11TH STREET — Grace Phillips thinks of herself as the “perfect target” for Santa Monica’s Bicycle Action Plan, a recently approved document that unrolls massive changes over the next 20 years to make novice cyclists feel safe on the city’s roads.

She’s not the avid lycra-clad bicyclist that zooms through the streets of Santa Monica at speeds rivaling cars, but the person who runs small errands on two wheels rather than four.

But Grace Phillips won’t ride anymore.

On Feb. 9, she was pedaling back from a shopping trip Sears. At 11th Street approaching Pearl Street, Phillips coasted through a stop sign after checking for oncoming traffic.

Immediately after, she heard the “whoop whoop” of police sirens. The result: A $250 ticket, topped by a $69 court fee and a point on her license.

Phillips was incensed, and made more so when she finally saw the ticket, which described her offense as passing through a stop sign at 5 miles per hour.

“If I’d been endangering somebody, running someone down, creating havoc on Lincoln Boulevard, I would understand,” Phillips said. “Tottering down 11th with numerous stop signs, no.”

Under California’s rules of the road, Phillips and her bicycle bear the same responsibilities as a car to obey traffic laws, and doing a “California roll” at a stop sign is a citable violation.

Phillips argued that the punishment — a fine that cost more than the bicycle she used to commit the deed and a point on her driver’s license — didn’t fit the crime, and in fact acted as a deterrent to people thinking about getting on their bicycles rather than in their cars.

“If you have to dismount at every single stop sign, you’re not going to ride,” she said.

It’s a problem that more cities have to grapple with as they strive to attract bicyclists to cut down on traffic and improve air quality — how do you balance laws with reality?

Up north

In San Francisco, they call it an “admonishment.”

San Francisco put a bike plan in place in 2009, and had many of the same problems that Phillips encountered. Traffic enforcement did its job, and ticketed the growing number of bicyclists as they would cars.

There was some logic to that, said Tim Papandreou, deputy director for sustainable streets for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

“Under California law, bicyclists must obey all traffic laws. It’s up to the police to enforce those laws,” Papandreou said. “Police can’t be everywhere all of the time, and people get used to not having to pay attention.”

And bicyclists do have worries on the road that those wrapped in several thousand pounds of metal don’t.

A fender bender in a car causes a dent and a bad day. A bike versus car accident even at a slow speed can end a life.

Still, police have discretion to give tickets or what the San Francisco group is calling an “admonishment,” more commonly considered a warning, depending on the circumstances.

Instead of doling out citations, police educate bicyclists about what they should or should not be doing on the road, a system which works out well for the people just learning the rules but still has the flexibility to punish flagrant violators.

The SFMTA is also working on alternative programs like a driver education for bicyclists that would allow them to waive the cost of the ticket to put more weight behind the push for education.


For bike activists, that element of discretion is critical.

Ticketing bicyclists in the same way one does motorists has a discouraging effect on getting new riders on bikes, said Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bike Coalition, a group that advocates for bike-friendly policies across the Golden State.

Stop signs are hard on bicyclists, who operate under their own manpower and need to gather momentum to get rolling again every time they stop. Drivers face inconvenience from stop signs, but can just as easily jump on a freeway if they need to travel more than a few miles.

“Bicycles want the same thing, but don’t have that choice,” Synder said.

Running stop signs in a controlled, careful manner becomes logical rather than a demonstration of flagrant disregard for the rules.

Some places have codified that sentiment in law.

Idaho, a state of 1.5 million compared to California’s 36.7 million, has something called a “yield” law, which allows bicyclists to roll through stop signs under certain circumstances.

Every few years, a similar movement pops up in California, although it’s failed to get much steam. Lacking a fundamental change in the state’s vehicle code, it’s up to police to grant or deny clemency in stop sign cases.

“Police have the discretion to enforce what they want,” Snyder said. “Police choose not to enforce speeding if someone is going 26 MPH. They could choose not to enforce stop sign running unless it’s egregious. It’s an element of discretion.”

In Santa Monica, officers see it as a numbers game.

In 2009, there were 128 accidents involving bicycles. in 2010, that number grew to 136 and by 2011 it was 148.

2012 is right on pace, said Santa Monica Police Department’s Lt. Jay Trisler.

“So far, from Jan. 1 to Mar. 3, we’ve had 29 accidents with bikes, and 31 percent of those, the bicyclist was at fault,” Trisler said.

While officers should and do have discretion, bicyclists still have the responsibility to obey the laws as written.

“We want everyone to be a defensive rider, driver and pedestrian,” Trisler said. “We want everyone to go home safe.”

The more you know

It all comes down to education, a critical component of Santa Monica’s bicycle action plan which will come online fully in April when the beachside bike campus opens.

“If people don’t know what rights are responsibilities they have, they can’t do them,” explained Cynthia Rose of Santa Monica SPOKE, a bike organization.

Police have to walk a tightrope between enforcement and education, one that could be relaxed if more bicyclists knew how to navigate the streets in an intelligent — and legal — manner.

To that end, Rose hopes that biking novices will take advantage of the Bike Campus, which will be open to the public on Earth Day, April 22. The one-of-a-kind training facility will provide a safe place for people to ride through a skill course painted as though they were on city streets.

Certified instructors will be on hand to guide people through.

Unlike other countries that put more of an emphasis on bicycling, this may be the first time that many people have been given bicycle instruction since they first took off their training wheels, Rose said.

Taking the time to learn what’s allowable on city streets will diffuse the tension between bicyclists and officers seeking to keep the roads safe.

“Police are tasked with protecting citizens,” Rose said. “Whether you agree or not, they take their job very seriously, and I’m glad they do.”

More information will be available on the Santa Monica Spoke website, smspoke.org .


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