Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Dark Side Of Bicycle Registration Rears It's Ugly Head Again

 Santa Monica Critical Mass December
(Photo from my first Santa Monica Critical Mass, ticket was written for not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign)

Over in Long Beach the police decided to crack down on a critical mass ride within minutes of it starting last week. As we saw in Santa Monica police crack-downs on critical mass in the past, back when it attracted much bigger turnout, tickets were written in mass, some for legitimate violations, others less clear, and some down right nit picky. The really overreaching and draconian part of this fiasco though, was the LBPD seized peoples bikes, which for some riders was their only or primary means of transportation.

This mass seizure of bikes was done under the guise of the bikes not being registered under the local bicycle registration ordinance and in some cases a lack of brakes.  Last time I checked when drivers fail to update their vehicle registration sticker it's a ticket, they don't impound the car. Also driving with dealer plates instead of valid license plates is so common it would be laughable if it were not such a serious issue of accountability with our abysmally high rate of hit and run crashes.

It should be noted concerning the bikes taken for lack of external brakes, that fixed gear bikes can be stopped under the definition of stopping in the CA bicycle equipment requirements when you lock your legs, and there is no clarification in the vehicle code of the definition of what a brake is. Though I think caliper brakes are a good idea for additional safety, if cities want to do away with fixed gear bikes not equipped with external braking power, there must be further clarification of what brakes are in the vehicle code. Cruiser bikes with internal coaster brake hubs are very common, especially in Southern California, and stop in a manner not all that dissimilar to a fixed gear bike. A judge in Oregon ruled that a fixed gear bike does not constitute having a brake, but it's hardly a matter that is settled, and there is still ambiguity in the law and it's interpretation. As Ted Rogers pointed out in comments, Long Beach judges have tossed out tickets given to fixed gear riders in the past concerning braking requirements.

As has been demonstrated several times now, bicycle registration as it exists, where it exists is so poorly implemented that most citizens have never heard of such requirements. Sometimes even cyclists trying to comply have a lot of trouble getting a sticker because the agencies in charge of distributing them are often unprepared to actually implement the registration. While bicycle theft recovery is the commonly stated purpose of such laws, in practice they can used to harass cyclists or add punitive punishments when police are reaching for extra penalties to stack when no other valid traffic violations can be found.

For more background on the critical mass situation in Long Beach, check out the stories on the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the LA Times,  and Ted Rogers of BikingInLA has a good round up of the points with links to pertinent ordinances, statements etc.  

The seizure of the bikes for something as petty as lack of a registration requirement that is so poorly implemented, is incredibly and excessively overreaching. I really hope the cyclists in Long Beach organize and sue the city.  I think as a group cyclists need to start drawing lines in the sand and explore options for law suits against governments which fail to provide for our safety through infrastructure, fail to educate the public on the rights and responsibility of all road users, abuse their police powers, and or them selves fail to comply with the law.

As many readers of mine are aware, I think that bicycle registration as implemented in Santa Monica is both sloppy and also unlawful according to the California Vehicle Code. I had tried to call attention to the issue a few times in the past, through e-mails and round-table discussion with city staff, after it was discovered the L.A. version of the law was being used to ticket cyclists who had violated no other traffic law, and widespread ignorance that the law even existed, both among citizens and public officials. The L.A. law was eventually put to rest after a period of back and forth on the issue while cyclists given tickets were in limbo.

In Santa Monica the law still stands however, but as written is still absurdly punitive and does not comply with state law. It fails to comply on two accounts, it can only be required of or enforced on residents, which the Santa Monica ordinance does not indicate, and it is currently a misdemeanor with maximum penalty of $1,000 with the possibility of jail time. However the C.A. C.V.C. specifies the penalties for such requirements is not to exceed $10. The Santa Monica law was also recently featured in a post by livable streets activist and L.A. city council candidate Stephen Box, on the topic of local governments, and government agencies, which have or have had laws or policies concerning bicycling, which are in fact in violation of state laws.

Previously had no luck finding anyone actually being cited for the violation in Santa Monica. That has changed. In the past week I've been exchanging messages with a cyclist that found me through a friend of his being a reader of my blog. He was cited for sidewalk riding, which he did not know was also an offense, and when he expressed that he had seen other cyclists use the sidewalk, something common in Santa Monica despite being prohibited, he was given a second violation, for failure to display a bicycle license, another ordinance the cyclist had no idea existed. Both cited offenses were listed as misdemeanors, more serious than most traffic violations, which are treated as infractions, and these citations have mandatory court dates, at the LAX court house.

While sidewalk riding is clearly not allowed in the Santa Monica municipal code, the city also does a pretty terrible job informing the public of that requirement as well. Should the penalty for this also be so serious as to require a mandatory court date? This seems particularly ridiculous given that Santa Monica shares sidewalk connections with the City of Los Angeles, which does not prohibit sidewalk riding. There are no signs indicating anywhere that sidewalk cycling is prohibited on city streets in Santa Monica. As I've said many times before, I am certainly no advocate for sidewalk riding, I am a vehicular cyclist all the way. However if Santa Monica is going to prohibit the practice of rolling on the sidewalk, it needs to do a better job educating the public that sidewalk riding is not allowed, and defending cyclist's right to use the roadway.

Seeing the disaster of police abuse in Long Beach, and finding a cyclist cited for lack of registration at home, has renewed my interest in having the law killed or reformed, as it is clearly apparent as written invites abuse of police power in addition to being unlawful. If it comes down to it, I may start consulting with a lawyer to make Santa Monica city comply with state laws whether it wants to be bothered with this issue or not. Hopefully this incident has motivated Long Beach cyclists to fight the law there as well.


Dominic Dougherty said...

The first time I registered a bicycle in Long Beach, I was 14. I did it to complete requirement #2 for my cycling merit badge. Since then I have registered every bicycle I've ever owned (upwards of 20). I was fortunate that I happened to work at one of the few licensing entities in Long Beach and had an easy time of getting stickers (unlike going to the Fire Dept on Saturday morning between the hours of Inconvenient and Out-On-A-Call).
At my workplace, we licensed hundreds of bikes each year, and would turn them in to our local fire station once a week.

It so happened one day that an individual that I had licensed a bike for 5 months prior had it stolen and came to me to help track it down. Not being privy to the database, I got on the phone with my Fire Dept contact... then on the phone with my Police contact... neither were able to locate this individuals info. There was no record.

So I asked them to run one of my licenses... no info.
I asked them to run my name.
No info.

There was no record of me licensing a single bike (of at least 20) over the last 16 years.


The CA Vehicle Code REQUIRES any city maintaining a licensing ordinance also maintain records of such licenses, at least through their validity.

At the time of my calls, I had 5 bicycles that were up-to-date with registration.

Another fun thing I discovered is that when licensing your bicycle at a fire station in Long Beach, their is no requirement to prove that the bicycle is yours in the first place. No proof-of-purchase required.

Gary, I am going to steal your bike and license it in my name in Long Beach :)

Gary said...

Wow, records to no where. I doubt they are keeping much track of where the money from those little 3 buck transactions is going either. This is absurd.

PlebisPower said...

Great post that puts into perspective the absurdities baked into local cycling law while reminding us that we're damed if we do and damned if we don't. Can't ride on the sidewalk but can't cycle safely on most streets.
I especially like this bit of advocacy:
"I think as a group cyclists need to start drawing lines in the sand and explore options for law suits against governments which fail to provide for our safety through infrastructure, fail to educate the public on the rights and responsibility of all road users, abuse their police powers, and or them selves fail to comply with the law."
Well said - another opportunity to lever change. I'm not aware of a comparison of local laws regarding licensing (as the Bike Blog has helpfully done with sidewalk riding). Do enlighten us.
Or is this a crowdsource project? If we can compile a list of things to sleuth at the local government level, I'll be happy to go to my own city hall and find out then plug the info into a matrix.

Maggie said...

Thanks for this post.

Slightly off topic, Dominic's story reminded me of the time last month when I was biking through Manhattan Beach on my way home. I encountered a stray dog with only a dog license on his collar. I dialed the number on the license and was patched through to MB animal control.

The inept animal control operator was only able to give me (after much prodding on my part) an address that did not match the description of the dog. The address was too far, by bike and dog, away. Believe it or not, a complete stranger lent her 2009 Honda Accord to me so I could take the dog to that address. Of course it was the wrong address. I found out that owner had let his dog license lapse.

Returning with the dog and car back to the original location, I tried calling the MB number again. Again after much prodding, I learned that, "Maybe City Hall has more up to date information."

City Hall did indeed have more up to date info. Again, after much prodding, I was able to obtain the address. Turned out the dog lived 3 blocks away.

What amazed me is that this dog had a VALID license, yet a small city's own animal control department did not have the correct info.

Also, it shocked me to realize how fast Manhattan Beach would recycle a license number. This number was in the the low 4 digits.

Anonymous said...

Try contacting the City Attorney. I'm sure he'd rather SM code not violate CA law.

Allan said...

What Dominic stated above is pretty much what I discovered too. This licensing issue was used before on cyclists here in LB, and I decided to investigate it a bit more at that time. I started calling numbers at the police department to get some info on this database, cause the CVC states that database is suppose to be maintained by the city running the program. After being transferred from one person to another, and a total of about 20 calls, I eventually wound up back to the person I started with!

I was never able to find this mythical database, and many people I talked to had no idea what I was talking about.

I decided I'm going to do something different this time and take one of my bikes to the fire station and register it. I'll be following the process and start my search again for this illusive database beast.