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Friday, December 28, 2012

Here's Why You Should Pedal Through the Last Critical Mass of 2012

Posted By on Fri, Dec 28, 2012 at 7:05 AM


Tonight will be the last Critical Mass of 2012 -- and my first ever.

Maybe it's not so surprising that I've never joined the amorphous, self-propelled fray. Though biking is my preferred method of getting around, I lack a certain militancy when it comes to my vehicle of choice.

If I'm being completely honest, I am, as a cyclist and otherwise, a total square. I stop at stop signs and wait patiently for green lights. I wear a helmet, puzzle over why my fellow riders don't do the same, and when a mother in a minivan waves a friendly thank you when I inch to the inside of the lane, letting her carbon-belching monstrosity make its unwieldy right turn through a red, my Quisling heart swells with pride because I have been constructive and helpful.

Call me a sheep, but Critical Mass' flagrant and celebratory defiance of commonly understood traffic ordinances just isn't my style.

I remember betraying as much to a coworker of mine last year. I was living in Vancouver at the time, and I praised the city to her for the fantastically bike-friendly place it is.

My colleague dismissed all of this out of hand, insisting that in fact her hometown of Minneapolis was the better biking town. And why was that? Because Minneapolis is such a monstrously difficult place to be a biker, of course. Due to its climate and its lack of infrastructure, only the truly "hardcore" would dare to venture onto the roads. In Minneapolis, there was natural selection at work -- a survival of the gnarliest -- which made for a more vibrant and engaging biking community.

Vancouver, on the other hand, with its separate lanes crisscrossing downtown, its ample bike parking amenities, and its bike-commuter mayor, had gotten soft. It was a town where anyone could be a biker, and as a result, the community lacked cohesion and political focus. Biking had become mainstream and mainstream was milquetoast and insufferably moderate.

I wonder if this in some way explains the rift that allegedly broke open last September between Critical Mass-types and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. In a one-sided argument that took place on the eve of CM's bidecennial, former mayoral candidate and Critical Masser Quintin Mecke penned an open letter fuming that the Bike Coalition had failed to acknowledge the anniversary event in its weekly newsletter.

"[A]pparently the only thing happening in the San Francisco bike world that is worthy of your 12,000 members knowing about on Friday, Sept. 28 is SFBC's Valet Bike Parking at the de Young Museum," he wrote. "Are you afraid of offending Chuck Nevius or Mayor Lee?"

Constitutionally averse to conflict though I am, I get the frustration. In 1992, when Critical Mass started amassing critically in downtown San Francisco, biking in this city was not only definitely not mainstream, it was dangerous. With few dedicated bikers, fewer amenities for them, and little awareness or toleration of their presence on the road, the inclination to stand upon your pedals and be counted is an understandable one. Though it certainly pissed off a whole lot of drivers, the riders of Critical Mass did make one fact undeniably clear: Here there be bikers.

For helping to make that point -- obnoxiously and consistently -- over the last few years, all cyclists in the city owe them one.

But now that San Francisco has started to go the way of Vancouver -- now that it is less a question of whether there are bikers in the city, but how the city should best accommodate them -- what is the role of Critical Mass at the end of 2012? No doubt many a driver could stand to be reminded that bikers have a right to be on the road, too, but 20 years on, it's unclear to me why running stoplights at rush hour is the best way to do that.

Maybe I will find out tonight. Or not. Either way, I aim to have a good time.

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Ben Christopher


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