Santa Monica Critical Mass Sends Message to Council

Critical Mass bicyclists spoke out en masse at last week’s City Council meeting charging that Santa Monica Police are improperly applying vehicle codes and ticketing riders.

Published November 19, 2007 by 
By Anita Varghese

Critical Mass bicyclists spoke out en masse at last week’s City Council meeting charging that Santa Monica Police are improperly applying vehicle codes and ticketing riders.

The protest came two weeks after police cited nearly three dozen participants during the monthly rolling celebration of bicycle culture, handing out tickets for everything from missing taillights and riding outside the bike lane to running red lights and making illegal left turns.

More than 30 bicyclists made public comments on the item, which was not listed on Tuesday’s agenda, but council members were prohibited from taking action under the Brown Act.

One Critical Mass rider said some vehicle codes do not apply to bicyclists, and if police officers want to crack down on traffic laws, they should do so for drivers of trucks and sports utility vehicles that exceed the weight limit on certain streets.

“It is crazy out there and 46,000 people will die this year in the United States as a result of traffic accidents,” said Steven Bachs, a board member of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. “We are in this together because the streets are crowded and we need to find solutions.

“Transportation engineers say there are five approaches to solving this problem — engineering, education, enforcement, encouragement and evaluation,” he said. “I have to say we are failing on all counts with what is going on in Santa Monica with Critical Mass.”

Bachs urged City officials to review the dozens of tickets written by Santa Monica Police over he past several months to determine if the rules violated apply to bicyclists.

Mayor Richard Bloom said he welcomes dialogue from Critical Mass, but added that the council cannot provide this kind of police department oversight.

“We cannot instruct the police,” Bloom said. “We are prohibited under the City Charter from giving that kind of direction to our staff. We can ask for ordinance changes and set policy, but we can’t change the vehicle code.”

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said there are provisions in Santa Monica’s community events law the council previously adopted that allow “group usage of streets without regard to traffic signals.”

Moutrie said the community events law comes with limitations and has never been applied to Critical Mass rides.

But some council members back the police crackdown.

“Allowing safety laws to be violated would incur responsibilities for us that I don’t think we want to take,” said Council member Kevin McKeown. “We are responsible for everyone’s safety, whether they are pedestrians, on a bicycle or in a car.”

McKeown said he rides a bicycle every day and had joined one Critical Mass ride in Santa Monica last spring.

At Santa Monica Boulevard and Fourth Street, he witnessed a bicyclist ride through a red light and felt uncomfortable enough to leave the group that night, McKeown said.

“Kids see me and think it is great that a Council member rides a bike,” McKeown said. “If they see me running a red light, this is not something I want on my conscience if they think it is a cool thing to do.”

He said City officials can find ways for Critical Mass rides to take place safely in Santa Monica.

City staff was asked to return to Council on an informal or formal basis with information on the city’s laws for community events, parades and funeral processions to determine if any of those laws could be applied to Critical Mass rides.

Mayor Pro Tem Herb Katz said staff could look into the option of modifying existing laws if those laws are restricted to specific events unrelated to Critical Mass rides.