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UC Berkeley's bike dispute goes viral

Campus' $220 fines prompt a Facebook page for protesters and spark a debate across the Bay Area on cyclists' civility.

December 18, 2010|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • UC Berkeley students walk through Sproul Plaza. Campus police are enforcing strict rules on when cyclists must dismount and where they may -- and may not -- park their bikes.
UC Berkeley students walk through Sproul Plaza. Campus police are enforcing… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

Reporting from San Francisco — Trouble is brewing in the Bay Area bastion of bicyclists' rights.

UC Berkeley students — already squeezed by steep tuition increases — are banding together to protest campus citations for bike infractions that run $220 apiece and exceed many vehicle violations.

UC Berkeley police say they have issued 103 bike citations from August to November, a 41% increase over the same period last year, nabbing students for riding through designated "dismount zones" and locking their bikes to railings instead of often-overfilled racks.

Students in sticker shock were sucking it up until social welfare senior Daniel Distante created a Facebook page called BikeBusters about a month ago, giving birth to a movement.

The forum has triggered a discussion across the Bay Area on the need for better campus bike conditions, education on existing rules, and the labyrinthine vehicle codes that enable UC Berkeley police to issue such fat tickets.

Bike enthusiasts from as far as Britain have cheered the fighters. But the hundreds of comments have run strongly against the students, with irked motorists and self-described "responsible bicyclists" bashing them as "whining brats" who should follow the rules.

"This is not a call to disregard or reject reasonable bicycle regulations that promote a healthy and safe environment," said Distante, who said he was driven to act by the "fee extortion issued by large and seemingly unreachable institutions in these financially precarious times."

But the punishment, he said, should fit the crime: "How would a driver feel if he received a moving citation that cost as much, if not more, than the car itself?"

The debate has grabbed the attention of Berkeley City Councilman Kris Worthington, who is pushing university officials for greater bicycle access on several large campus plazas now designated as "dismount zones" from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Pedestrians need protection, he stressed. But the university penalty for coasting through the no-ride zone would be easier to stomach if students had a way to get across campus during school hours without getting off their bikes, he said. The parking fines, in contrast, are "insane," he said, given the fact that standard parking citations for cars in Berkeley ruffle feathers at $46.

"Just think if we tried to give cars $200 parking violations. We would have riots in our streets," said Worthington, a bicyclist who cuts through the sprawling campus on his commute to City Hall.

The UC Berkeley Police Department uses a California Vehicle Code provision that bans the driving or parking of "any vehicle or animal" on public grounds of a state university — and a host of other public places — without permission.

Students who have hit the online code books say state code defines a "vehicle" to specifically exclude bikes. A BikeBusters discussion group coaches those cited to plead not guilty.

But UC Berkeley Police Lt. Alex Yao points to different codes, one that notes "every person riding a bicycle upon a highway" is subject to all the same rules as vehicle drivers, and another that liberally defines "highway."

Still, he said "senior management" was not aware the fines were so steep until recent complaints. The base fine is $35, with county, court and other fees making up the rest, he said. The department receives no proceeds and Yao said he didn't know whether the university did.

The enforcement "is in no way an attempt to deter or discourage bicycle riding on campus," said Yao, noting that there were 53 bicycle-related injury accidents on and around campus since 2001. "Its goal is to promote safety and the responsible use of our campus."

He called the dismount zones "small." Police are nevertheless making concessions. They have begun issuing first warnings to cyclists, who may be cited on a second offense, he said, and are working on "additional means to educate and enhance bicycle-related safety issues on campus."

The East Bay Bicycle Coalition, meanwhile, has met with police in hopes of setting up a diversion program so students can attend a bike safety class in lieu of all or some of the fine, said program Director Dave Campbell.

Students are hopeful. A few weeks after school started, Devin Shoop, 18, of Red Bluff locked his bike to a railing covered with other bikes — a distant sign that said no parking was later pointed out to him — and emerged from the gym to find his bike bolted, with a note telling him to call a number. An officer soon rode up and wrote him a citation.

It arrived at Shoop's parents' house three weeks later. "We were appalled to see the price tag on this citation and strongly feel that it is way out of line," his mother, Mary Rushka, wrote in an e-mail to sympathetic but unyielding university police.

Then Shoop got another ticket, this time for failing to put his foot down at a stop sign. He maintains he stopped for about a half-second. His parents agreed to pay the $440 "if I work it off at the house," he said. But others aren't so fortunate.

Jorel Allegro, 21, a civil engineering junior "on a majorly fixed income" of scholarships and financial aid, said he got nailed after coasting through a dismount zone. It cost him a third of his rent. He's hoping for a ramp that would allow bikes to cross the plazas — and a little dialogue. Allegro was sipping a "brewski" and perusing online comments on the controversy late Wednesday when he saw one suggesting lethal injections for bike law violators.

"I think," Allegro said, "there is a lot of room for mutual learning from this experience."

lee.romney@latimes.com

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