Despite years of effort, we still have a long way to go in educating police officers on the rights of bicyclists.
It seemed like we had solved the problem, in Los Angeles at least, five years ago when the LAPD worked with bike riders and the City Attorney to clarify the laws governing bicycling, and create a bicycle training module that all street level officers were required to complete.
Yet bicyclists still encounter officers who seem to have missed, or forgotten, that training. And as architect and bike commuter Michael MacDonald learned the hard way, we still haven’t made any progress with the Sheriff’s Department.
By Michael MacDonald
I’m frequently the recipient of harassment, insults, and aggression from drivers who don’t understand that riding on the street is perfectly legal. Commuting by bike around Los Angeles — with little-to-no bike infrastructure within a 5-mile radius of my house, I’ve come to expect the regular rage-fueled driver. And yet as frustrating as this aggression is from the motoring public, it is even more demoralizing to receive similar harassment from law enforcement personnel. Too many officers in Los Angeles aren’t familiar with the fact that a person on a bike is perfectly within their rights to control a travel lane on almost all Los Angeles streets, and that cyclists take the lane for safety.
Before I started riding a bike in Los Angeles, I had thankfully had very few interactions with law enforcement. But then in 2013, I was detained in the back of a Sheriff’s Department squad car because 2 deputies thought that a person riding a bike on the street in Rosemead didn’t look right.
Over the last 2 weeks, motorcycle officers have twice stopped me – for riding in the street, legally.
The first incident was on returning from the wonderful CicLAvia Southeast Cities on May, 15 2016. On my way home by bike, still on a high note from the event, I took Central Avenue. Despite its lack of bike lanes, Central is a critical North/South connector within South L.A. Proposed bike lanes on Central are included in the City’s Mobility Plan 2035, have widespread community support, and are needed to address Central’s horrific safety record. But frustratingly, Councilmember Curren Price has blocked the bike lanes from being installed and is working with Councilmember Paul Koretz to try to get them removed from the Plan, so they won’t even be considered in the future.
While I was waiting at a red light in the rightmost travel lane on Central at 27th Street, an LAPD motorcycle officer approached at a rapid pace and stopped inches from me. He proceeded to aggressively explain, “This isn’t your lane – you can’t ride in the middle.” I have been riding long enough to have nearly memorized California Vehicle Code, not just CVC 21202(a)(3), but 21656, 21760, and 22400 too. I knew he was wrong. And yet his tone and demeanor made it clear this wasn’t a conversation. This was a stern demand with the threat of a ticket seconds away.
As he pulled off, I wasn’t even clear on how he expected me to ride since the lanes on Central are so narrow. I stopped and took some time to compose myself after this demoralizing experience of state-sponsored harassment. Then, I continued to ride in the middle of the lane: where it’s safest when bike lanes aren’t provided, and where California’s Vehicle Code says I have the right to ride.
10 days later, I was again confronted with a similar situation – but this time I had my helmet camera rolling. During the Tuesday evening rush hour on May 24th, a Sheriff’s deputy pulled up alongside me as I rode in the Wilshire Blvd bus/bike lane through Koreatown (Wilshire & Kingsley). Just as before, the deputy clearly wasn’t familiar with relevant California traffic laws, but still felt the need to tell me what I was doing would not be permitted and that I would receive a ticket if I continued on.
First, as an aside, I will say that these Wilshire bus/bike lanes are so frequently filled with dangerous scofflaw drivers that it’s a tiny bit refreshing to see them actually being patrolled, and I commend Metro/the Sheriff’s Department for efforts to try to speed up the 20 & 720 buses on this route. But this deputy seems to be completely unaware that these lanes are also for the use of people on bikes, just as the lane’s signage says.
He started by claiming that cyclists are not permitted to use the bus/bike lane whatsoever. After I pointed out the sign ahead saying, ‘Bikes OK,’ he said that cyclists must ride the curb edge, which is dangerous and without legal basis. Finally, he claimed that cyclists are required to get out of the way of buses. Of course, how people on bikes are supposed to accomplish this feat within this tightly sized lane with no turnouts is a mystery to me.
Just to state the obvious: this deputy is wrong on all counts. First, LADOT has designated these lanes for the use of bicycles and accordingly posted signs stating “Bikes OK.” Second, there is no requirement to ride along the curb as CVC 21202(a)(3) applies, since the lane is too narrow to for a bicycle to be safely be ridden side-by-side with a vehicle, let alone a bus. Metro’s own “Bike Guide” even instructs people on bikes to ride at the center of the lane when proceeding straight. Third, there is no requirement for bikes or slower vehicles to turn-out on a multi-lane roadway. CVC 21656, the law requiring vehicles to turn out, only applies on 2-lane highways – and even then, it only is triggered when there is a queue of 5 vehicles behind.
This isn’t the first time someone has been pulled over by LASD in a bus/bike lane in Los Angeles. In 2014, my friend, Marc Caswell, was wrongly ticketed by a Sheriff’s deputy for legally riding in a bus/bike lane on Sunset Blvd. In the end, the deputy failed to appear at the hearing, so the ticket was dismissed.
But it isn’t just being pulled over. Twice last year, I was aggressively instructed by Sheriff’s deputies to ride up onto the sidewalk to let a bus pass while in the Sunset Boulevard bus/bike lane. And when I called to report Tuesday’s incident on Wilshire, the LASD Watch Commander also appeared to be completely unfamiliar that bikes might be permitted to ride in bus/bike lanes or centered within a lane.
If I have been the recipient of these types of incidents three times in the last year, how many other Angelenos have received the same dangerous misinformation, been ticketed incorrectly, or had an unwarranted traffic stop trigger other policing problems? If we are to look to officers to enforce traffic laws, it seems only reasonable to expect that they would understand the law. And, certainly, we should not accept these officers instructing people to endanger themselves by riding in an unsafe way just to speed up motor vehicle traffic.
It’s obvious to me at this point that LADOT, Metro & the Sheriff’s Department need to sit down and get on the same page about bus/bike lanes and the Vehicle Code. There is a simple fix: Sheriff’s Department deputies, who are acting on Metro’s behalf, need to understand the laws they are sworn to enforce. Since these patrols are funded by Metro, the Agency has the responsibility to ensure that these deputies are performing enforcement in compliance with Metro policies.
The bigger picture is that all L.A. law enforcement needs to step up their game on bikes. I am not suggesting special treatment, just that officers take some time to better understand the laws they enforce. Different departments have made some commendable strides, recognizing that cyclists belong on the street and don’t deserve extra scrutiny beyond that which is applied to motorists. But we are well past the point where any law enforcement officer patrolling L.A. streets has an excuse to not be familiar with the fact that people are allowed to ride bikes in the street and legally afforded options to maintain their own safety.
The City, County, and State all have ambitious goals to increase bicycle commuting to increase public health and reduce greenhouse emissions. To paraphrase a friend of mine: People are not going to be attracted to cycling as long as you need to be a traffic law expert – capable of citing Vehicle Code chapter, line, and verse – just to ride on L.A. streets.
We need law enforcement to get on board. And fast.
South Los Angeles-based architect Michael MacDonald is a frequent bike commuter and a steering committee member of local advocacy group, Bike The Vote L.A. His architectural practice, Studio MMD, provided design for Street Beats, one of 8 project teams awarded by the Mayor’s Great Streets LA challenge grant program to re-envision Los Angeles streets.