COLUMBIA — A bicyclist harassment ordinance passed unanimously at the City Council meeting Monday after nearly an hour and a half of discussion.
The ordinance makes harassment of bicyclists — including throwing objects, verbal assault and other offenses — a misdemeanor offense punishable by a $1,000 fine or one year of jail time, the council said.
After the lengthy testimony from citizens and discussion by the council, the ordinance passed with plans to amend it at the July 20 City Council meeting. At that time, the ordinance will be expanded to include other types of pedestrian traffic.
The delay in a decision was due to debate over who should be covered under the harassment ordinance. Some council members felt the ordinance should be broader and encompass other types of pedestrian traffic, while others thought protecting bicyclists was important now and the rest could be added later.
Many in the bicycling community showed up to voice their feelings about the ordinance. Twenty individuals, some with children in tow, lined up to wait for their turn at the microphone. All 20 supported the ordinance.
Residents cited a number of reasons for their support and shared horror stories from bike riding. The tales ranged from waking up face down in ditches to having ashtrays dumped on their heads. The consensus among supporters was that the ordinance would help protect them on the streets.
“Unfortunately, there are people in our community who believe that roads are for automobiles and bicyclists who dare ride on the road should be honked at, yelled at or even have something thrown at them,” PedNet Education Coordinator Robert Johnson said.
The ordinance, which is modeled after similar ordinances in South Carolina and Colorado, makes it a misdemeanor to do the following: throw an object at or in the direction of a cyclist, threatening a cyclist to frighten or disturb the cyclist, sounding a horn with the intention to frighten or disturb a cyclist, knowingly placing a cyclist in the path of physical injury, or knowingly engaging in conduct that creates a risk of death or serious physical injury for a cyclist.
Residents who spoke at the meeting said they have experienced all of the above, and those who remained after the deliberation stood and cheered when the ordinance passed.
“If you’ve ever been in a subcompact car and had a semi get on your back bumper and blow the horn, that’s what it was like,” ordinance supporter Steve Epstein said of being tailed by motorists.
Before the ordinance passed, the only charge for a cyclist to file against a motorist exhibiting these behaviors was third-degree assault. The new ordinance “fills in the gaps,” Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton said.
Although both bicyclist harassment and third-degree assault are Class A misdemeanors, the language of the new ordinance includes actions that do not fall under a third-degree misdemeanor charge.
The council disagreed over who should benefit from the ordinance. Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade thought harassment prevention should be applied to everyone, not specific sets of people.
“I think that it is inappropriate to start crafting ordinances that specify each individual group,” he said.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala disagreed.
“I don’t see reducing harassment for any population as a privilege. I guess I see it more as a right,” he said. “Maybe it would even set the example for harassment for other groups.”
Eventually, the council agreed it was better to have an ordinance in place to protect cyclists from harassment immediately and to later add protection for other pedestrians, such as walkers, joggers and individuals in wheelchairs.
Supporters leaving the council chambers three hours after the meeting started expressed their satisfaction with the ordinance's passage.
“I was shocked,” Pam Thorne said. “I thought it was leaning toward not passing, but I think at the end they finally realized it was worth passing, but maybe with some rewording.”
Resident and bicyclist Steve Kullman was also pleased with the results.
"I’m especially happy that they’re going to expand to other methods of transportation,” he said.