Demonizing bicyclists

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By Steven T. Jones
Despite finally getting the bicyclists' perspective into today's story, the Chronicle continues its misleading and irresponsible effort to demonize Critical Mass and bicyclists in general. And the result has been dozens of angry and menacing online posts by overentitled car drivers who threaten the lives of those opting for a more environmentally friendly transportation option.
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Unlike the more reasonable Examiner account, the Chronicle seems to have lost all sense of proportion, with its reporters trying to push Mayor Gavin Newsom (who was also fairly measured in his reaction) into cracking down on Critical Mass. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I sought a reaction from the Chron's Andy Ross, which I've now received and am posting below followed by more discussion.

Andy Ross wrote: "Look, we reported this story to the best of our ability on a deadline, and relied on both a police report and interviews with the senior officer at the scene and the woman driving the van. We certainly would have liked to talk to the Critical Mass rider who was hit but, as we reported, he didn't give his name and allegedly took off unharmed. I frankly wasn't aware that you were on the ride, and would have called you had I known. But none of that changes the basic facts that we reported -- namely that a woman, along with her family and friends, were in town for a birthday celebration, drove onto a public street and suddenly found themselves surrounded by scores of bicyclists. In the chaos that followed, she banged into a rider (witnesses today tell us the cyclist was either to the side of the van or behind it -- not in front of the driver). That, in turn, touched off an angry rection from the bicyclists, who banged on the van, cursed at the driver and at some point broke out the rear window. For an unsuspecting family, it was a terrifying adventure into San Francisco. Does this make all Critical Mass riders bad. Certainly not. But this certainly looks like the kind of unfortunate incident that was waiting to happen. Regards, Andy Ross"

The key point that Ross and the Chron fail to emphasize was what happened between "found themselves surrounded by scores of bicyclists" and "the chaos that followed." Based on my own interviews with those who were there (I had just left the ride when the incident occurred), what happened was this impatient woman tried to drive around the traffic jam of bicyclists and hit one. The Chron further betrays its biases today by trying to minimize the incident by saying she "inadvertently tapped one of the bike's tires." But 4,000 pound vehicles don't "tap" bikes, as evidenced by the cyclist being thrown to the ground. Then the woman tried to flee the scene, which is why the bicyclists tried to block her exit, although she kept trying to drive away and was yelling at the cyclists (who had called 911 -- not exactly something an angry mob attacking an innocent family would do). And yes, someone finally went too far in getting her attention.

Inflicting damage to a car is not OK. Nobody is saying it is, although I would maintain that it was the end result in a cycle of escalating violence that this woman initiated. But the Chron's main sin here is to blow this minor crime way out of proportion, particularly as it underemphasizes and fails to report the more serious crime of motorists regularly running over bicyclists and pedestrians in San Francisco, not to mention using their deadly vehicles to reinforce their mistaken view that the roads are for cars, not bikes. As a bicyclist, I've been hit by cars twice in this town and threatened and menaced by them countless times. All cyclists have similar stories. Yet as traffic becomes worse and the planet becomes warmer, our city government has done remarkably little to facilitate bicycling and make it a more safe and attractive transportation option.

That's one of the reasons why we relish our little monthly paradigm shift when, for a couple hours citywide or about 10 minutes at any given intersection, bicyclists displace automobiles from their position of primacy. It's a minor inconvenience for most drivers -- only the hostile ones tends to slow the mass and invite escalating confrontation -- but it remains a relevant and important statement. That's clearly not how the Chronicle sees it, or bicycling in general. That newspaper actively tries to marginalize the bicycle community as some kind of elitist special interest. They have done it with Healthy Saturdays (which, perhaps not coincidentally, is about to come up for a vote), with the city's flawed bike plan that led to an injunction against all bike safety projects in the city, and Critical Mass. But bicyclists aren't the main problem here, so it was great to see SFBC director Leah Shahum stick to her guns in today's Chron piece.

Sure, we'd be willing to have a conversation about improving the relationship between drivers and bicyclists. But that conversation has to be predicated on an understanding that bicycles are traffic, as legitimately and legally entitled to the roadways as cars, and when an automobile threatens a bicycle (even one that is blocking traffic or not where he should be) then that's a serious crime that the city needs to actively discourage. But the Chron's provocative "road wars" approach -- and Ross's final statement that we had it coming -- is not how we start that conversation.

P.S. Witnesses also say that the bicyclist who was hit wanted to file a police report, but was told by the officers that the only way to do so would be if they called an ambulance for him, which he would have to pay for. And when he tried to file a report through another officer, the first one came over and repeated the ambulance requirement. What's up with that? Anyway, I thought that was an important omitted detail that neither the Chron nor several online posters have acknowledged as they try to minimize this collision and its catalytic role.

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