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Rides and Wrongs 

With Critical Mass and the AIDS Ride, cyclists are taking to the streets for commendable causes. But do both groups deserve your support?

May means spring cleaning, a task I always confront with the best of intentions. Every year the rite is the same: bowing on hands and knees with a freshly wetted sponge, pausing a moment, then setting it down and going out for a beautiful, sunny bike ride.

Such, for me, are the ambiguities of spring. So I thought I'd devote this week's column to bicycles and good intentions. Specifically, I thought I'd devote it to the propensity of some San Franciscans to use their bicycles as a means for civic action -- I'm thinking of Critical Mass and the Tanqueray California AIDS Ride -- and how that's a phenomenon we need more of, in one instance, and perhaps less of, in another.

I would like to know, first of all, why we live in such a redneck bicyclist- and pedestrian-killing town. As newspaper readers and radio listeners know, this month a judge dropped manslaughter charges against the chicken-playing truck driver who ran over Chris Robertson in an alleged road-rage incident last November, leaving only two misdemeanor counts against him, to the impotent rage of this city's cyclists. To ice the cake, yet another cyclist was killed by a truck on Oak Street just Friday morning.

I'd avoided the Critical Mass bike ride in the past; the event is dedicated to blocking streets and pissing off motorists, and as a cyclist I've always had the sense there are already too many dangerously rage-filled motorists on the streets. But I rode along Friday just the same. It seemed time that the good liberals of this city realized this awful motor madness has got to stop.

We now kill, on average, around 30 bicyclists and pedestrians in this town every year. Were it some other malady besides automobiles causing this carnage, S.F. hills would echo with outrage. Instead, except for the isolated fussing of bicycle and pedestrian activists, this carnage is generally accepted as an unavoidable fact of urban life. But that's simply not true. Oak Street, where the cyclist was killed Friday morning, is, like its sister, Fell Street, designed to be horribly dangerous for anyone not clad in 2,000 pounds of steel. During the past 50 years streets have steadily been widened to the point where now the entire city is a gauntlet of four-lane, one-way streets lined by narrow sidewalks and nonexistent bike lanes.

Killing pedestrians and cyclists has become an ordinary cost of connecting the city by car. It shouldn't be. If San Franciscans wished, we could immediately reduce death on the streets: We could eliminate downtown and SOMA parking garages, which clog the streets with cars; we could put bike lanes on every major throughway. The police could aggressively prosecute motorists who enter crosswalks while pedestrians are present, and cite drivers who act threateningly toward bicyclists. Most important, cops could lend an ear to bicyclists' versions of events after car-bicycle collisions. The tendency now, according to pages of testimony gathered by the S.F. Bicycle Coalition, is overwhelmingly to believe motorists. As a result, drivers act as if they believe cyclists shouldn't share our streets. The too-frequent punishment for defying this horridly misinformed belief has been death.

Still, I don't want readers to get me wrong; I'm not in favor of every instance of cyclists taking to the streets. Take for instance, the Tanqueray California AIDS Ride, which leaves from San Francisco June 3. Everybody in San Francisco knows an AIDS Rider, San Francisco's seasonal equivalent of airport Hare Krishnas. They endlessly panhandle friends and acquaintances. They cajole co-workers into joining their AIDS Ride teams. That would all be fine and good if the organization promoting the rides, the for-profit corporation Pallotta Team Works Inc., didn't inspire such a high degree of doubt.

This is the same organization that was investigated by the Pennsylvania state attorney general for allegedly misleading donors into thinking charities would receive the lion's share of their contributions. Instead, in that case, 28 percent of revenues went to charity, according to news reports. Dan Pallotta, the aphorism-spouting entrepreneur behind the AIDS Rides, paid the state $110,000 without admitting wrongdoing. An AIDS Ride in Texas netted only 8 percent for AIDS service organizations. The San Francisco-Los Angeles AIDS Ride last year provided around 60 percent of revenues for charity, according to Pallotta data. Ordinary nonprofits consider an overhead of more than 30 percent excessive.

That's all old hat, of course. Pallotta has earned legions of detractors in the gay community, who believe he has exploited a tragic epidemic for his own gain. Jim Provenzano two years ago wrote a wonderful exposé of the Pallotta operation for the gay newspaper the Bay Area Reporter, detailing how it "has been sued, fined, and maligned, yet defends its high fees and continues to secure contracts with charities around the country." Pallotta has also been criticized for the Avon 3-Day, a 55-mile, Pallotta-promoted walk to raise money for breast cancer research.

Through all this Pallotta has refused -- in interviews with the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications -- to reveal how much money he earns from his AIDS Ride/cancer walk empire. He includes a section on his organization's Web site titled "Full Financial Disclosure," which is anything but. Instead, it is filled with bromides such as these: "Do you feel it's valuable for people to reconnect with their dreaming skills? Do you feel it's important, in this world that suffocates people's dreams, for people to reawaken the dreamer within them, for their own good and the good of all the world? We do, and we design events that do that."

Comforting. But not comfort enough to mute the galling fact that about half of AIDS Rides donations go to a profit-making company that does not provide services for people with AIDS.

With the Ides of May only two weeks away, it's certainly time for spring cleaning -- of our consciences and otherwise. For some that might mean taking civic action, forging a new consciousness that says becoming a true transit-first, ped-first, and cyclist-first city is exactly the same thing as becoming a life-first city.

For others this might mean joining the fight against AIDS. For those wary of Dan Pallotta's for-profit style of fund-raising, that could involve volunteering and/or writing a generous check for one of the dozens of reputable charities addressing the AIDS epidemic, then setting down your pen and taking a bike ride.


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