It is probably obvious that any police force has much more work than it could possibly handle: additional officers could write a few more jaywalking tickets, others could be at a radar speed check, one could handle the theft of a few kilograms of flour from the local grocery shop and so on. It is therefore clear that it has to prioritise, evaluate which laws get broken, what kind of impact that has on society and deploy its officers so that it maximises the beneficial effect on society. That is the police’s only purpose.
Now, if the police were to send all its people out into the streets to fine whoever they can catch jaywalking, people would (rightfully) be quite disappointed and frustrated with the way the police force is transforming public money into very little of value. Normally, the police force – including traffic police – is busy with more important work, so they send officers to crash sites, catch speeders on highways and so on, but recently, for reasons only they know, they have decided to regularly, frequently and in large numbers fine cyclists cycling on footways.
Now, the regulation is completely clear and indeed, cyclists are supposed to use a bike lane if one is available or drive on the right side of the rightmost road lane. This is where a lot of people – including Croatian traffic police, apparently – stop thinking, but it is worth going a few steps further. It is worth it because the law, such as it is, is completely out of touch with the reality of traffic in Croatian cities.
First of all, as I have already written, the ratio of roadway and cycling path surfaces in the capital (home to a quarter of the country’s population) is at least 300:1, possibly more. Of the existing 160 km of cycling lanes, a significant part of the bike path network is partially or completely useless, cut up into short, disconnected stretches, with all kinds of hard to believe obstacles, as illustrated by e.g. this photo gallery: I encourage you to take a look and think about how long such a state would be tolerated in car lanes.
And the capital is comparatively better off than any of the coastal cities which have almost no cycling paths and, to add insult to injury, typically have narrower streets. In effect, Croatian cyclists are forced onto the street, together with cars, trucks and buses. If you were presented with a word set containing “bicycles”, “cars”, “trucks” and “buses” and were told to identify the element which does not belong in the set, which one would you expel? I am fairly sure I could guess your answer and I agree: bicycles don’t fit in very well with the rest, especially when you consider that e.g. people drive their kids around town on a bike.
To drive the final nail into the coffin, there are roads on which cycling is prohibited altogether. For example, in the capital, there are only a hand-full of north-to-south roads and a 500 m stretch of one of the most important ones is explicitly off limits to cyclists. There are no cycling paths in spite of a rather wide (2-5 m) footway and there is a sign prohibiting cycling in the carriageway. This road leads to the city centre and to get around the problem, cyclists can either walk the 500 m or drive more than a kilometre eastward or westward. There are no north-to-south cycling paths neither eastward nor westward, but at least it is legal to drive in the roadway.
In other words, the law has nothing to do with the Croatian reality of far from adjusted traffic, car drivers unaccustomed to cyclists in the street and a really poor cycling path network: that is the law the Croatian traffic police has chosen to be so thorough about enforcing.
It is only fair to say that there is also a significant number of citizens (ostensibly a small minority, but still…) happy about the fact that the police is busy handing out these fines, typically because they have had bad experiences with cyclists on footways. The overwhelming majority of cyclists, however, are not teenagers having a wild time frightening people they pass, but people going about their day, dropping a child off at their child care, going to or from work and so on. What the police has been doing the last few months is stopping everyone driving a bicycle on a footway, while they should have been stopping reckless bicycle drivers which present a danger to pedestrians instead.
Our traffic police would do well to consider the times we are living in. A deep crisis is shaking the foundations of the country and impoverishing its people. Alongside all other faults of car transportation, petrol is becoming prohibitively expensive and the public transportation system is eagerly following suit. Over the last few decades cities have become giant, extremely noisy garage and roadway complexes and the endless streams of cars have made them much less safe and more stressful. The environment is being systematically degraded, non-renewable resources are being depleted and the Croatian police is busy issuing fines to people slowly driving around town, in perfect silence, with no emissions and with safety which far surpasses that of motorised traffic.
I have heard an excellent idea this afternoon about a proper reaction to recent police actions: lets give them exactly what they asked for and nothing less. Lets take our bicycles, get on the road and drive in the tens of thousands through the streets of our cities during rush hour and see how our traffic police likes a general traffic collapse and how many such days it takes for someone to get off of their hands and either make the law respect the physical reality of Croatian streets or upgrade the bike path network to make the law sensible.
In the meantime, join a current initiative and tell Mr. Ranko Ostojic, the Minister of Internal Affairs, politely and directly that the police could serve Croatia in much better ways than they are now or challenge him to legally drive to work on a bicycle just once and tell us how it went. His phone numbers are 00 385 1 6122 129 and 00 385 1 6122 405, his e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. If he receives a few hundred phone calls and as many e-mails, you can rest assured it will get his undivided attention. Do let him know: it’s his duty to listen – his salary comes from your taxes.