(Santa Claus is ticketed on Santa Monica Critical Mass by Santa Monica Police Department. The ticket was later dismissed. Photo by Gary Se7en.)
Last week the League of American Bicyclists, the oldest bicycle advocacy organization in the United States, gave Santa Monica a Bronze award for being a bicycle friendly community. Despite the fact that Santa Monica doesn’t have a single satisfactory north/south route. Despite the fact that Santa Monica spent tens of thousands of dollars last year to police Critical Mass, issuing tickets that have mostly been defeated when challenged in courts. Despite the fact that most bike lanes in Santa Monica border on useless because it is located adjacent to parking, in the door zone. Santa Monica doesn’t deserve this award, as Gary Kavanagh, Stephen Box, and Ted Rogers have already argued.
From a smattering of press releases disguised as articles from mainstream media (good night LA Times, you are dead to me), we learn that among the reasons for the award are the city’s bike valet program, the beach bike path, and the Land Use and Circulation Element master plan process. The beach bike path is useless for anything other than recreation, and dangerous for even that, as Steve Lopez wrote on the day the award was given. The bike valet program is great but it serves only a few hundred residents on a few days, in a city with a daytime population of 300,000. And the Land Use and Circulation Element is a PLAN. A plan which is not even through the environmental review process, and certainly does not have a funding commitment from the SM City Council.
In 1912 Martin Klein and Alfred Asikainen wrestled for 11 hours and 40 minutes in the 1st of 3 matches to determine the winners of the gold, silver and bronze medals in that Olympics. Ultimately these two titans earned the silver and the bronze. How can you issue a bronze award – which brings to mind these Olympian efforts – on the basis of dangerous infrastructure, a quality but small valet program (which compensates for a derth of bike parking), and a PLAN? The answer is two fold.
Firstly, the League of American Bicyclists does NOT consult with local cycling activists in considering the award. In essence, city staff will fill out an application for the award, stating the reasons their employer (the city) should be considered for an award. Then the League does some basic fact checking, and decide whether to issue the city an award, and what award. However, since they don’t reach out to their allies in bike activism, they fail to discover things like the beach bike path is dangerous and chaotic, zig zags around uselessly (for commuting purposes), and is covered with sand. These are things that Google Maps knows, but not the League. I have not yet met a cyclist in Santa Monica who the League approached before giving the award, and the League apparently completely overlooked the existence of Bikerowave, making no effort to contact them.
Secondly, the standards for a bronze award are weak. This is not the kind of award an Olympian wins after 11 hours of sweaty, naked wrestling. This is the bronze medal that everyone got in kindergarten for their finger painting of the cat with a blue hat. LAB documents state that bronze communities:
. . . exhibit a strong commitment to cycling that is still in its beginning stages. There is certainly “room to grow” but notable steps are being made in the right direction.
For example, in the “education” department, if a community hosts a Bike-To-Work day, this earns significant points toward a bronze award. Further, since points are cumulative, bicycle unfriendly acts such as issuing hundreds of tickets to cyclist in Critical Mass on dubious grounds, or blanket ticketing of fixed gear riders on Main Street for not having a hand brake, do not detract from the application. Cities can only earn points toward an award, not have points deducted.
The problem is, the mainstream media giants will trumpet such awards as if they are an Olympic accomplishment. They’re unlikely to look deeper, and city officials are happy to indulge their ignorance. The LA Times, in a brief blurb, wrote that Santa Monica “boasts nearly 16 miles of bike lanes, 19 miles of bike routes and a 3-mile-long beach bike path, according to a release from the city”, uncritically pulling material directly from a press release. Only Kevin Herrara of the Santa Monica Daily Press, did the extra footwork to actually go beyond the press release.
The ultimate result is a city inoculated against criticism. Next time cyclists complain stridently of the trials of riding bikes in Santa Monica, officials and staff will point to the award and remark that our own people disagree with us. Nevermind that the League’s offices are located 3000 miles away in DC, their award will be used to resist outside pressure for change. Effectively, the League has just drastically increased the difficulty of getting the city to respond to cyclists. In essence, it has undermined the work of locals to force the city to change.
What the League of American Bicyclists needs to ask itself is “is this program, as it is now, of long term strategic benefit to us?” By giving this award to Santa Monica they expand the scope of their program, and create another relationship they can use to drive change. But they have also angered a generation of cyclists in Los Angeles County that know better. Notable among them are Stephen Box, Gary Kavanagh, and Ted Rogers. That’s three angry, active, and vocal activists with long memories. I’ll make it four.
I’ll leave you with this, a quote from the city’s press release about the award:
The application process to become a Bicycle Friendly Community is rigorous; currently only 108 of the 274 applicants have a BFC four-year designation. All applications are carefully evaluated by a team of local cyclists, national experts, and League of American Bicyclists staff. Santa Monica’s achievement in receiving this difficult to earn designation was made possible by a broad base of bicycle support and advocacy within the community. Many dozens of community leaders, current and former city government officials, school groups, families, and businesses give their tireless support to community bicycle initiatives. It is this pervasive support of cycling, and Santa Monica’s desire to continuously improve conditions, that encourages our community to seek new ways of working together for future achievements in bicycle friendliness.