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Posts from the Critical Mass Category


Hopenhagen or Carbonhagen, We’ll Still be Cycling Regardless

chic_cyclist_brown_3792.jpgCycling chic in Copenhagen, and this is a cold day in December!

I caught Mikael Colville-Andersen's inspiring talk on urban cycling from the Copenhagen context at San Francisco's SPUR on the last Friday of October. I suggested we could do an interview when I came to Copenhagen in December and he graciously agreed, stepping outside into the drizzling snow at a December 10 awards ceremony he was hosting. (The title of this post is a quote from him when he was on stage at the ceremony, and is a new tag line on his blog too.) They were handing out prizes for the best new designs for the next generation of Copenhagen's bikeshare program. He is well known for his blogging at Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycling Chic. The photos throughout were taken by me in Copenhagen during the last couple of weeks there.

Chris Carlsson: What was your experience in San Francisco? Did you have a good time there?

Mikael Colville-Andersen: I had a brilliant time. I just blogged a film with three of my friends, about Critical Mass.

C: Did you get in to the Halloween Critical Mass?

M: Oh yeah, all the way!

C: I saw you wrote some vaguely critical comments about Critical Mass in general.

M: I have done… it’s just that marketing thing. You’re not selling it if you’re pissing people off. Riding around… I didn’t see any bad behavior. There were so many people at that Critical Mass that it was more tame?


The Copenhagen Moment

IMG_2393.JPGOctober 24, 2009, Bay Street in San Francisco: Riders traverse one potential future shoreline

I'll be leaving in ten days for Scandinavia, and will be sending reports to sf.streetsblog on the upcoming Climate Change conference (known as COP15) and the massive demonstrations that are expected to surround it. I've been to Copenhagen (my mother was born there) so I'm excited to return to a place where bicycles reign and the political culture is surprisingly reasonable compared to anything here in the U.S. COP15 will be joined by most of the world's nations, while outside its perimeter, a range of political organizations and ad-hoc political cultures will also converge, bringing memories of Seattle a decade ago, and the half dozen other dramatic confrontations between protesters and police at G8 or IMF summits since then.

Anthropogenic climate change is well underway, with polar ice caps, glaciers, and arctic tundra all melting at unprecedented rates. In San Francisco's mild climate, where we still enjoy abundant fresh food, water, and easy transportation and communications, it's hard to feel climate change as an imminent disaster. In fact, according to recent polls, U.S. residents are increasingly skeptical about climate change and more resistant to remedial actions. (On a local note, I was distributing my new red global warming bicycle license plates at the last Critical Mass and had two unrelated young men go off on me, each claiming that global warming is a government hoax! Apparently we get some Glen Beck fans on bikes even at Critical Mass!)


A Cycling Congress in Mexico

tambien_soy_trafico_2129.jpgRespect me: I am also traffic!

Guadalajara, Mexico was host this month to the 2nd annual Congress of Cyclists in Mexico, a national gathering of bicyclist activists from around the country. I was invited to give a speech, which I somehow managed to do in Spanish (thanks to my media naranja for translating and coaching me!), detailing the history of cycling and Critical Mass in particular. I loved being at the Congress, meeting people from all over Mexico, a few old and new friends from the U.S., and one remarkable woman from Quito, Ecuador.

The city of Guadalajara is an ironic place for this conference. It is a town overrun with SUVs, streets jammed with cars, 6-lane, one-way boulevards, sprawling suburbs in five other municipalities making a metro area of 6 million or so. In spite of its obvious car-centrism, Guadalajara has a number of beautiful public plazas, several pedestrian-only zones closed to cars, both in its downtown and in a gentrified artsy-touristy neighborhood some distance from the city center. They've even installed a real European-style bike lane (or ciclovia as they're generally known in Spanish) on one of its major thoroughfares, with plans to extend a network of such lanes in several directions.


Wreckless Riding

3669112397_e02ec6a72d.jpgPhoto by Bryan Goebel.
In 1978 I was a field manager for an environmental group's canvassing operation and was driving "my crew" in an old beat-up Volkswagon from one suburb to the next. From about 3 p.m. we'd visit every house in a given area, knocking on doors seeking donations and support, ending around 8:30 or 9. One time I was in Walnut Creek or Pleasant Hill or one of those Contra Costa bedroom communities, and I did a typical San Francisco rolling stop at a stop sign in a quiet residential neighborhood. Sure enough I was stopped by a squad car and given quite a lecture on how San Francisco behavior was unacceptable out there in the 'burbs.

I remember this periodically as I roll down Shotwell in the Mission, zipping into and out of intersections with 4-way stops, always making sure I don't end up on the front hood of a car that barely hesitates as they roll through the stop signs (San Franciscan motorists are notorious for the rolling stop). I'm on a bicycle of course, taking the smaller Shotwell instead of Folsom with its bad pavement and narrow lanes, or the wider South Van Ness with its fast-moving traffic, or even instead of Harrison, which is a nice, bike-lane bearing boulevard just two blocks to the east. Some friends pointed out a few years ago that Shotwell had the advantage going north because A) it was recently paved; and B) it has 4-way stops which means a cyclist can sail down the slope into the former swamplands (from 19th to Division, Valencia to Harrison was largely wetlands before urbanization), rarely having to stop.

My cycling behavior dates back to childhood when I commuted by bike across Oakland to 6th grade, and learned the basic rule of thumb for safe city cycling: No one sees bicyclists! Therefore, to be safe, you must always make sure you are in the parts of the street where you cannot be hit, preferably away from moving cars, and not too close to parked ones either. The best, safest place to be? On the other side of a red light, where the street is mostly empty of traffic.



Is Sunday Streets the Next Critical Mass?

sunday_streets.jpgFlickr photo: Michael Bolger
Though it occurred for just four hours on two miles of streets in the Mission, this week’s Sunday Streets event has transformed the livable streets movement in some of the same ways that Critical Mass transformed San Francisco’s bicycle rights movement in the early 1990s.

“Even better than Critical Mass,” was the answer I got when I separately asked three men who had been riders on the first Critical Mass rides in 1992 how they compare Sunday Streets to Critical Mass.

“It’s more true to the original intent of most of the early Critical Mass participants--taking public  space and transforming it from an inhospitable and deadly river of steel into a convivial place where friends meet, talk, play and celebrate their community,” said Jon Winston, who was there Sunday with his family and there 17 years ago on the early Critical Mass rides. This event does what Critical Mass did, Winston said, but it lasts longer and invites a wider variety of people. "Friends meet and tarry in the street to catch up on gossip but also, lines of class and race are crossed as people mix freely and the street is returned to what it had always been for thousands of years before the automobile– a commons."

As one of the participants in the early Critical Mass rides, I saw thrilling parallels between these two events that take over the streets for just a few hours but seem to have impacts far beyond the event itself. I remembered the palpable joy of being in an unprecedented social space, a reclaiming of a violent and privatized street for public interaction.


CBS 5’s Joe Vazquez Has a Critical Math Problem

critical_mass.jpgCritical Mass, March 2009. Photo by Bryan Goebel.

I got a call a week ago from the SF Bike Coalition's media person. She was looking for someone to talk to Joe Vazquez of CBS 5, a reporter who was going to do a piece on Critical Mass. I declined, having been interviewed far too often over the years, and having learned time and time again that the mass media is not going to do any favors for Critical Mass by covering it. Sure enough, the piece is now online, and you can see for yourself just how absurd the slant is. I'll give Vazquez credit for at least going on the ride, and in fact, in his sidebar piece, describing what it was like, he admits to becoming more sentient and feeling himself, instead of playing the (impossibly) neutral observer:

...along the way, I found myself unusually sentient. As a reporter, I am not supposed to feel anything while covering a story. That's how we are trained:  focus on the story.  Get it right.  Be fair.  Leave your human reactions out of the story. In this case, though, I was feeling it. My legs were sore and tired (because I haven't been on a bike in two years!)  The sunset was glorious.  Music was blaring from boom boxes on bikes... most riders were well-behaved and even polite (I watched one rider actually apologize to a car driver for tying up traffic). Critical mass is a riot, not just because it's a moving mob with a cause.  It's a riot because it's a celebration every bit as exhilarating as it is exasperating.  A true San Francisco tradition.

We can only wonder what behind-the-scenes pressure led to this new coverage. Did an editor get stuck in traffic recently? Did a local politician put them up to it? Did the station's owners get a call that a campaign would be helpful right now, in order to justify a coming attempt to control and abolish Critical Mass again? We'll probably never know. But given the ridiculous angle the main story took, it doesn't look promising. Vazquez's main point? Critical Mass "costs $155,060 in taxpayer dollars annually!"... and how does he  arrive at this bizarre number?


Moralism vs. Utopianism–of Red Lights, Helmets, Bike Lanes and…

29587076_e533f1f7ef.jpgFlickr photo: Dear Knucklehead
The Oregon Legislature has flushed an effort to bring the Idaho rolling stop law to that state. It's a bit of a surprise, given both the simple and proven efficacy of allowing cyclists to make rolling stops, as well as Oregon's big reputation as a bastion of cycling sanity. I've been an "outlaw bicyclist" for 30 years in San Francisco, running stop signs and red lights routinely. The design of traffic laws and the engineering of our roads are focused on automobile throughput, parking-and-shopping, and not much else.

Those of us who have embarked on a generation-long effort to reinhabit the urban environment, partly by daily cycling, have had to refashion the streets through our own patterns and habits. Rather than acquiescing to "the law" or to self-defeating rules, we've made safe but creative use of the rights of way. When I come to a stop sign, it's always a yield, unless there is cross traffic there ahead of me, or if there's a cop waiting to nab me. (I've only been ticketed a couple of times in 30 years, mostly because I never cause anyone danger or inconvenience by my behavior.) If I come to a red light, depending on how far I can see the cross traffic, I'll either stop or pause, and proceed if the coast is clear.

The safest place for me is on the OTHER side of that red light, where the road is empty. Waiting to start on the green with the automobiles is to remain shunted to the unsafe corridor between parked cars and moving traffic, and often enough, being threatened by a right-turning car. You'll end up spending most of your urban cycling time in hazardous narrow corridors anyway, but whenever you can get into an open road without moving cars alongside, you're safer. It's self-evident! It's also helpful to be pedaling ahead of traffic, keeping a healthy distance from the door zone, where approaching motorists can see you clearly and make adjustments to accommodate our presence on the road.


The Rise of an Evil Anti-Car Multinational Conglomerate

As soothsayers of the Sacred RAC priesthood like Rob Anderson will let you know time and again on his own blog, and sometimes on ours, all this talk of bike plans, Level-of-Service reform, parking restrictions in new development, and greening boulevards is nothing more than a thinly-veiled assault on our national right to drive freely and not pay for it.

At first I thought he was demented, but after recent developments, I'm starting to come around.  MTA traffic engineers are re-timing signals for bicycle speeds, the Mayor's office has vowed to push forward at least 40 bicycle routes as soon as the bicycle injunction is lifted, and the DPW is trying out radical street closures to give space back to pedestrians.

And now this, the last straw, a new plot to bring down the private automobile, one horizontal corduroy khaki pant at a time.

A tipster forwarded this video showing the Cordarounds Bike-to-Work (egad!) pant that has reflective seams and pockets for greater visibility while riding a bicycle at night, and the cyclist is clearly having too much fun:

After snooping around a bit, including a call to the maker of these troublingly fashionable pants, Streetsblog San Francisco has unwittingly stumbled upon a sinister ruse to make cyclists more visible while maintaining a dapper cut, which will inevitably lead to more cycling, which will lead to more bike nuts infiltrating City Hall and demanding bike lanes. 



Will We Ever Get Market Street Right?

“Rebuilding Market Street has become a civic obsession in San Francisco. The city’s main street has been torn up and rebuilt completely at least once in every generation since the Civil War.”
—Carl Nolte, San Francisco Chronicle, July 5, 1988

Apparently it’s time again. San Francisco faces another massive effort to remake Market Street, trying one more time to get it right. What is right? Some folks harbor fantasies of a boulevard that brings out San Franciscans to re-create a life that exists mostly in our imaginations. But there is some evidence that a more vibrant and convivial street did exist in our past. An article in the long-defunct African-American journal Spokesman in 1933 described night life in the Tenderloin along Market Street:

Altogether the street is like the fairway of an enormous circus or carnival. Colors, lights, crowds, music, candy, hawkers, ballyhoo--everything is there but the elephants and the sawdust...
market_street_1940_72_dpi.jpgMarket Street, c. 1940 (Photo: Shaping San Francisco)

This photo taken around 1940 shows the old “roar of the four” as folks referred to it when four streetcar tracks, two privately owned and two public, dominated the center of the street. Cars park along sidewalks crowded with pedestrians in this image, taken midway between 4th and 5th Streets. If the view looked westerly instead of east we’d see a mid-Market full of movie palaces and locally owned small department stores and other retail outlets dependent on working class shoppers.



Streetfilms: Halloween Mass in San Francisco

This week's events make Halloween seem like a long time ago, but it was only last Friday when Clarence Eckerson, on a west coast jaunt for Streetfilms, shot this video of Critical Mass in San Francisco. Some think it was the city's biggest mass ride ever. Clarence offers a possible explanation:

With monthly rides under attack in some cities, it is interesting to see the tactic that San Francisco takes. The police department is practically hands off, and the ride is very peaceful and non-confrontational. Even drivers and spectators don't seem to mind the action.

"So," Clarence wonders, "why can't it be the same in NYC?"