Tepid Reform or Utopian
The number of people who ride their bicycles
to work in San Francisco has at least quintupled since Critical Mass started six
years ago. The indescribable authenticity of the Critical Mass experience has
been transmitted primarily through direct word-of-mouth. The mass media has failed
to get inside the Critical Mass phenomenon, portraying it largely as a quirky
gathering of freaks that mysteriously reoccurs monthly, if it’s noticed at all.
The social power of an unpredictable monthly
seizure of San Francisco’s streets is fueling initiatives in local transit politics
(bridges, bike lanes, freeways and public transit). Through demonstrations, organizing,
interventions, lobbying and letter writing, bicycle activists are making themselves
Nevertheless, bicyclists are still dying on
San Francisco’s streets, thanks in part to the delays and inaction of city bureaucrats.
Most recently, 23-year-old Rebecca Kresse was killed when a bus slammed into her
at 24th and Valencia on September 2nd at 7 p.m. in broad daylight. This accident
cannot be un-done. How many more fatalities will we suffer before there is a meaningful
transformation of our streets to accommodate everyone’s safety?
We know that thousands of potential cyclists
would cautiously venture into San Francisco’s streets, if they could see a recognized,
safe place for them on the street. The Comprehensive Bike Plan is seriously inadequate.
An uncharitable explanation of it would be that it is designed to funnel money
to the city’s sign making department and asphalt painting division. The scattered
bike lanes being created do little to promote bicycling safety and much to provide
double parking lanes for delivery vehicles and impatient motorists.
While we say "get on with it" to the city,
what’s really needed is something much bigger. A sincere endorsement of bicycling
as at least a partial solution to gridlock and the collapse of public transit
requires a systematic redesign of city streets to accommodate a designated, bike-only
grid of thoroughfares. Painting lines on streets is not enough. Safe cycling requires
separate bikeways, which—if we’re clever enough—can also be opportunities for
public art and horticulture (line them with murals, paintings, bulletin boards,
graffiti zones, free speech walls, and publicly owned fruit trees: Lemon Tree
Lane, Peach Path, Berry Bikeway, etc.).
Ironically the rise of transportation activism
has coincided with a near collapse of San Francisco’s public transit, acutely
embarrassing the self-important Impresario-Mayor Brown. This limousine liberal
has presided over one of the most rapacious and corrupt periods of San Francisco’s
famously corrupt history, with ugly and offensive development projects planned
for every open corner of the City. Meanwhile, Brown thumbs his nose at citizens,
giving his attention to rich developers and union labor while screwing unorganized
workers, tenants and transit advocates. He has barely paid lip service to the
demands of bicyclists and potential bicyclists, as his appointed commissions have
rejected most of a meager compromise, leaving the much-touted Compre-hensive Bicycle
Plan in tatters. Urban ecology? Green city? Alternative transit or energy? This
mayor says: Pave It! And because he supports doing it with Union Labor he thinks
he’s a "progressive"!
Mayor Brown envisions malls and freeways and
chains in the ‘hoods, leading inevitably (as his status quo ideology promises)
to a certain material comfort that is supposed to be the reward for enthusiastic
acquiescence to the rule of the Market. Obviously he enjoys that reward, zipping
around in his limo from haberdashery to opera, photo op to press conference. But
most of us wonder how long we’ll be able to stay in San Francisco. How long can
we slip under the skyrocketing cost of housing? What will happen to us when the
next "economic crisis" hits?
public silence on the class issues that divide San Francisco underlines his ongoing
sell-out to private business interests, from landlords to biotech moguls, bankers
and multimedia promoters. The transportation crisis is an unsolvable irritation
which he’d really like to help us forget.
THE BIG PICTURE
This last decade of the 20th century has been
full of surprises. Who’d have thought it would begin with the collapse of the
Soviet bloc? Who would have thought aggressive expansion of the market economy
across the planet would encounter such weak and ineffective opposition? Who would
have thought the alternative hopes and visions, so rich and exciting in the 1960s
and ’70s, would so completely capitulate to the incessant logic of buying and
selling—i.e. modern capitalism?
Since the 1920s and the rise of the mass-produced
automobile, the U.S. economy has been dependent on two foundations—the car and
war. Periodic depressions, recessions and downturns have been superceded when
war spurred economic growth. Between wars, the frenzied growth of urban and suburban
America (built on cars and roads) has colonized more and more of society, placing
all values and human experiences below the unquestioned logic of economic expansion.
The rotten fruit of this social arrangement is all around us: pollution and ecological
breakdown, gridlock and public transit collapse, overwork and profligate wealth
amidst growing poverty and homelessness, alienation, boredom, rage, despair, and
increasingly a social order built on rampant incarceration.
But, true to form, dismaying evidence of social
decay and rising barbarism only obscures exciting developments that always rise
alongside and underneath the ruling order. Since the early ’90s an unprecedented
social movement has erupted and spread spontaneously across the world. Bicyclists
have gathered in Critical Mass rides on most continents and in over 100 cities.
Reclaim The Streets and direct actions against road building have erupted all
over Europe, Australia and even occasionally in the U.S.
Humans are resourceful, especially in the face
of adversity. The simple choice to ride a bicycle becomes an assertion of common
sense and an act of radical refusal. By bicycling, we refuse to participate in
our own degradation on an increasingly dysfunctional public transit system. By
bicycling we refuse to pay the enormous costs of a murderous transit system built
on private cars. When we bicycle, we refuse the perpetual marketing noise of corporate
advertising piping into car radios, and we refuse to accept as "news" the shallow
and intellectually retarded reporting that claims to be objective and true. When
we bicycle we subvert our "responsibility" to behave as loyal members of this
society, undercutting the auto economy, challenging the propaganda system, and
directly re-creating meaningful encounters with one another.
Bicycling is generally a very individual experience,
especially on streets filled with stressed-out motorists who don’t think cyclists
have a right to be on the road. But when we ride together in Critical Mass, we
transform our personal choices into a shared, collective repudiation of the prevailing
social madness. The organic connections we’ve made (and continue to make anew,
month after month) are the root of a movement radically opposed to the way things
are now. As we continue to share public space free from the absurd domination
of transactions and the Economy, we are forging a new sense of shared identity,
a new sense of our shared interests against those who profit from and perpetuate
the status quo. Having discovered ourselves as a group with shared interests,
we bicyclists must creatively seek connections to the other members of society
with whom we share basic qualities—lack of political power, victimization by a
social system that systematically pits us against one another, a desire to make
deep changes that will make our lives better, and so on.
Bicyclists are mostly part of the largest group
in society—the working class. All the cultural and political divisions between
us serve the interests of the tiny group who make the decisions about how our
lives will be: decisions about technologies, resources, transit systems, the global
market itself (what will be produced, by whom, and to what end). Our personal
choices about what to buy, which goods to consume, how to get around, etc. are
important to be sure. But the crucial decisions that shape the environment and
the social system in which we make our decisions, are made undemocratically and
self-servingly by the wealthy few and their bought-and-paid-for political allies.
It is to this deeper dynamic that we must address ourselves.
Our "leaders" are worried by the uncontrollable
nature of Critical Mass. Grassroots initiatives that challenge land use, real
estate development/speculation, public investments, transportation priorities,
etc., are annoying obstacles for the rulers of today. Co-optation or demolition
are their favorite strategies. Our task is to elude their clumsy attempts to control
us. Our imagination, creativity, enthusiastic passions, and mobility give us more
power than many of us know, and more chances to change life than we generally
feel we have.
May our wheels keep spinning, both inside us
and among us, not to mention between us and the ground!
— Chris Carlsson, September 25, 1998