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Take the Lane, Steve Schmitt

Steve Schmitt.jpegI believe that if you are a person in the Lehigh Valley who, in the past 25 years, ever walked somewhere, rode a bike, took a bus, drove a car, or took a breath of clean air, you benefitted from the life work of Steve Schmitt. He was passionately dedicated to improving the human condition in the best way he knew how...and he was good at it.

I am writing this to celebrate and commemorate the life of Steve Schmitt. Sadly, Steve left this world far too soon on Saturday March 14, 2015 at the age of 63. Steve was the founder and director of the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation since 1994. I will not pretend to know all that Steve has done and in all the ways he made an impact, but I feel compelled to write about what I do know and my experiences with a remarkable man.

I met Steve when I was a young bicycle police officer in Bethlehem, PA in the late 1990's. I had frequent interactions with him as he advocated for cyclists' rights and cycling safety in the Valley. In the early days, I was very skeptical of what he was teaching and I didn't understand or appreciate why he rode so far out in the lane. It seemed to me at the time that riding that way would be more dangerous, not safer, as he claimed. I heard him speak on the topic many times and, little by little, began trying it myself while logging thousands of miles on the streets of Bethlehem. I not only found it to be true, but became a believer and advocate, as well. Steve never grew tired of taking every opportunity to explain all of the reasons that it was safer to ride farther out in the lane: being more visible, being out of the "door zone", being more predictable, and the list goes on. I became a police cyclist instructor in 2000 and have since trained hundreds of police officers to be police cyclists. Steve not only changed the way that I rode, but even more importantly, he changed the way that I taught.

Steve understood that by working with the police he could leverage his ability to spread his important message. He improved our individual safety, but also had a great impact on how the police treated cyclists. Steve knew that by having an officer understand cycling, it would go a long way in protecting all cyclists' rights to use the roadway. Steve worked with longtime Bethlehem Police Officer, Tim Brooks (retired), to create a trial diversion program to give cycling offenders the opportunity to take the Smart Cycling: Traffic Skills 101 course instead of paying a fine for violating the law. Officer Brooks was also a strong supporter and advocate for safe cycling. He enthusiastically enforced the laws against wrong way cycling, red light violations, riding at night without lights, and sidewalk riding in the downtown business district, all with the intent of educating and improving the safety of cyclists. This partnership served to educate many cyclists and give them an opportunity to be a part of the solution.

Steve also had an idea to expand our police education efforts and we conducted classes for non-cycling police officers on the Pennsylvania Bicycle Driver's Manual and on riding a bicycle legally and safely in traffic. The classes also taught officers the importance of treating a cyclist as a driver of a vehicle and how to properly document vehicle versus bicycle accidents. This class filled a necessary void in traditional police training and provided important knowledge to many police officers in our communities.

Steve continued to impact my life as I moved into my new career as an attorney. He provided advice and insight as I prepared to represent a cyclist client who had been injured in a car versus bicycle accident. I will always be indebted to Steve for the selfless giving of his time and knowledge.

I enjoyed watching Steve advocate for something, whether it was the addition of "Bikes May Use Full Lane" signs on the Fahy Bridge, or the complete alteration of pedestrian routes during construction on the Minsi Trail Bridge. He was tireless and fearless and he advocated from the heart. Steve would only compromise when he had to in order to get at least some improvement in the condition.

It has been an honor and privilege to work with Steve for these many years on projects such as the Monocacy Way 5k, Shared Lane Markings, Bikes May Use Full Lane signs, the Patrick Ytsma Ride of Respect, and many others. I am saddened that our region has lost such a strong, intelligent, and committed voice for the rights of pedestrians and cyclists, but I am confident that my experience is just one of many. Steve sowed his seeds well and made an impact, not only in his accomplishments, but in the hearts and minds of so many others. It is now our responsibility to continue to build on what he has done. Steve was very proud of these accomplishments and they were one small part of why he referred to Bethlehem as "Bicycle Heaven".

Take the lane, Steve. You deserve it.

About the Author

Jason Schiffer is an associate attorney at Cohen, Feeley, Altemose & Rambo and is the retired Chief of Police in Bethlehem, PA. He can be reached at JSchiffer@cohenfeeley.com.

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