I live a long way from Long Beach

I spent a few minutes yesterday complaining about controversy in the cycling world, and here I am reporting on yet more.  However, this time we won’t be talking about Mr. Armstrong or anything associated with him.  This time we will talk about possibly the only thing in the cycling universe that is guaranteed to generate as much noise:  a Critical Mass ride.

What makes this particular run in between police and Critical Mass participants interesting is the location: Long Beach.  It is interesting because Long Beach has very loudly declared its intent to become the most bicycle friendly city in the country.

As with most things of this nature, there appears to be a gap in the stories of both parties – police and riders – involved.  What is not in dispute is that numerous riders were given tickets, and numerous bikes were impounded by Long Beach police.  Exactly how many bikes were confiscated, or precisely why, still remains in dispute.

The story immediately became heated when Long Beach police chief Jim McDonnell was quoted as saying:

“The group known as Critical Mass travels from city to city and as a matter of practice engages in dangerous conduct, violating every rule of the road and endangering the public.” said Police Chief Jim McDonnell. “We take bicycle safety seriously in Long Beach and will not stand by idly while any person or group acts with blatant disregard for safety of the residents of our community.”

Many familiar with Critical Mass rides will immediately take exception to the characterization of Critical Mass as “a group” – let alone one traveling from city to city.  Rather, most would probably state that Critical Mass is an event, or a type of ride, that is organized independently by organizers in different cities.

Reports also generally agree that the tickets given were for running a red light, and lack of required safety equipment.  The missing safety equipment is generally reported as being lights and/or brakes – the latter presumably from fixed gear bikes.

It is here that the general agreement on the events diverges.

Ronnie Sandlin – not only a recipient of a ticket but also one of the promoters of this ride – was quoted in the Long Beach Press-Telegram as saying:

Sandlin said that five minutes into their excursion, riders saw police with flashing lights at an intersection and presumed cops were holding the area open for them.

“We thought they were facilitating us,” said Sandlin, adding that for a month and a half, his group had tried unsuccessfully to gain a permit for the ride.

“Instead they pulled us all over and proceeded to give almost everyone a ticket,” Sandlin said.

The official statement from the city is reported as stating:

On Friday, October 29, 2010, Long Beach Police issued over 70 citations to Critical Mass cyclists who disobeyed the rules of the road, including running stop signs.  The group was stopped in the area of Anaheim Road and Palo Verde Avenue and was cited for violating rules of the road as well as safety issues.

In the case of the Critical Mass event, the City’s Special Events Bureau and Long Beach Police Department attempted to work with the organizers in advance of the event.  City staff explained what would be required to safely conduct the event, but Critical Mass chose not to apply for a City permit.  The group was informed by the Police Department that the City would not allow violations of City safety laws.  Twenty-one bikes were impounded that night for not having required safety equipment (including bikes with no brakes).

Much of the issue of bike confiscation seems to stem from the issue that has yet to be decided by a court: is a separate hand brake legally required on a fixed gear bike.  It is a matter of interpretation what a “brake” is, which makes the language of the law not entirely clear:

No person shall operate a bicycle on a roadway unless it is equipped with a brake which will enable the operator to make one wheel skid on dry level clean pavement (Ref Sec 21201(a)).