San Francisco is Out of Control?

One day, many years ago, my sister was waiting at an intersection in Chico Ca. for the light to change. Passing across the intersection were hundreds of bicycles, a mass ride by the local fraternities and sororities. The light changed, and to the annoyance of the vehicles, the bikes continued crossing the intersection without pause. The light changed from green to red, the bikes continued, and then to green again. They still went by.

My sister, a woman of action to say the least, stood on the brake of her '57 Chevy coup, revved up the rather large engine she had put in it, and popped the clutch. The engine roared, the tires spun, the back of the car slid and black smoke from burning rubber poured into the air. The bicyclists fell into each other getting out of the intersection.

She then (with a nod of thanks from the other cars) calmly continued on her way.

On the last Friday of each month, bicyclists in San Francisco engage in a mass ride through the normal commuter traffic. The event, "Critical Mass", started impromptu in 1992 with a group of bicyclists getting together to ride home after work. The unorganized event has steadily grown, both in size and political intensity. Also growing steadily has been the anger on all sides.

The June event had an estimated 3000 riders. Many of the bike riders feel riotously angry. A lot of them are rude, belligerent, even down right dangerous. Evening commuters, stuck in grid lock, are also feeling riotously angry. People can be at their worst while commuting and the car folks match the bike folks finger for finger and blow for blow.

The level of confrontation in the June ride was so high that San Francisco Mayor, Willie Brown, attempted to add some organization to the event. What he got for the July event was a near riot with 5000 bicycles in the evening commute traffic. Two hundred and fifty bicyclists were arrested.

The City has vowed that the lawlessness will stop. Internet messages and flyers urge a yet larger crowd for the August ride.

There is a problem with this problem. That is, there isn't a solution under the current rules. That there town jes' aint big enough for the both of them.

Bicycles cannot ride the streets of San Francisco in safety. This is the core of why the group is so angry. The streets are narrow, hills are steep and there are a lot of pedestrians. If this wasn't bad enough, too many bikers have a F-you attitude and do not consider traffic laws as applying to them.

The traffic is also extremely heavy. The streets can not effectively handle the automobile traffic. Not only are the streets crowded, but irritation levels are high. Cars will cut off a bicycle as fast as each other when they see it. Which of course, they often don't.

The only way to make riding the bicycles safer is to give them more space. (Wider streets, bike lanes, closed streets) But space is something San Francisco doesn't have. Making it easier on the bikes makes it harder on the cars. As it is, driving through the City in commute hours is worse then a root canal.

At the core of Critical Mass are people who need their bikes. They make a living with them, or they have no car. The situation of not being able to ride in safety is not an issue they can let go of.

But the city can not give them what they want. Nor can San Francisco allow them to bring a halt to the Friday night commute traffic once a month.

There are also a lot of people in and around the City who are just plain angry and are looking for a place to express it.

I expect that Mr. Willie Brown is spending a lot of time discussing how to approach the next ride. The first move was to confiscate the bicycles from the arrested riders.

If he can not diffuse the situation, something he may not be able to do, then the next ride could end up a riot. Riots erupting spontaneously (that is, without a singular event sparking them) speak ill of our political health.

Me, I don't think I will visit San Francisco on the last Friday of this month.

By Suli Marr - 1997