DOWNTOWN — It wasn’t too far back when an already contentious relationship between Critical Mass and the Santa Monica Police Department reached a boiling point, cyclists alleging they were unfairly being targeted during their monthly rides, authorities countering that they were simply trying to ensure everyone’s safety.
When the cyclists set out again on their ride tonight, the atmosphere is expected to be markedly different than the outings from just a year ago.
Gone are the large crowds, which at its peak reached about 300 riders, now drawing anywhere from 30 to 50 people. Gone are the special police deployments during the rides, resulting in significantly fewer tickets being issued.
“In the last four months as far as I can recall, there haven’t been any cruisers or motorcycles starting out the ride with us,” Mihai Peteu, a regular rider since 2007, said. “If anything, there are just regular officers on the street.
“I’m hoping they’re out handling more important crimes.”
SMPD Sgt. Larry Horn, the supervisor for traffic safety and motorcycle enforcement, said the deployment is based primarily on the behavior of cyclists and their interaction with the community, adding that there has been fewer complaints from drivers about the rides.
One of the criticisms of the ride, which starts at the Santa Monica Pier and make its way throughout the city, was that the cyclists clog up traffic, corking intersections and running stop signs. As the complaints increased, so did police presence during the rides.
The SMPD stressed that the special deployment was to make sure that all users of the road, including cyclists and motorists, were safe and that they were obeying rules of the road. Many cyclists who have received citations during the rides argued that they were ticketed for non infractions while officers ignored actual violations from passing drivers.
“Our goal was never to banish them from our roadways,” Horn said. “Our attempt is to encourage them to obey the law and ride safety and share the road with vehicles and pedestrians and all the other folks.”
Horn said that there has been a reduction in “illegal behaviors” but added that it has not stopped entirely.
“We still get complaints here and there,” he said. “We just have not seen the level of problems and complaints that we were seeing six months or a year ago that was causing us to deploy additional resources specifically so there’s no incidents of violence between riders and vehicles.”
Horn said that City Hall is amenable to bicycle use and spends a tremendous amount of time encouraging other forms of transportation other than vehicles. Santa Monica just last month was recognized as being a bronze level Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists, a designation that some questioned considering the issue with Critical Mass and the conflict between pedestrians and riders on the bike path.
Peteu, a Santa Monica resident, said that the reason for the decrease in ridership for Critical Mass could be attributed to the police enforcement.
“Every single person I asked who used to be a regular said they don’t want the conflict,” Peteu said. “They want to ride for fun, they don’t want to ride for political reasons.”
The drop in ridership has coincided with an increase in popularity of some of the other rides, including Crank Mob, which has been described by some as a party on wheels, and Robot, which is faster in pace and covers more ground, averaging 20 plus miles a trip.
Paul Bringetto, a Santa Monica resident who still rides monthly with Critical Mass, said he thinks the popularity in the other rides is a result of better promotion, not necessarily frustration with enforcement. He’s been cited several times during the Critical Mass rides.
The Crank Mob and Robot rides typically don’t venture into Santa Monica.
Bringetto said he has trouble calling Critical Mass, Critical Mass.
“It’s kind of evolved from the original concept of Critical Mass to just a ride to evade the Santa Monica Police Department,” he said. “The original people who came out to celebrate bicycles out in the open, they don’t come out anymore.”