller County Sheriff's department. The meeting lasted over two hours, was described as "highly productive" by the participants, and the Waller County Sheriff's department posted a summary of the meeting. To my eye, not all issues were resolved. For example, I feel that the rules for using off-duty sheriffs to manage traffic should be consistently applied, that group bike rides should not be targeted. If the local church can hire off-duty sheriffs to manage traffic, so should the organizers of the Bluebonnet Express. Nonetheless, I feel like progress is being made. Texas is a libertarian, "git 'er done and fix 'er tomorrow if'n she breaks" kind of state, so I do not expect laws to be rewritten nor major initiatives to be launched, but I do hope that the organizers of the Bluebonnet Express, the Waller County Sheriff's Department, and the people of Waller County will talk and arrive at some ways that those of us in the cycling community can have our big group rides on the beautiful country roads of Waller County without annoying the good folks who live there.