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Spinning Its Wheels: Critical Mass' Long Ride from Relevance 

Wednesday, Jul 24 2013

Page 4 of 5

With safer roads for bikes, urban workers could ride to their places of business. That was true in the 19th century, and it remains so in the 21st. Building safer roads now, however, costs more.

The 2013-2018 SFMTA Strategic Plan is the most comprehensive cycling document the city has ever produced. It dwells upon the intersections requiring upgrades, the routes on which to create bike paths, and the existing bike paths to beef up. It calls for installing tens of thousands of new bike parking spaces and hundreds of future stations for the city's nascent bike-sharing program.

It does not, however, identify where the money to pay for this is going to come from.

The plan's graphic representation of the $30 million in available funds placed in the context of its $190 million price tag resembles a depiction of Earth next to Jupiter. (Transforming San Francisco into a Copenhagen-esque bike city, meanwhile, is priced at $600 million). Tearing up the streets requires money, and ongoing, Polk Street-like battles require time. And time is money.

Precious few state or federal dollars are earmarked specifically for cycling projects. So, they're included under the aegis of "complete streets." As a result, bike advocates aren't in favor of generous appropriations to pay for the improvement of the streets and highways for the bicyclists alone — though the horse lobby has dropped off since 1896.

"Bicycle boulevards" — in which some auto lanes are removed in favor of bike lanes and everyone is made to slow down — are now being rebranded as "neighborhood greenways." This is marketing, says Pucher. Building bicycle-friendly roads "benefits pedestrians, people crossing the street, neighbors who want to chat in the street. You can make the argument you're doing it for the kids!" And, as this is San Francisco: It's good for dogs, too.

It's an argument that, likely, will be put before city voters. "We need to get things on the ballot," says Papandreou. The shortfall of $25 million a year between the present and 2018 "is too large to make up internally."

Mainstream cyclists and cycling advocacy groups sniping about blowback from Critical Mass riders' antics is a ritual as tired as the derivative antics of those Critical Mass riders. In the not-too-distant future, however, voters may be hit up for heaps of money to make cyclists' progress about the city comfortable and safe in order to place San Francisco in the front rank with other cities. As such, cycling advocates both inside and outside of city government seem to be reading from the same script in describing the dollars spent on cycling infrastructure as a boon to even the non-cyclist. Voters' perception of bike-riders will be critical, as the city hopes to spend public dollars to create more of them.

But Critical Mass remains unscripted. Blockading an intersection during the most recent ride, a cyclist bellowed to his fellow riders and the trapped drivers: "Own it! Own it! It's ours! You can't have it!"

The whirring of bicycle chains is a magical sound, but, then, so is Daft Punk. The thumping beats emanating from sophisticated rolling soundsystems drown out all ambient noise at either Critical Mass or the other group rides it has spawned. Things are changing: When Carlsson shows up these days with sheets of proposed routes — "Xerocracy" in Critical Mass jargon — riders look askance at him. "There's never been a planned route for Critical Mass," they tell its ardent co-founder, who planned out routes decades ago. "You don't know shit about Critical Mass, do you?"

That's about the same thing riders say when Carlsson tells them to stop blocking cars for the sake of blocking cars.

One week after every Critical Mass ride — on the first Friday of every month — the San Francisco Bike Party rolls through town. Rather than gather at Justin Herman Plaza during the height of the commute, Bike Partiers avoid confrontation, meeting at 8 p.m. within Golden Gate Park. Like Critical Mass' earlier iterations, there's an organized route, with a definitive ending point, and volunteers guiding people along. Unlike Critical Mass, Bike Partiers don't goad motorists into pointless arguments; they stop at red lights and (some) stop signs. Asked to explain what they're up to, Bike Party organizers made oblique references to Critical Mass: "It's a very positive environment, as opposed to some group rides." ... "We're very pro-bicycle as opposed to being anti-anything else." ... "We're trying to get more people on bikes by using more carrots, and less sticks."

The Bike Party is just what it says it is: a party that just happens to involve bikes. On the July ride, cyclists dressed as robots cheered during one of several boozy rest stops as a lithe young woman, visible only in bicycle-helmeted silhouette and backlit by throbbing neon lights, gyrated to E-40.

Well, there's nothing wrong with that. Bike Partiers don't espouse the serious, transformative ideals that inspired Critical Mass. They don't publish compendiums filled with essays titled "Putting the 'Critical' in Critical Mass: Patriarchy, Radical Feminism, and Radical Inclusiveness," or "International Solidarity: The Bicycle as a Creative Response." They drink beer and dance to E-40.

But, at this point, they're accomplishing just as much. There's plenty of crossover between Critical Mass on the last Friday of every month and the Bike Party a week later. That's hardly surprising: Both rides provide cyclists with a social opportunity and the chance to stop feeling like scattered minnows among whales on the road. The Bike Party, however, does this without Critical Mass' baggage.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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