Dodging the Police and Hanging at the Pier: Santa Monica Critical Mass

Brigitte Lauren and Lauren Larken Brave the Streets at Last Friday’s Santa Monica Critical Mass

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a monthly series of ride reports on Critical Mass from throughout the region.  In April it was a family ride in Pasadena.  In May, I cruised the downtown with 200 of my closest friends in Los Angeles
In June, it was soccer time in Venice.  This month, knowing the reputation of Santa Monica Critical Mass, I grabbed my pastor and my wife and headed off to the Santa Monica pier for three hours of well monitored riding.)

Sometime in the fall of last year Santa Monica Critical mass changed.  Gone were the days when it was perceived as a family ride, and the police presence increased dramatically.  Tickets, which were more often than not overturned by the courts, were handed out like candy in an attempt to stop the ride.

Last Friday, a group of well over 100 cyclists gathered at the cannon outside of the Santa Monica pier for August’s installment of Santa Monica Critical Mass.  Several of the usual ride leaders were on vacation, so there was an impromptu decision that the ride would be "lady’s night" with the female riders leading the pack.  Sara Bond, who I met at last month’s ride in Venice, took the microphone and off we went into the streets of Santa Monica.

The Santa Monica Police Department, desperate to preserve the rights of motorists to maximum road capacity, was out in force to police the ride.  I counted four motorcycles, two squad cars, and four officers on non-motorized bikes; but a letter posted on Midnight Ridazz forums from the SMPD said their were 14 officers in total. 

Wow, more than a dozen police officers on the beat to watch hundreds of cyclists obey the law.  Too bad the cops themselves couldn’t be bothered to do so.  I had a motorcycle, without flashers or sirens on, pass me withing three inches while I rode legally in the right lane.  If a car did that, it would be at least a shout of warning.  Since it was a municipal vehicle there will be a written complaint.

After the ride cleared Santa Monica and the group met in Venice, there was an informal count of tickets that were handed out.  14 in total were counted, and at least some of them were for infractions that don’t exist.  One cyclist was ticketed for passing a car that was turning left in the right lane, which is not only completely legal it would cause a traffic jam if it weren’t done on a regular basis.

Of course, showing that equal protection under the law is a nice theory but just real hard to put into practice, cars weren’t treated the same as bikes.  There were at least five times I was sitting next to a police officer of some kind at a light when a car ran the red or turned left after a red.  Not once did an officer show a sign that they noticed.

To counter the police actions, riders followed the letter of the law to the point where they actually were more of a nuisance to the driving public than if they were riding as part of the flow of traffic.  At one intersection two police choppers going west blocked the intersection for nearly a minute while a group of cyclists sat at the north facing stop sign waiting.  Eventually, the bike riders moved through the intersection.  There were no cars waiting behind the bike riders.  However, there were at least eight cars backed behind the police motorcycles. 

In short, if you want your Critical Mass to be more than a rolling party this might be the ride for you.  Thanks to Santa Monica’s ham handed attempts to stifle the ride, it has become a flashpoint  in the bicycle culture wars.  Pictures and a description of the actual ride will appear after the jump.

The ride itself was pleasant enough.  As we rode through the streets, pedestrians treated us as we were a parade cheering and shouting encouragement demonstrating a clear contrast between the citizens’ reactions and those of their civil servants.  The ride went up and down many of Santa Monica’s better known streets, but the group still got separated.  Riders would wait at intersections to direct those separated and eventually the group reformed at a traffic circle in one of the residential areas.

From there, the ride continued through Santa Monica, reforming at a Vons parking lot before heading into Venice.  Some riders were relieved to get out of the over policed portion of the ride and others argued that the peaceful conflict with the police is the purpose of Critical Mass.

The ride bunched at Winward Circle in Venice.  After a half hour the ride headed out to the Venice Pier where the ride ended with some dancing and jump rope while families fished over the side. It was 10 at night when the ride ended, just over three hours from when it began. 

Below are pictures of the ride, in chronological order, from the ride.





  • Speaking of peaceful, entirely legal bicycle protests, I’ve often thought it would be fun to organize a kind of “left turn brigade” ride, wherein enough cyclists to completely cover the inductive loops that trigger protected left turn arrows gather to make a series of left turns at intersections known to be insensitive to bikes. The lights would never change, and cars would line up behind the bikes, forever trapped by the defective traffic signal. entertainingly, one such signal is immediately adjacent to the Pasadena Police station.

  • Todd K

    What is the purpose of Critical Mass? I’m not a rider, but a public transit person and as far as can tell, Critical Mass does not promote safe bicycle riding. In fact, any organization that is able to chaff the most liberal local government in L.A. county is unproductive and is more about feeding some narcissistic impulses.

  • A. J.

    That’s a great idea Zane Selvans! Let’s perpetuate this utter B.S. Better yet, why don’t we lay in the road and pretend we’re having heart attacks… all at the same time!? Have we lost our minds? Instigating hatred wasn’t the intention of Critical Mass, but it’s nearing, if not here. How about a nice bike ride without the us vs. them schtick? For God’s sake, stop being a victim!

  • Well, there is no single purpose of critical mass… and some people on it (or some rides in general) are pretty annoying. But, I see the purpose as a nice orderly group ride which is done once a month to let people know we’re here and that they should pay attention to bikers (and that’s not narcissistic since I mean it only in a “don’t hit us with your car” kind of way). Having a mass of bikers is safer than being there alone. While some people on critical mass rides are “us vs. them” I see nothing wrong with Zane’s idea of going with many people to the most dangerous areas. Once cars are used to seeing bikes there they will hopefully be more careful. That’s what I think the goal of critical mass is. If people know there are bikes around they will be more careful and look out for them.

  • A. J.

    Fritz, couldn’t agree more re: “nice orderly group ride which is done once a month to let people know we’re here and that they should pay attention to bikers.” But that is a stark contrast to Zane Selvans’ “…and cars would line up behind the bikes, forever trapped by the defective traffic signal. entertainingly, one such signal is immediately adjacent to the Pasadena Police station.”

  • Stag Nasty

    I like the left turn lane idea but sheesh…. don’t you guys have better things to do with your time? Life is short!

  • skd

    When Critical Mass was first created in San Francisco, 1992, the concept quickly became a pitched battle. Bicyclists versus police and drivers.

    Critical Mass is relatively new to Los Angeles and Santa Monica, here it has evolved into a celebration of the bicycle as well as to educate the drivers. Yes, there are some aggressive bicyclists, just like there are aggressive drivers, but the majority prefers to share the road and extol the virtues of riding a bicycle in a post $4.00 a gallon of gas marketplace.

    No one who rode last Friday wanted to engage in a conflict with police or drivers. Our aim was to exert our rights, per the California Vehicle code, to ride the streets legally and safely. An announcement was made prior to the ride, to observe all traffic laws. Including red lights and stop signs. For the most part, everyone complied.

    The city of Santa Monica prides itself on its liberal, green and environmentally-friendly policies. Yet the actions by the police, and only a naive individual would think that the police aren’t acting without orders from a higher authority, was in stark contrast to what the city stands for.

    My hope is that we can resolve this issue with the city of Santa Monica, instead of having a large contingent of police vehicles burning gasoline and taxpayer resources chasing bicyclists.

  • Marcotico

    There is a cool documentary out about Critical Mass, but the name escapes me. I was thinking about the incident up in Seattle, and how everyone keeps blaming the cyclists for developing an us v. them attitude, but then I thought about the fact that CM is only once a month. So in other words, people in cars can’t be slowed down for five minutes once month? Especially in Seattle where you know this is going on?

  • The only thing that’s for certain is that cyclists lead happier lives, have better motor skills than drivers, and also tend to have more endurance in bed. The rest of this silly crap (road rules, who’s right, who’s wrong, what CM is all about) will be up for discussion until the end of time.

  • Todd K


    So, Critical Mass wants to raise awareness by creating maximum amount of nuisance for drivers and pedestrians during the worst part of day; raising irritation to some magical level where the public feels sympathy and starts driving safer around riders. Unfortunately, by all accounts, Critical Mass’ method is having the opposite effect. Sure, you can blame the media, but that is weak sauce.

    Civil disobedience is a proven method for fighting oppression, but are bikers really oppressed? Are there laws against riding? I doubt Joe-Six-Pack is impressed by these actions.


    That is so true of Santa Monica. And what a wasted opportunity. If there was ever a city that is oriented toward an Amsterdam type of bike friendly environment, it is Santa Monica. They have so much money that they throw themselves $300,000 parties (GLOW). Just think what they could do: Class I bike paths, Class II bike paths, more bike storage, etc. Opportunity lost.


    Thanks for proving my point. Narcissist.

  • Marcotico

    Hey Todd K,

    Why not just go on a ride and find out for yourself? If you find it to be antagonist us v. them jerks, ride off on your own. If you find a bunch of people who like riding in the company of others, and for one brief moment feel like safe, empowered parts in the transportation network good for them.

    I have been on a few CM rides in Irvine of all places, and found them to be enjoyable, but I also find the whole ethos problematic. But I think when you put it in perspective Critical Mass is an overall positive event. BTW that documentary that I mentioned above (I wish I could remember the name) said that the Manchester UK CM actually flames out in the late 90’s because it got to confrontational. So I think your point is valid, that if the riders make it an us v. them thing the steady CMers will get bored with that. The longer lasting rides become so because they are fun, and enjoyable for everyone.

    When we rode in Irvine, there were only about 30 of us, and for every jerk honking in a pick up truck there where people tapping their horns, waving, and giving us thumbs up.

  • Gigi

    Wow, those girls really make bike safety fashion look fabulous.

  • A. J.

    I agree with Marcotico that steady CMers may ultimately bore with the controversy. Bikes… remember the bikes!?

  • Chris

    I know bicyclists want more respect, but riding a bike with a cannon attached to it is a little extreme. Peace Out.

  • JDuff

    I was one of the many ticketed at last month’s SMCM. I’ve been riding with SMCM for over 2 years and this was my first ticket. I always obey the laws and did at the time of the ticket. My violation was “unsafe pass on right” At an intersection I passed a car safely to make a left turn along with about 75 others. I was the only one who got targeted!

  • This is the great blog, I’m reading them for a while,
    thanks for the new posts!

  • Bradford

    How did I get here? Letting the days go by, and a 1-click link from Yahoo…Keene, NH, is 3,000 miles from that FUN out in CA, but it’s still good to see…You people are still encouraging me, even 5 years later!…(wtf?!)…*grin*…*BICYCLES*YES!*


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