Critical Mass

Editor - A few points in response to your June 16 article glorifying the "Critical Mass" bicycle ride.

First, the Critical Mass event doesn't just tie up auto traffic, it blocks several Muni bus routes.

Second, while bicycling is a non polluting form of travel, the Critical Mass event increases auto emissions by causing thousands of cars to sit idling on downtown streets.

Third, bike messengers probably cause as many traffic accidents as motorists downtown. Traffic laws are for all traffic, not just motorized kind.

Fourth, the police sergeant quoted in the story had it right: cyclists participating in Critical Mass "break all the traffic laws along the way and act like they got a right to it." It's too bad his SFPD superiors don't share that view and start authorizing arrests to shut down the event.

Fifth, this commission is charged with moving traffic and mass transit in the city and has held hearings on the Critical Mass event. A balanced article would have contained the conclusions of those hearings.

Finally, there is plenty that needs to be done to make San Francisco streets a more bicycle-friendly environment, and many improvements; such as bike route signs are being funded by our commission. We welcome the Mass enthusiasts to join in that hard and useful work, instead of pulling their monthly sophomoric prank.


Parking and Traffic Commission, San Francisco

and a Critical Mass enthusiast responds . . .

FIRST, Thousands of cars sit idling on downtown streets all day every day! Do we need to remind DPT that this is considered normal? As for bus routes, MUNI is a pathetic, under-supported public transit system that is an insult to the citizens of San Francisco. We are sorry for brief delays that we may contribute to, but our gathering serves a number of other more important purposes. The routes are chosen deliberately to avoid long stays on any single bus route (against the desires of the police who want us to stick to Market Street!). Also the ride never starts until after 6 pm, well after the peak of Friday rush hour. If we really wanted to tie up traffic, we'd leave at 4:45 pm! Critical Mass has ridden varying routes through San Francisco for no more than two hours on one day in each of the last 22 months, rarely delaying any individual motorist, pedestrian, or bus more than 10 minutes at most.

SECOND, Bike messengers, in large part, avoid Critical Mass. Many are still working during the ride, and many others are just "too cool" to participate in this amorphous event. Banning cars throughout downtown would drastically reduce accidents across the board, as messengers would suddenly have a much safer environment in which to ply their trade. In any case, neither the DPT nor any other agency keeps track of bike messenger accidents, so this irrelevant invocation of dangerous bike messengers is merely a ploy to curry favor with the denizens of downtown who share a hostility to messengers.

THIRD, Traffic laws are imposed on all traffic even though they were written for automobiles and their corporate sponsors. When specific traffic accommodations are really made for bicycles, like segregated rights-of-way, bike signals, rules allowing bikes to proceed cautiously through red lights and stop signs (like the auto's right-turn-on-red), and so on, then we can talk about obeying traffic laws.

FOURTH, Impotent sputtering from career bureaucrats who just don't get it! The police seem to have learned that the best way to deal with Critical Mass is to help us ride safely and expeditiously to the route's conclusion, wherever that may be. An arrest plan will lead to wild chaos, as small clots of bicyclists split off and ride all over town, spreading the supposed problem all over. Anyway, bicyclists join Critical Mass not to break traffic laws but to enjoy the safety and quietude of a brief "bicycle-only" space and the rich social experience that accompanies it.

FIFTH, A balanced hearing might have solicited the opinions of Critical Mass participants and enthusiasts instead of holding a surprise hearing and concluding with a recommendation for repression and intolerance. As for the DPT Commission, the pathetic state of traffic and parking speaks for itself. Clearly you guys were doing a great job until Critical Mass came along and messed it all up!

FINALLY: No kidding! Bet you'd love to have Critical Mass riders pile into your ineffective and nearly meaningless meetings and liven them up a bit! As for a bicycle-friendly city; for shame! No agency stands more in the way of bicycle friendliness than the Department of Parking and Traffic. Your efforts up to and including the newly proposed signs & routes (an repulsively along the main car corridors!) are characterized by delay obstruction, obfuscation, and the inherent bias that comes from spending years driving back and forth between home and bureaucratic niche. You are neanderthal defenders of a suicidal status quo and will only accommodate bicycles because you have to.

— Chris Carlsson, July 1994



On Monday, July 25, 1994 at New College on Valencia the Bicycle Advisory Committee of the Department of Parking and Traffic held a public meeting to get input on their proposed bicycle commuter routes through San Francisco. All in all it was a very civil meeting, attended by about 50 cyclists, most of whom came prepared to share their accumulated wisdom regarding cycling in SF. Between the written comments submitted prior to the meeting and the exchanges at the meeting it seems that most cyclists were prepared to accept a route map of some sort, provided that it included their own pet preferences.

In fact, it was the large number of detailed additions and modifications that proved the point raised by several speakers: no map that designates certain -routes will be used by most bicyclists in any ongoing meaningful way, since it is the nature of bicycling to vary routes, take the paths of least resistance, seek out the most pleasant (as defined by the individual rider) routes, and so on. The draft map focused heavily on putting designated bike routes along main traffic corridors, like Army Street, 3rd Street, Alemany Blvd., Potrero Ave., etc. This brought out a great deal of opposition, since the plan was obviously concocted by people with a traffic engineering background, with little regard to the rich diversity of bicycling route choices and riding styles.

A cluster of suggestions by unrelated individuals seemed to focus on an alternative approach, namely a map that provides bicyclists with the micro-knowledge of routes that each of us has developed in our own very specific travel patterns. Let's face it, we really don't need a map that tells us to ride along the busiest streets in town with the blessing of a few signs along the way- A useful map would tell me about the neighborhoods I don't already know: the odd wiggles and jogs that get one over and around the hills with the greatest ease, from one part of town to another in the most beautiful and least trafficked way, etc. One regular Marin County-San Francisco State commuter proposed an "'Inverse map" (not too) different than the draft map before us) which would indicate the worst ways of bicycling around town, and leave it to the individual cyclist to find the best ways around those bad routes.

In any case, the meeting was an impressive exercise in public participation. The question now is what will the BAC/DPT do with all these good ideas? Will they just continue to tinker with the same basic map and then reissue it, or will they be able to overcome the enor-mous bureaucratic inertia to spend money o signs and maps and rethink the whole approach to providing veteran and novice bicyclists with useful document that will encourage bicycling?

Will they be able to switch gears and underlying philosophies, abandoning the traffic planner hats for the tinted visors of true visionaries, planners who can imagine the remarkable benefits that would accompany some real structural changes to city streets, promoting bicycles and walking while actively demoting automobile traffic? Obviously they and we are up against the imposing wall of realism, of what's "possible" in the here and now. But unless a frontal assault on realism is made, any bike route map and its accompanying signage and publicity will ultimately be self-defeating, as bicyclists ignore "commute routes" that take the special freedom of urban bicycling and try to cram it into a traffic planner's idea of efficiency and necessary compromise.

An attendant issue which seems to crop up regularly is the widely held view that separate bikeways would promote safety and bicycling among those too intimidated to ride the insane streets of SF. Darryl Skrabak and some others within the "semi-professional" bicycling community argue that anyone who raises this (anyone who points to the common use of such systems in major cities of Europe) is somehow ignorant. These same folks, the semi-pro bikers, have figured it all out from years ago—their solution is to get every prospective bicyclist up to a certain level of proficiency and speed so that they can successfully behave like normal traffic on normal streets. While I doubt these people are really in favor of maintaining an automobile-based culture, I'm continually struck by the myopia that insists that the way streets and traffic are right now is the way they will continue to be. They insist that our approach to urban redesign and bicycling routes/rights must adapt to the status quo, rather than forcing the existing traffic patterns to change and adapt to our needs as bicyclists for safe, separate, comprehensive grids of artistic and horticulturally designed bikeways.

Well, at least there's some process underway to begin chipping away at the dominant car culture. Let's hope that this route plan, when issued, won't be of the shoot- yourself-in-the-foot variety, and actually discourage bicycling by placing bike routes primarily on main thoroughfares.

— Chris Carlsson

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