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Spinning Its Wheels: Critical Mass' Long Ride from Relevance 

Wednesday, Jul 24 2013
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Critical Mass is a leaderless, or at least an authority-less, movement. The rides ostensibly have individual meanings for each individual rider. But Carlsson's sentiments do encapsulate its limitations in effecting policy change.

Critical Mass was, at the start, a radical undertaking — but it helped to push cycling into the mainstream. In doing so, it was a self-diluting movement: Far from symbolizing a revolt against modern life, cycling is now seen as a signifier of that modern life. Critical Mass riders hoping to topple this and other cities' powers-that-be have been disappointed; bikes go well with "wage labor." The powers-that-be are resilient enough to not only coexist with augmented cycling, but to make a buck off the deal.

The bicycle lanes installed over Bill Maher's dead body on Valencia ushered in a neighborhood of twee, fair-trade cafes, twee, fair-trade boutiques, and bike corrals encased in knitted cozies — which is twee, if not fair-trade. "When I moved onto Valencia 30 years ago, it was a backwater street. All the stores were closed and the only ones out here were Holy Rollers," recalls Jr. (his legal name), a 64-year-old bike messenger with a Santa Claus beard who's been delivering packages in this city since 1968. "Now it's a second Haight Street for computer whizzes. It's a direct route with no hills. And many of [the whizzes] are bikers."

Census data indicate some 15 percent of trips now taken in the demographically metamorphosed Mission are on cycles. And, unlike Jr., most of these bikers aren't riding 40-year-old Schwinns held together with welds and electrical tape. They're often successful young members of the "creative class" with the desire — and the means — to live in the bike-friendliest portions of the bike-friendliest cities. Catering to these economic winners "elevated biking. It's seen as an economically beneficial part of a development strategy," notes S.F. State geography professor Jason Henderson. The ability to bike to work, he continues, is a selling point for the companies to draw these young workers, as well as for a city banking on accommodating those companies.

In fact, the city is hustling to make up for lost time. San Francisco was in 2006 slapped with an injunction against installing cycling infrastructure such as bike lanes after a judge bought outspoken bike critic and blogger Rob Anderson's argument that the city shirked on analyzing the environmental impacts of that infrastructure. The MTA is now thrilled to disgorge numbers marking its progress since the injunction was lifted in late 2010: Twenty-two miles of bike lanes added to the city's burgeoning network; 3,350 new bike racks; and an estimated 71 percent more riders since 2006 — despite the injunction.

Papandreou points to the 71-percent jump as proof that cyclists are coming whether the city caters to them or not. But the construction cranes mushrooming around town indicate a looming glut of new San Franciscans. If the city's pro-development forces have their way — and that's where the smart money, and plenty of it, is being wagered — San Francisco's population may surge to well over 1 million.

In our wee city, it'd be impossible for the horde of anticipated newcomers to each drive their own cars without inducing traffic nightmares of a sort inconducive to "wage labor." This is where the Bicycle Coalition fits symbiotically into the ecosystem. "The Bicycle Coalition is probably one of the most powerful special interest groups in town right now. I'm not calling bicycle transportation a bad special interest. They're a good special interest," says former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin. "But, as a political matter, they'll side with the greediest developer to get 10 extra bike spots."

Developers are happy to no longer adhere to antiquated ratios of auto-parking-spots-to-dwelling-units, and the coalition is happy to lobby for concessions for cycles (bike spots, bike lanes, a bike-sharing program) from the transforming city and the burgeoning developments marketed to affluent people embracing a car-free lifestyle.

Peskin admits this 10-speed Machiavellianism is working. For the coalition to be able to work with both progressives and business interests requires a commitment not to the politics of the day, but to a greater, and more, basic, cause.

"Our power comes from our focus," says Leah Shahum, the Bicycle Coalition's executive director for the past 11 years. "If we were overly broad, we wouldn't have a strong membership."

She just wants to get more people on bikes. Sometimes, a bicycle is just a bicycle.

The city, meanwhile, wants you to leave the house. People sitting at home all day is bad for business. And the city wants more business. It wants more commerce. It wants more growth. It wants more jobs. So it wants you to leave the house. But not, if you can help it, in a car.

Studies out of Portland indicate cyclists spend their money in-town, as does data from officials in New York. Polk Street merchants recently revolted over a plan to install bike lanes and parking at the expense of some car parking. Yet, in the Pacific Northwest, Rutgers urban planning professor John Pucher notes that shopkeepers are eagerly signing onto waiting lists for bike corrals.

Currently, 61 percent of the trips in this city are taken via automobile. Seventeen percent are on public transit, 7.5 percent are on foot, and just 3.5 percent are on bikes. Considering the surge of people, and trips, anticipated in the coming years, far more journeys must be shunted to alternative means just to keep the number of cars around its current level. Reducing car trips to the SFMTA Strategic Plan's goal of 50 percent requires about 20 percent of trips to be on transit; 20 percent to be on foot; and about 10 percent to be on bikes.

For those already cycling regularly, this strategy is bittersweet: It's not for them. It's a ploy to coax would-be cyclists to dust off the wheels and hit the road. For all the talk of the Bicycle Coalition's great influence, the city's investment in cycling has been modest and its bike network is disjointed and incomplete. Stretches of smooth, traffic-segregated lanes inviting to even novice cyclists are broken up by dangerous and bewildering segments. These swaths essentially render miles of cycling paths useless for all but the daring — who were already on the roads. Pucher says the mark of a truly safe cycling system for young, old, and non-Lycra-clad riders is observable parity of the sexes. In San Francisco, however, only 28 percent of frequent cyclists are women. And, based on the city's own "Levels of Traffic Stress" assessment, only 10 percent of bikeways are suitable for everyone. Even large portions of Market Street are accessible only to strong, experienced riders.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly, which he has written for since 2007. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers... more

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