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Messengers don't like Council's signals

New bill would set rules of the road for bicyclists

Wednesday, September 08, 1999

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Told that City Council will be debating a bill to regulate Downtown bike messengers and that one of its provisions is that their bikes be affixed with numbered flags, messenger Colin Burch had an immediate reaction.

Colin Burch, left, and Patrick Waterkotte of Triangle Messenger Service meet outside Oxford Center yesterday. (BillWade, Post-Gazette) 

"So they're going to make us look dumber than we already do."

Another rule would require them to wear shiny safety vests, messenger Patrick Waterkotte heard. "Then that's all I'm wearing. Just a vest -- and some garters," he said.

The bill, written by Councilwoman Valerie A. McDonald with the help of city traffic police and introduced yesterday, could have serious implications for the messengers and their trade.

They'll still be allowed to zip around Downtown streets with their bags slung over their shoulders making rush deliveries, but they'll have to do it while closely following traffic rules or they'll face an increased number of tickets from police.

The bill reminds messengers and other bike riders to follow existing vehicle laws -- the same ones that apply to motorized vehicles -- and requires them to use hand signals whenever they turn or stop. It requires messengers to register their bikes with police and mark them with identification numbers that will make it easier for police to cite them for traffic violations.

To make it easier for motorists and pedestrians to see them, messengers will have to wear reflective vests, and the flags, which will jut a foot above the messengers' heads, will be affixed with the bike's registration number.

McDonald said she wrote the bill after she almost hit messengers several times.

"I don't know how many times I've almost clipped somebody at a busy intersection Downtown," she said. "It's about civility ... If [messengers] want to operate a commercial vehicle, let them operate it like any other commercial vehicle."

It's also about helping police bust them.

Police Cmdr. Dom Costa of the Special Deployment Division, who oversees traffic police, said the messengers imperiled motorists and pedestrians by riding between cars, down one-way streets and on sidewalks.

Costa said they also endangered the officers who tried to catch them to write traffic tickets, which is why he wants the flags stamped with identification numbers so police will be able to track down traffic violators.

"We need something to let them know we have a way of citing them," Costa said of the messengers. "If we have that, they'll be more responsible."

Messengers agreed there should be a crackdown by police -- on car drivers and jaywalkers.

"Even if you use hand signals, people don't pay any attention to them. People around here are the worst kind of drivers," said Shawn Clark, 25, who's been hit by cars three times since he became a messenger two years ago.

"Half the accidents are things where none of this stuff would help," he said, waving McDonald's bill. "It's people making a right turn and not signaling, or running you into a curb."

"Many cars don't signal their turns," said Bill Jones, the owner of Triangle Messenger Service. "Is this enforcement of regulations, or is it a knee-jerk reaction to a complaint made to Valerie McDonald?"

Jones, who started his service -- the first in the city -- 16 years ago and employs 34 bike messengers, said he didn't have a big problem with the bill. He already identifies his riders with T-shirts and requires them to carry photo identification. He says he'll support the bill if it doesn't cost him too much money in registration fees and if the traffic laws are enforced uniformly.

The messengers themselves are a little more circumspect. They told stories of police telling them to ride only on sidewalks -- which is against the law -- and of people trying to run them off the road, people yelling at them, and of course, all their various accidents. All that for maybe $250 per week.

"I came back from Oakland once obeying all the laws and it took 25 minutes. Normally it's eight," said Waterkotte, 31, of Mt. Lebanon. "The people who want these laws are the same people yelling at us for not getting from point A to point B fast enough."

"The same people who yell at you are the ones who call and complain when their package isn't there on time," repeated Stewy, a 21-year-old Arlington man with a pink mohawk. "The people writing this bill up should all take a day to ride around the city in 90 degree heat with reflective vests on," he said.

Many said the hand signals stuff wouldn't cut it either: Carrying awkward packages through crowded streets on a bike takes two hands.

"With the conditions of roads in Pittsburgh -- the exposed streetcar rails, the potholes -- having one hand on the handlebars can make it more dangerous to signal than not to," said Jones.

Waterkotte -- who, among other things, has worked for a bank and hauled garbage -- says he's a messenger for the "adrenaline rush" and wants City Council to reconsider.

"People really need to lighten up on us. This is a tough job. They should just think of us as their kids on a bike, and treat us the same way."

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