Cyclist fight for their right to safety daily, Critical Mass demonstrations expected monthly
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – While new bike paths have been built in South Lake Tahoe, the safety of cyclists in the area has been a major concern.
After multiple people on bikes collided with vehicles, resulting in varying degrees of injury to some, a cyclist-led grassroots movement has gained momentum and is taking up space on roadways within the community.
What started as a protest rolling into City Council’s regular meeting to oppose Caltrans’ proposed speed limit increases, has turned into something much bigger. As a result, the world-wide phenomena, Critical Mass, has returned to the city of South Lake Tahoe after more than a decade.
Large bike tours through streets in Stockholm, Sweden in the early 1970’s inspired what is now a cyclist-centered grassroots movement, which in present day pop up in large metropolitan cities such as San Francisco and Seattle. These movements typically have no formal leader.
The movement celebrated 30 years in existence last year, with its first official direct action demonstration hosted in San Francisco in 1992. Unless otherwise specified they all happen at the same time, all around the world, the last Friday of every month.
The return of Critical Mass to the South Lake Tahoe community was inspired by the daughter of a local who heard the proposal, as well as vehement opposition from public and council regarding the speed limit on State Route 89 from the “Y” to South Lake Tahoe city limits during the June 20 City Council meeting.
Gantt Miller, a South Lake Tahoe local and father to four children, said as a past history teacher he’s always looking for ways to be on the right side of history and teach his children to do the same, and stood behind his daughter to help her experience civic engagement.
“No one wanted to put their name Critical Mass for fear of being arrested,” Miller said. He continued, adding that he took the lead, but not without consideration for and communication with those who enforce the law.
The direct action protest brought 115 cyclists out with a police escort for the first demonstration along the main thoroughfare.
The Tribune reported on those “riding daily, celebrating monthly” back in 2008 and according to the 2023 poster advertising the first ride August 25, and some riders, the direct action demonstration can be expected to return monthly.
According to Miller, the overall purpose of this event was to raise awareness for bike safety and declare together that cycling is a right, not a privilege.
The large group of South Lake cyclists followed the laws as closely as possible, while simultaneously protesting the safety issues in the town for the “two wheeled citizens” and pedestrians.
While fighting for safety, one official said the demonstration stretches an already thin staff, calling for officers to be placed on overtime duty.
South Lake Tahoe Chief of Police David Stevenson told the Tribune while the first event went without incident, it was planned and coordinated.
Chief Stevenson continued, stating that, if it continues, the demonstration will inevitably coincide with high traffic days, such as the unsanctioned Lake 20 event that has disrupted the already tempestuous traffic situation and is set to return the same weekend as CM, end of September, increasing risk to life and limb.
“We’ve been asking the city to improve record keeping for bike on vehicle collisions, but the data currently is woefully inaccurate. Right now it’s only recorded if there is a serious injury or death,” said Nick Speal, transportation advocate and president for the Bicycle Coalition.
Speal continued, advising that a data driven approach for the city’s goal of Vision Zero data should be collected on any sort of collision.
“Anecdotally, I’ve had two friends [hit by a vehicle] in my inner circle,” Speal said.
“That way if there’s a lot of small collisions at this one intersection maybe they can fix the intersection, it might be a minor intersection this time but next time it might be a death,” Speal said.
For one local woman biking a short distance with friends ended in months of physical therapy and pain in addition to an already difficult time.
“I could have been dead, if it had been in a 55 mile-per-hour zone, I might not have walked away from that,” Jill Hallquist said just after having knee surgery. She was involved in a hit and run, during which, she was knocked off her bicycle on Pioneer Trail.
“I was biking in the middle of a pack of 10 people from Ralph to Al Tahoe on the right side of the road where there was dirt built up,” Hallquist said. “We had just gotten our bike lights from the Coalition, Nick had his vest on, but we were right on the white line.”
The cyclist said no charges have resulted from the hit and run, and she’s glad the town is taking action.
“Even if I was in the middle of the street that person would have been at fault,” Hallquist said. Hallquist considers herself lucky that a witness got the license plate and came back to check on her.
Scott Robbins, local and city council member who participated as an individual in the CM ride, told the Tribune that direct action protests are valuable in the local community.
“The direct action protests [like CM] are important especially when we have neighboring governments that are actively hostile towards cyclists and our own city of South Lake Tahoe government has failed to prioritize bike lanes, resulting in the injury of a cyclist because we weren’t street sweeping the bike lanes, but were sweeping the vehicle lanes,” Robbins said.
Robbins posted photos the day after the city council meeting showing street sweepers out clearing bike lanes, as was requested by multiple public comments.
“The increase of speed is inconsistent with efforts of the City Council and staff to provide a safer environment for residents and visitors,” David Jenkins, former South Lake Tahoe city manager said in an email. “In fact, in my view, placing bicycle lanes along busy highways, that are not physically separated from the roadway, is inviting accidents. I support separated bicycle lanes.”
According to Steve Nelson, Chief Public Information Officer for Caltrans district 3, Caltrans decided to place several speed zone locations on hold until a Road Safety Audit is completed within the city limits.
“The Road Safety Audit will be performed where speed zones were placed on hold, after that, Caltrans staff will meet with the City to discuss results of the study and next steps,” Nelson said.
The RSA and Vision Zero program focusing on Traffic Calming and Speed Management will be brought to city council, according to the director of Public Works Anush Nejad, on October 17.
“The Road Safety Audit is a formal process of reviewing roadway conditions, safety, and hazards and making recommendations, or findings, for implementation,” Nejad told the Tribune.
The city embarked on a path to zero fatalities in September 2022 an application seeking $250,000. Nejad told the Tribune the funding would be used to address safety concerns for “Vision Zero.”
While the city prepares to collect more data to inform safety choices, they remain committed to ensuring safe travel routes for all modes of transportation, according to city manager Joe Irvin.
“This includes safe access and travel for vehicles, bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians,” Irvin said. “We are embarking on the Vision Zero initiative through a Federal Highways Administration grant to develop strategies and physical improvements to eliminate fatalities and injuries.”
Bicycle safety laws and information on trails can be found on tahoebike.org
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