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Ruminations of an Accidental Diplomat: Critical Mass at 20

Some Critical Mass veterans riding in 2007. Photo: sfcriticalmass/Flickr

Editor’s note: Next Friday is the 20th Anniversary of Critical Mass. The following is an excerpted version of an introductory essay from Chris Carlsson, one of the founders of Critical Mass, who co-edited the new book Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20, a compilation of essays on the movement from authors around the world.

Critical Mass was born 20 years ago among dozens of people in San Francisco and has reproduced itself in over 350 cities around the world thanks to the diligent efforts of countless thousands across the planet. Often just a few people start riding together and it attracts others to join, gaining momentum steadily until it bursts onto a city’s political and social landscape. Moreover, the concept of riding together en masse is open-ended enough that people have adapted it in many ways during the past decades, from altering the structure of formal recreational riding to using “Critical Mass-style” rides to bring attention to a wide range of political campaigns and issues.

And as we learn from some of the essays in this new collection, mass bike rides weren’t invented in 1992. They took place in different parts of the world years before we started in San Francisco, notably in Bilbao, Spain and Helsinki, Finland where our writers describe earlier rides. Chinese cities were full of bicycles as primary transportation for decades; observing traffic patterns in 1991 Shanghai from a hotel window, New Yorker George Bliss described how bicycles would pile up at the side of a flow of traffic until they reached “critical mass” and broke through to create their own traffic stream—this is where our name came from. Not far from where I lived as a boy in North Oakland, early ecological activists staged an annual mass bike ride called “Smog-Free Locomotion Day” on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue from 1969-71. In the deep social genes of San Francisco itself, mass bike rides of 5,000-8,000 cyclists jammed muddy, rutted streets a century earlier, in 1896, to demand “Good Roads” and asphalt (unknowingly setting the stage for the next vehicle of speed, convenience, and personal freedom that soon followed: the automobile). My mother was born and raised in Copenhagen where I visited as a small boy and then again in 1977 as a young adult—the sensible organization of public streets with space dedicated to bicycle transit was self-evidently preferable to the freeways and rigid, car-dominated street grids of my California childhood.

Critical Mass was a new beginning, but it grew quite naturally from fertile ground where many different seeds were germinating. When it finally emerged 20 years ago it was a hybrid product of late capitalist urban design, long submerged anarchistic political ideas, a growing refusal to submit to the imposed necessity of embedded technologies, and an urgent reclaiming of cities as a lost public commons. The ease with which it replicated itself across the planet was eloquent testimony (and a creative rebuttal) to the creeping monoculture shaping city life everywhere…

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StreetFilms 22 Comments

San Francisco: Reclaiming Streets With Innovative Solutions

Tom Radulovich, the executive director of the local non-profit Livable City, describes the recent livable streets achievements in San Francisco as ”tactical urbanism” — using low-cost materials like paint and bollards to reclaim street space.

That willingness to experiment was a big reason that the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) gave its 2012 Sustainable Transport Award to San Francisco (an honor shared with Medellín, Colombia). In this Streetfilm we profile the innovations that earned SF recognition from ITDP.

Perhaps the city’s most exciting new development has been the parklet program, which converts parking spaces into public space complete with tables, chairs, art, and greenery. These mini-parks are adopted and paid for by local businesses, but they remain public space. The concept has its roots in the PARK(ing) Day phenomenon started by the SF-based Rebar Group in 2005.

San Francisco has also seen an impressive 71 percent increase in bicycling in the past five years, despite being under a court injunction that prohibited bicycle improvements for most of that time. The city aims to have 20 percent of trips by bike by 2020. Sunday Streets, San Francisco’s version of Ciclovia, has also drawn huge numbers of participants and continues to expand.

The city has also taken the lead on innovative parking management with the SFPark program, which uses new technology to help manage public parking in several pilot neighborhoods. It aims to make it easier to find a parking spot by adjusting prices according to demand, helping to reduce pollution, traffic, and frustrations for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.

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Which SF Neighborhoods Have the Strongest Walkable Magnetism?

Walkability, transit access, good local schools — San Franciscans clamor to live in neighborhoods with features like these.

Potrero Hill artist Wendy MacNaughton’s ”mental map” of the city lists the strongest qualities of seven areas that stand out for her, among them SoMa’s “best transit access in town” and the “convenient, walkable, easy everything” nature of Lower Pacific Heights and the Fillmore area.

It’s no wonder, considering such characteristics correlate strongly with happiness. Unfortunately, walkable neighborhoods are a scarce resource in this country, which means living in one can come at a high price.

I spotted a copy of the poster hanging in the cafe at City Hall, where an employee pointed out that it was featured on the July 2010 cover of 7×7 Magazine, which commissioned MacNaughton to create the map.

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Amateur Film Offers a Glimpse of San Francisco Streets in 1955

This piece by noted amateur filmmaker Tullio Pellgrini features a windshield-bound tour of some of the city’s most famous sights in 1955, but it also offers a peek into the changes some of our major streets have undergone since the earlier days of the motor age.

Some differences are striking, like the additional vehicle lanes on streets like Market and the Great Highway and the lack of parked cars on others. One eye-catcher for me was seeing cars driven through the Powell Street cable car turnaround on what is now Hallidie Plaza. A friend also pointed out the since-removed mid-block crosswalk on Van Ness between City Hall and the War Memorial Opera House.

A reminder of the flexible nature of our streets, for better or worse, is always refreshing. San Francisco streets have changed before and they can change again.

H/T BoingBoing.

The Nowtopian 12 Comments

Whose Streets?

Market and Kearny and 3rd Streets, 1909. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

“Whose Streets? OUR Streets!” yell rowdy demonstrators when they surge off the sidewalk and into thoroughfares. True enough, the streets are our public commons, what’s left of it (along with libraries and our diminishing public schools), but most of the time these public avenues are dedicated to the movement of vehicles, mostly privately owned autos. Other uses are frowned upon, discouraged by laws and regulations and what has become our “customary expectations.” Ask any driver who is impeded by anything other than a “normal” traffic jam and they’ll be quick to denounce the inappropriate use or blockage of the street.

Bicyclists have been working to make space on the streets of San Francisco for bicycling, and to do that they’ve been trying to reshape public expectations about how streets are used. Predictably there’s been a pushback from motorists and their allies, who imagine that the norms of mid-20th century American life can be extended indefinitely into the future. But cyclists and their natural allies, pedestrians, can take heart from a lost history that has been illuminated by Peter D. Norton in his recent book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. He skillfully excavates the shift that was engineered in public opinion during the 1920s by the organized forces of what called itself “Motordom.” Their efforts turned pedestrians into scofflaws known as “jaywalkers,” shifted the burden of public safety from speeding motorists to their victims, and reorganized American urban design around providing more roads and more space for private cars.

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Danish Architect Jan Gehl on Good Cities for Bicycling

Bicyclists on their way through the city are part of city life. They can, with ease, switch between being bicyclists and pedestrians. Photos by Jan Gehl.

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in our series this week featuring Danish architect and livable streets luminary Jan Gehl. The pieces are excerpts from his book, “Cities for People” published by Island Press. Donate to Streetsblog SF and you’ll qualify to win a copy of the book, courtesy of Island Press.

Bicyclists represent a different and somewhat rapid form of foot traffic, but in terms of sensory experiences, life and movement, they are part of the rest of city life. Naturally, bicyclists are welcome in support of the goal to promote lively, safe, sustainable and healthy cities. The following is about planning good cities for bicyclists, and is handled relatively narrowly and in direct relation to a discussion on the human dimension in city planning.

Around the world there are numerous cities where bicycles and bicycle traffic would be unrealistic. It is too cold and icy for bicycles in some areas, too hot in others. In some places the topography is too mountainous and steep for bicycles. Bicycle traffic is simply not a realistic option in those situations. Then there are surprises like San Francisco, where you might think bicycling would be impractical due to all the hills. However, the city has a strong and dedicated bicycle culture. Bicycling is also popular in many of the coldest and warmest cities, because, all things considered, even they have a great number of good bicycling days throughout the year.

The fact remains that a considerable number of cities worldwide have a structure, terrain and climate well suited for bicycle traffic. Over the years, many of these cities have thrown their lot in with traffic policies that prioritized car traffic and made bicycle traffic dangerous or completely impossible. In some places extensive car traffic has kept bicycle traffic from even getting started.

In many cities, bicycle traffic continues to be not much more than political sweet talk, and bicycle infrastructure typically consists of unconnected stretches of paths here and there rather than the object of a genuine, wholehearted and useful approach. The invitation to bicycle is far from convincing. Typically in these cities only one or two percent of daily trips to the city are by bicycle, and bicycle traffic is dominated by young, athletic men on racing bikes. There is a yawning gap from that situation to a dedicated bicycle city like Copenhagen, where 37 percent of traffic to and from work or school is by bicycle. Here bicycle traffic is more sedate, bicycles are more comfortable, the majority of cyclists are women, and bicycle traffic includes all age groups from school children to senior citizens.

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The Nowtopian 16 Comments

The Political and Economic Implications of Bicycling Tourists

A Bike-and-Roll rental station in front of the Hyatt Regency at Market and Spear.

I’ve been bicycling in San Francisco since the late 1970s so I vividly remember when almost all bicyclists could recognize each other on the streets of the city. There really weren’t that many of us even as recently as the beginning of the 1990s, just two decades ago. We’ve come a long way, and one of the less recognized aspects of this bicycling boom has been the incredible expansion of bike rentals and bicycling tourism.

I wrote a flyer back in 1986 calling for a “City of Panhandles” and one of the arguments I made in that largely unnoticed document was that a systematic effort to provide safe, separate bikeways crisscrossing the City would itself lead to a tourism boom. As it turns out, we’re experiencing a dramatic increase in tourists cycling even before we provide adequate infrastructure. San Francisco is just an incredibly beautiful place, and people come from all over the world to experience its beauty. Growing numbers of those visitors aren’t much interested in seeing it through windshields and are opting instead (or in addition) to rent bicycles.

There are three “big” companies doing bike rentals in SF: Bike and Roll, Blazing Saddles, and Bay City Bikes (a number of smaller places, like the BikeHut at Pier 40, also rent bikes). I recently spoke with Darryll White, owner of Bike and Roll, and he gave me some impressive aggregate numbers. Since 1995 the local bicycle rental business has grown from about $500,000 a year to over $10 million! The remarkable thing about this huge increase in tourist cycling is that about 90 percent of the rentals are heading to the Golden Gate Bridge and to Sausalito, where the City Council has erupted into battles over bike parking vs. car parking, even pondering charging fees to touring bicyclists. The Golden Gate Ferry service keeps at least four of its ferry runs going to accommodate the cycling tourists, which have hit peaks of 2,500 per day during recent summer months.

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The Nowtopian 5 Comments

Ferries on the Bay

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series of reports from Chris Carlsson on the history of transit in the Bay Area.

William Coulter was a maritime artist who also drew for the local press. This 1896 image depicts three whales inside the bay near a Sausalito-bound ferry.

William Coulter was a maritime artist who also drew for the local press. This 1896 image depicts three whales inside the bay near a Sausalito-bound ferry.

There are thousands of people using ferries on the San Francisco Bay these days, so it’s hard to remember that ferry service died out for several decades. Of course the long history of Bay Area mobility is a story of water travel. Whether moving hay into the City to feed the thousands of horses pulling wagons and omnibuses, or bringing the lumber in to build the wooden City, or taking big loads of grain or (by the early 20th century) canned fruit and vegetables to far-flung ports, everything came and went by ship for a long time. But it was also true that most people wanting to go from one part of the Bay Area to another would find ferry travel the most convenient and appropriate means to make their trip.

The Southern Pacific Company's Bay City ferry plies the waters of San Francisco Bay sometime between 1870 and 1900

The Southern Pacific Company's Bay City ferry plies the waters of San Francisco Bay sometime between 1870 and 1900

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The Nowtopian 6 Comments

19th Century Bicycling: Rubber was the Dark Secret

Boneshakers in the 1870s.

Boneshakers in the 1870s.


“If the increase continues, the time is not very distant when not to own and ride a bicycle will be a confession that one is not able-bodied, is exceptionally awkward, or is hopelessly belated.”
“The Bicycle Festival,” July 13, 1895 New York Times

The bicycle came to San Francisco during the last quarter of the 19th century. Like other places, it first developed based on wooden wheels, similar to those that were bearing stagecoaches and being drawn by horses. Horse-drawn streetcars were the predominant mode of transit in the 1870s, peaking in the 1880s, at a time when the individual horse was also still a major source of personal transportation.

Emperor Norton on a velocipede

Emperor Norton on a velocipede

And then came the velocipede, an odd device that attracted some early adopters of the era. Here’s Emperor Norton, a fellow who was adept at self-marketing long before Facebook made it a basic survival skill!

The boneshakers were aptly named, running over heavily rutted streets on solid wooden wheels, eventually improved by coating the in solid rubber. The bicycle was not a transit option at that early stage, but a novelty, and a device that attracted the adventurous few who were ready to break with the limits of human powered locomotion. In “The Winged Heel” column in the San Francisco Chronicle of January 25, 1879, the writer fully grasps the possibilities:

“The bicycle ranks among those gifts of science to man, by which he is enabled to supplement his own puny powers with the exhaustic forces around him. He sits in the saddle, and all nature is but a four-footed beast to do his bidding. Why should he go a foot, while he can ride a mustang of steel, who knows his rider and never needs a lasso?.. The exhilaration of bicycling must be felt to be appreciated. With the wind singing in your ears, and the mind as well as body in a higher plane, there is an ecstasy of triumph over inertia, gravitation, and the other lazy ties that bind us. You are traveling! Not being traveled.”

(I have to admit a great appreciation for that last aphorism, echoing through time a later motto of Processed World magazine that I helped produce in the 1980s: Are you doing the processing? Or are you being processed?)

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Bike Tour Taps San Francisco’s Water Innovations

barrels.jpgBlair Randall shows off the rain barrels. Photo: Matt Baume

When most San Franciscans turn on a faucet, they'll see water that's traveled as far as two hundred miles from Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. But that's not the case for some locally-minded gardeners, for whom careful water stewardship is as important as selecting their crops.

This past weekend, the San Francisco Bike Coalition organized a rec ride that visited several gardens around the Sunset, highlighting low-impact water sources. The ride was led by Sarah Roggero of TransitionSF, an organization that promotes a locally-sourced lifestyle as an alternative to dependence on fossil fuels.

Garden for the Environment

The tour began at Garden for the Environment, a pocket of green on 7th Avenue just a few blocks north of Laguna Honda Reservoir. Executive Director Blair Randall grabbed handfuls of earth, squeezing the soil into a ball to show the roughly three dozen attendees how healthy soil should clump.

In San Francisco, Blair explained, gardeners will need to provide their plants with supplemental water during the dry summers. Even native drought-tolerant plants will benefit from a little assistance, around half a gallon per plant per week. Vegetables and fruit trees will need more, he added -- theirs receive much as fifteen gallons per week, some of which comes from rainwater catchment barrels. A modest installation alongside a greenhouse collects water during storms, then parcels out the moisture during dryer months.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission recently completed a highly successful rebate program to encourage residents to install their own rainwater collection systems. Although the rebate has ended, the PUC continues to encourage the practice, offering instructions and a video tutorial for building your own. Organizations like Greywater Action offer further training and workshops.

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