Critical Mass bike ride may be at braking point

Times Staff Writer

This week may be the last time bicyclists stage a monthly mass ride through Santa Monica following police crackdowns on their free-wheeling event that residents complain has snarled traffic and posed hazards to motorists and cyclists alike.

For nearly three years, hundreds of cyclists have converged on Santa Monica’s busiest streets for their so-called Critical Mass bike ride. On the first Friday of every month, the cyclists arrive near the pier about 6:30 p.m., just as local traffic is becoming heaviest. They decide on their route, briefly review traffic laws and hit the streets.

But their ride, which is part recreation and part rally against car-dominated roads, quickly drew residents’ ire despite Santa Monica’s efforts to promote itself as a bike-friendly city. Police responded to the complaints in force by issuing moving violations to cycling scofflaws. During the Nov. 2 ride, officers cited 32 cyclists -- nearly six times more than in the previous three months combined.

Some riders, fearing a reprise at their ride today, said the group’s large base of out-of-towners and social cyclists was considering abandoning Santa Monica and riding elsewhere.

Police and city officials said Critical Mass was welcome in Santa Monica. But participants must abide by traffic rules.


“More than anything, the bottom line is safety,” said Lt. Alex Padilla of the Santa Monica Police Department. “We want to help facilitate those bike rides, but we will continue to take appropriate measures. We saw how dangerous it was getting, how some of the bikers want to dictate their own rules of the road, and just tried to bring some sanity to it all.”

Police cited cyclists for running red lights, riding on sidewalks and having insufficient lights and reflectors. When cyclists break off from the main Critical Mass group toward the end of each ride, the lack of proper equipment and etiquette creates hazardous conditions on the road, Padilla said.

Cyclists said police were unfairly targeting the group.

“We’ve had wildly oscillating amounts of attention from police,” said Alex Thompson, 27, a cyclist and UCLA doctoral candidate. “This time it felt predatory, like officers were instructed specifically to focus on us.”

Cyclists said they were cited for minor infractions. If they had been riding alone, they said, police would have ignored them. Others said they intended to violate vehicle codes in order to spark a dialogue with city officials and motorists about cyclists’ rights.

“It’s confrontational to some degree,” said Stephen Box, a cyclist from Hollywood. “There is a strong argument for breaking the rules in order to advance them. We expected to get a reasonable dialogue and we didn’t, so our behavior keeps getting louder. The cyclists won’t back down.”

During the last ride, police filmed the cyclists as they congregated near the pier entrance, Padilla said. At least 10 officers were present -- some in cruisers, others on motorcycles, bicycles or on foot.

Police started citing cyclists even before they reached the first stoplight on busy Ocean Avenue at Broadway, according to Josh Gelfand, 35, a glass blower from nearby Venice.

Gelfand said he was ticketed after he rode his bike up onto the sidewalk to avoid a stopped police car.

“This was selective enforcement and a form of harassment,” said Gelfand, who plans to contest his citation. “But I don’t want any more tickets; I’m not in the habit of breaking the law.” He noted that most Critical Mass riders try to follow bicycling regulations and can quote much of the California Vehicle Code.

Critical Mass made its debut in San Francisco in 1992 and now stages rides on six continents. There has been trouble: 19 arrests in Minneapolis and seven in Chicago. In San Francisco, the cyclists are loathed by many motorists but tolerated by police and city officials. Nearly 30,000 cyclists rode peacefully in Budapest in late September.

In Santa Monica, more than 50 cyclists attended a City Council meeting Nov. 13, and many criticized the police treatment.

But the uproar has left Mayor Richard Bloom unmoved. He said he viewed Critical Mass cyclists as “lawbreakers.”

“I agree with their point, that we need to do a better job of accommodating alternative forms of transportation, but I don’t accept their methodology,” Bloom said.

“They would prefer that we wink and look the other way.”

Padilla said he had met with the cyclists several times and suggested that they apply for special-event permits or use alternative routes.

“That the Police Department has determined that they’re going to undertake some extra effort to bring the situation under control is exactly what departments are supposed to do when they see a growing problem,” Bloom said.

Box said many participants consider Critical Mass to be a boon to the city’s “green” efforts. One program, BIKE Santa Monica, encourages residents to ride bicycles to reduce pollution and clear congestion. Bloom countered that the city’s green programs do not depend on Critical Mass to succeed.

For many cyclists, today’s event could determine whether Critical Mass can survive in Santa Monica. Several said the group could decamp to West Los Angeles or Venice.

“If the police continue to cite, we won’t be able to keep doing this,” Thompson said.