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"Roadblock" and Other Cyclists Revolt at LAPD Ticketing for Bike Riding Without a License 

Ticket to Ride: Fighting over a $3 license, midnight riders claim harassment

Wednesday, Dec 17 2008
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Until recently, Los Angeles Municipal Code 26.01 was little known. But then in August, the police department began to enforce its central tenet: All cyclists shall ride licensed bicycles; those who do not will be cited and fined. Upon learning of the LAPD’s acceleratedenforcement, the city’s cyclists flooded bike blogs with outrage, saying that the code was “ridiculous,” designed “ultimately to prevent bikes in our car-obsessed city ... for harassing cyclists.” Others posted plans for evasion: “Like, if I put down the name ‘Elmer Fudd, Address 666 Sexdevil Dr., Los Angeles, CA’ for my new Cervélo all-carbon road frame with Campy parts — will I face a stiff penalty or time in the pinta?”

Cyclists took their case to City Hall at a recent meeting of the city’s Transportation Committee, which met to discuss whether or not the bike-license program was accomplishing its intended goal: recovering stolen bicycles and lost children (supposedly, the home of a lost child could be traced through the bike license). Early on, however, it became clear that the committee was speaking to a constituency it did not fully understand.

“I’ve got a comment card here for a Rhoda Bloshe,” said Councilman Tom LaBonge (who likes to be called the Patron Saint of Bicycles), squinting at the name on the card in front of him. “Is that right?”

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It was not right. A very tall man wearing a T-shirt embossed with a skull approached the rostrum to correct the councilman: “My name is Rhode ... Bloch.” As in Roadblock, which is how he is known in the rider community despite the more elaborate spelling he gave the council. He paused, checking to see if his name’s meaning registered before continuing. “I’m basically a victim of the bicycle-licensing program.”

Roadblock went on to recount the events of September 12: He was riding downtown around midnight, when he stopped to wait for a cyclist behind him, who had been caught running a red light. There were, in fact, many cyclists with him, approximately 1,300 of them, he’d guess, and, in the spirit of the ride’s theme, “Vegan Banana Penis,” many of them were dressed in large foam banana suits. Officers decided to stop Roadblock, too, first searching his bike for front and back headlights (which he had) and then, in what the cyclist calls a “last resort,” for a bike license (which he did not have). He was ticketed and fined in the amount of $160, payable only in person at the Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse.

That the ticket cannot be corrected with an online payment is only the first of Roadblock’s problems. In addition, he told the committee, only two stations in the entire city are authorized to sell bike licenses (Central Station, near Skid Row, and the Department of Public Safety, near USC), and only on certain days (Tuesday and Thursday), and only at certain times (10 a.m. to 8 p.m.). Bike licenses are not available online (as one bike blogger pointed out, even bingo halls can be licensed on the Internet), and many of the officers at the eligible stations are “reluctant to find the bike-license box” and “don’t even know what’s going on.”

Roadblock is a Web designer who, as he puts it, was once sluggish and stuck behind a computer all day. He started cycling eight years ago and is now 30 pounds lighter, with a resting pulse of 41 beats per minute. “And I owe it all to bike riding.”

His relationship with the LAPD is complicated: He writes on a popular bike Web site what he says is “totally sincere” appreciation to the officers who escort him and his fellow cyclists on late-night group rides but also explains the skull on his T-shirt — the emblem of the ride on which he was stopped by officers — with words like “badass” and “outlaw.” Currently, he holds several informal leadership roles in the cycling scene (Webmaster of MidnightRidazz.com and route planner for the Wolfpack Hustle crew), so it was natural that he would be one of the riders helping to navigate the way against the licenses.

His strategy, which he calls “civil obedience,” involved large coordinated excursions on successive Tuesdays and Thursdays to the LAPD’s Central Station — swamped as it is with reports of rape, theft and narcotics crimes — for riders to register their bicycles and purchase a license ... for $3. Said one participant: “The watch commander had to work pretty hard not to be pissed off that we were taking up his time with this petty B.S.”

“I know the cops who stopped us,” Roadblock added, “and they never bothered us again.”

In the same spirit of civic engagement, Roadblock made his case to the committee: Repeal the law, or, at least, make the ticket fixable. “I would hate to waste the resources of the LAPD and the court system,” Roadblock said in closing to the committee, “on something as frivolous as a bike license that’s $3.”

Cyclists in the audience nodded in solidarity. At least 100 delegates of the bike lobby were present, and they knew their talking points. Others who followed Roadblock to the microphone brought typed notes and an earnestness that was somewhat new to a community known for its outlaw spirit. And yet, in the middle of a report from the Department of Transportation, Roadblock couldn’t help yelling out: “They’re talking like they’ve never spoken to a cyclist before in their life!” (As it turned out, the comment was directed at Senior Bicycle Coordinator Michelle Mowery, who is not only a cyclist but a former semi-professional racer, and the owner of no less than 11 bikes. Of the outburst, she said later, “I have more miles on my legs than they do.”)

The council denied Roadblock’s request for rebuttal, but his pleas did not go unheard. Both council members LaBonge and Bill Rosendahl asked Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger if the LAPD might suspend enforcement of the code until “the confusion is cleared up.”

Paysinger politely declined: “I would hesitate to give you an answer right now, as we have not finished our research.”

Cyclists in the crowd hissed at this but still seemed optimistic that their protest had been noted. (One of the bikers even high-fived Councilman Rosendahl in the hallway on his way out.) On the matter of bike licenses, however, there was little agreement about whether to continue ignoring the law. One young cyclist who had earlier recommended to the council that the code be “taken out back, shot and put out of its misery,” to wide applause, remained steadfastly opposed to any “license-gathering missions.”

“We shouldn’t be claiming that a law is invalid and defunct while at the same time scrambling to comply with it.”

Another cyclist, carrying a copy of J. Harry Wray’s Pedal Power, also declined an invitation to purchase a license at Central Station. “I’m never getting a license,” he said later in an e-mail, and then added, “Rebel for life!”

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