Mass response


By Steven T. Jones
Last night's Critical Mass was big -- a population that was also swelled by way too many cops -- but other than that, it was pretty normal. As usual, there weren't any major incidents. As usual, the atmosphere was festive. As usual, the only aggressive behavior that I saw came from overentitled car drivers. These basic, predictable facts seemed to surprise the writers at the Chronicle, who apparently actually believed their own bicyclists-gone-wild bullshit. So once they finally went on a ride, we were rewarded with the headline "Critical Mass pedals politely through S.F."
Yet the real problem remained, the one the Chron still hasn't been able to comprehend. My friend Tim got his bike run over by a car last night simply because it was in the path of an impatient motorist who was trying to drive into a crowd of bikes. And as usual, despite the 40 cops on the ride, the police refused to take a report or get involved. Critical Mass is many things to many people, but one of those things is an assertion of our rights to the road, which we're legally entitled to whether or not we have the blessing of the Chron, the SFPD, and the rest of this city's power structure.

Gather several thousand people and you'll get all types. Critical Mass mixes parents towing their kids with young hipsters on fixies with longtime political activists with artists riding tall bikes with just about everyone else you can imagine. There are those who love the ride's anarchy and those who strive mightily to assert controls over this inherently chaotic event. The only commonality is they all have bikes, or at least access to them and a desire to pedal.

It's true that we bicyclists can be a bit self-righteous about our mode of transportation. But it's also true that cars are one of the leading killers in the country and the main source of both air pollution and global warming. So please try to understand where we're coming from. Bicycling isn't just healthy and fun, it's important.

Despite the Chron's assertion in yesterday's paper that bicyclists have become politically powerful in the city, that's only true in a superficial way. The reality is that cars still rule the roads of San Francisco and bicycles are barely tolerated by top city leaders, who do little to facilitate and expand safe cycling or to punish aggressive car drivers. Even on last night's ride, the police presence was mostly just an extraordinary waste of money that did little to make anyone safer and, in the minds of some cyclists, hurt what is usually a remarkably self policing event.

Why have so many cops doing so little? It would have sent a great message to both drivers and bicyclists last night if police had intervened with angry drivers and made the clear and loud statements that bicyclists have a right to road and the drivers are just going to have to be patient. And if they threaten violence with their deadly weapons, they'll be subject to arrest. That's not what happened with the three cases of irate and out-of-control drivers that I saw last night, or the countless cases that I've seen over the years.

If the woman who hit the cyclist last month had been cited by cops on the scene, as she should have been, the conflict wouldn't have escalated and she wouldn't have gotten her window broken. And if the Chronicle had publicized a case of a driver getting busted -- and noted in the article that it's illegal to menace bicyclists with your car, even if they're in your way -- then we would be making progress instead of that paper fueling car-bike divisions.

Yes, it's true that Critical Mass often creates conflicts wth drivers. That's actually one purpose of the event, and one that few of us will apologize for. Once a month, it's OK to inconvenience drivers for 15 minutes and send them the message that they're not in charge. The roads are for all of us and we've got to share. But the bottom line is that when thousands of people decide to go for a bike ride at the same time and in the same space, they're in control. It's really no different than the car drivers who clog the roads every morning and every afternoon, or when a big group of pedestrians wants to cross the street at the same time or go on a march for some cause. We all need to share, and based on shifting group dynamics, we'll all have our moments when we're in charge of our little piece of the public roadways.

From 6-9 p.m. on the last Friday of every month, the bicyclists claim their space and assert their rights. And that's not going to change anytime soon.