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?

Here’s an estimate of what critical mass would have to pay if they followed the rules: an event permit would be $1000. For a permit once a month, that’s $12,000 for the year. Required portable bathrooms are another $500 each time, or $6,000 for the year. Add a $1000 cleaning deposit twelve times too, so $12,000 a year. And then there’s police protection. For 20 officers, it’s more than $112,000 a year, and another $13,000 for two sergeants. That’s a grand total of $155,060 — tax dollars never recovered.

This is a patently absurd argument and really funny! First of all, there’s no permit, because there’s just an organized coincidence going on. We happen to all show up to ride home together once a month. I haven’t heard any plans to charge motorists who clog the streets EVERY DAY for a permit to fill the streets with their cars! I assume the $500 for "required portable bathrooms" would go to the private company that sells that service? So how does that impact the city’s budget? And what’s the "cleaning deposit" for? the porta-potties? or for Pee-Wee Herman Plaza? or what?… and if it’s a deposit, doesn’t it get returned? So that’s another irrelevant number. (And how exactly are the porta-potties going to be used by cyclists rolling randomly around the city?) And lastly there’s this curious idea of "police protection"! We’re NOT protected by the police! We’re being POLICED by the police! If they want to spend their money that way, which we’ve often encouraged them to forego and just leave us alone, that’s the Police Department’s problem, not ours! As far as I can tell, after riding in well over 100 Critical Mass rides since 1992, the police LOVE this duty. They get to bomb around on their motorcycles, occasionally writing a harassment ticket for corking or red light running (which usually gets dismissed in court), and have little to do but look at all the nice bodies and funny people on the ride. It’s as safe and pleasant as overtime can be and many of the cops seem to like it! So Joe Vazquez’s crazy math actually adds up to… Zero!

But there’s a deeper problem here, and this gives us a chance to address it. Our culture is in the grips of a deep madness that keeps trying to monetize all human activity. Too many people have internalized this crazy idea that everything, from public transit to schools to libraries, to social gatherings in the streets, are supposed to "pay for themselves." On the contrary, we need to expand the realm of human life that is outside of that logic altogether. We should be ecstatic that Critical Mass remains one of the few authentically free uses of public space in this city, one that is not reduced to instrumental purposes that suit the needs of business. Instead, it’s a rare example of normal human life, where people meet each other in a convivial and open-ended process of sharing space, moving through the streets of the city under a logic quite alien to the endless buying-and-selling that so many people seem to think is the be-all and end-all of our lives.

There is much to say about the etiquette and ethics of the ride, how it might be better received by passersby and participants if there was a greater commitment to the ideas that animated us from the beginning: a celebration of a better way to move through cities, an inviting experience welcoming to all, an assertion of a new kind of public space. As we’ve often said, "We’re not blocking traffic, we ARE traffic!" We do not go out, as Vazquez would have it, during rush hour to block traffic. We proceed after 6:15 on the last Friday of the month, after most rush hour commuters are on the bridges and highways, and do not for the most part have an agenda to make motorists lives worse, but rather, for one brief two-hour period each month, to make our lives as urban cyclists as magical as they could be all the time, if only our roads were radically redesigned to make meaningful space for all uses, and not just the endless asphalt sprawl dominated and overwhelmed ALL DAY EVERY DAY by private automobiles.

Every time there’s a new media story on Critical Mass, we have to go over all this again. This idea of "Critical Mess," that something really awful and dangerous is happening (which Vazquez helpfully did not promote this time, noting that claims of violence or mayhem from years past were not part of his experience, where most cyclists were quite polite and exuberant) is seriously out of kilter to the reality of a simple bike-in that happens once a month for about 2+ hours. From the hysteria created, and the breathless invocation of huge lost taxpayer dollars, you’d think something much bigger and more dangerous were underway. Channel 5 and all the other heavy breathers out there: Take a deep breath, relax, and come on the ride next month. It’s a great way to see the city in a new light, to experience the intensity of real life in the city, to work things out in the heat of the moment with other cyclists or motorists or pedestrians you may or may not feel comfortable with, and to have your imaginations altered forever.


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