Posts Tagged ‘Arguments’

Is Critical Mass Bad — or Good — for Biking? Veteran Bike Activists Chime In

May 25th, 2010 by hughillustration

Critical Mass sticker 2007

Art by Hugh D'Andrade


Has Critical Mass helped or hurt the bicycle cause in San Francisco? I asked some veteran bike activists for their view from the front lines. Dave Snyder, Mary Brown and Joel Pomerantz were key figures in the rise of bicycle advocacy in San Francisco. They each took the time to give their 2 cents.

As I noted last month, San Francisco has benefited over the last decade and a half from a resurgence of bicycling as a mainstream traffic option. Since 1992, when Critical Mass began, we have seen the following positive changes:

    • More bikes on the road, increasing every year
    • Massive and unprecedented increases in the membership of bike advocacy groups
    • More funding for bike infrastructure
    • Increasing respect from motorized traffic

Was Critical Mass a help or a hindrance to this positive change? To many, it is obvious that Critical Mass is hurtful, pointing to the anger it often inspires in motorists. Others, myself included, claim a net positive influence from this monthly ride, which after all was a major meeting place for the city’s bike-nerd intelligentsia — and in many cases inspired the very same individuals who were instrumental in making these changes a reality.

Many commentators wrote to remind me that my view lacks evidence (“correlation is not causation,” etc). And I respond by pointing out that the other side is equally lacking in evidence: the common view that Critical Mass has hurt the cause simply has no proof to back it up. None. There is no empirical evidence, that I know of, on either side of this argument.

Well, if empirical evidence is not available, we can find plenty of anecdotal evidence. I interviewed some of the bicycle activists that were involved in both mainstream bike advocacy and in Critical Mass. As you’ll see, some of what they say resonates with my argument, some of what they say negates it. You be the judge!

Did SFBC encourage Critical Mass? Was there much overlap in the two groups?

Dave Snyder, head of SFBC from 1991 to 2002, regular participant in Critical Mass since ride 1:
I think we were most helpful simply in not vilifying, criticizing, or opposing the ride. We tacitly approved of it, and listed it in our newsletter every month. We probably helped turnout a little bit, which might have been important but I think most of the outreach was more direct than through our newsletter, and we probably helped by just telling the mainstream bike crowd “this is OK.”

Do you think SFCM contributed to a boom in SFBC membership?

Dave Snyder: Slightly in the beginning. We would occasionally go to the events and sign people up. Then, with the crackdown [in 1997], our membership jumped about 50%. Huge! I personally thanked Willie Brown for our increase in membership.

Mary Brown, SFBC activist from 1996 to 2003 and regular Critical Mass participant:
Not directly. Early on (c.1996) Joel Pomerantz bought 100 or 500 subsidized memberships to SFBC and handed them out at Critical Mass. I remember that the renewal rates for those memberships were dismal. The real boom in membership only occurred in the last five years or so, and honestly I can’t figure out what precipitated such a tremendous increase in paid memberships. Likely the cumulative impact of many factors that’d been building for years.

Joel Pomerantz, founding newsletter editor for SFBC and co-founder of Critical Mass:
No impact. I handed out 20 to 40 memberships (Mary’s memory inflated it) and my memory is that it was hard to find people who really wanted them, and harder than I expected to find people who live in SF coming to Mass, at that time.

Do you think SFCM contributed to particular negotiations or bike projects?

Dave Snyder: In one instance, absolutely. It was during the huge explosion in CM and the crackdown in 1997. We asked for the city to “implement the bike network” which we agreed for the time being meant 8 key bike lane projects linking the city (2nd, 5th, Howard, Townsend, Polk, Arguello, Cesar Chavez, and 7th Avenue). The Mayor agreed to hearings on all 8, setting up a dynamic where we had to get something or else it would look really bad. We were careful to choose 8 projects which were not the easiest ones to implement. We eventually got bike lanes on 3-4 of the 8, hardly a resounding victory but more than we’d have gotten without CM, for sure, and setting us up for bigger success in the future. (As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that more than a decade later we’re still missing bike lanes on 2nd, 5th, and Cesar Chavez.)

Mary Brown: I doubt that CM currently has much of an impact on negotiations, but back in the day it was a large beast that loomed over various proposals for bike projects. It very clearly alerted decision-makers as to the existence of a large, unruly, and pissed constituency. Didn’t push any projects over the edge, but the general awareness of a large constituency was very helpful.

Joel Pomerantz: I’m sure policy-makers think about the looming monster of CM when they think of bikes, and the scary part is probably that they can’t fit it into their category system. It’s not a holiday, nor a parade, nor a demonstration, nor a sport. What is it? It’s not an organization or particular group of any kind. The police similarly have no easy way to fit it into their command and control system, but they probably understand the nature of it more than policy-makers who have never seen it’s many dimensions.

Was the net impact of SFCM on cycling issues helpful or a hindrance during your tenure?

Dave Snyder: Absolutely helpful. Not perfectly helpful, but, you asked about the net impact and undeniably it was great.

Mary Brown: Net impact? Helpful, absolutely. But it’s important to note that the people doing the actual nitty-gritty organizing around specific bike lanes/proposals, (i.e., presenting at neighborhood meetings, lobbying the BoS, building support from seniors, pedestrians, etc.) often had the hassle and image of CM thrown back at them. There is and always have been a fluctuating backlash against CM.

Joel Pomerantz: I’d say, if Critical Mass is good for bicycling, it’s mostly because it helps define a culture, which imparts strength to that culture. But that’s not empirical. If it’s bad for bicycling, then there must be a lot of other things hiding in the alleys that are really great for bicycling, because something is making cycling pick up incredible popularity. I guess that’s part of your metrics argument, eh? That’s not empirical, either. More excellent evidence that Mass has helped is that it spreads, keeps changing, and has never been overtaken by aggression — at least not when compared to car driving, which seems to turn calm folks into raging lunatics.

Any thoughts on SFCM at present? Has it outlived its usefulness?

Dave Snyder: Hell no it hasn’t outlived its usefulness. For me, it’s not that fun any more for a variety of reasons, and I think that it needs a bit of a reinvention or rejuvenation to achieve a better role in city life, but it’s still a chance for people to bike in a crowd feeling safe the way they don’t or can’t on the streets typically. And it still gives a glimpse of what the street could be like. But it’s worth pointing out that there are other events like that now that didn’t exist when we started Critical Mass, like Sunday Streets (or Open Streets as folks around the country are trying to rename it). I don’t think it’s that useful to mainstream bicycle advocacy as it was in the mid-90s, but that was never its main reason for existence anyway.

Mary Brown: CM used to be at the center of my social calendar, but for me personally, it got boring. I was having the same experience over and over — a fun, oft-exhilarating experience, but the sameness got to me. And I got sick of the confrontations. When I do go to CM (usually just on Halloween) I’m thrilled to see how many new riders have claimed it as their own. Riders that were in junior high during what I think of as the golden age of Critical Mass. It’s honestly also weird to barely know anyone at Critical Mass, whereas, in the 1990s I knew or recognized a large percentage of riders. Despite its professed lack of organization, back in the day, it was organized by a loose confederation of CMers. A great deal of thought and care went into creating a positive, corked ride with thoughtful missives. Not sure where that’s at today.

If you have evidence, empirical, anecdotal — or chemical for that matter — that argues one way or another on this point, I would love to hear it. Please share your thoughts! Thanks!

Argument 2 Against Critical Mass: I Saw An Incident!

April 29th, 2010 by hughillustration

Critical Mass confrontation

2. I saw an incident on Critical Mass in which cyclists were rude/abusive/violent. This event delegitimates the entire ride in my eyes.

Let me just start this way: this type of behavior is uncalled for, and it should be roundly condemned by everyone. No one should be mistreated or have their property damaged just because they happened to be in a car on the last Friday of the month. Full stop. No excuses.

From my perspective as a long-time participant in Critical Mass, these moments are rare. If you ride on Critical Mass, or simply watch from the sidelines as it goes by, you will see that the vast majority of interactions between the riders and the public are positive. We often see people get out of their cars to cheer us on and dance with the music we have blasting. People lean out of their office and apartment windows to shout encouragement. Tourists and shoppers seem to enjoy the spectacle and are curious about what it’s about. Negative incidents account for a very small percentage of what happens on Critical Mass.

However, it is true that while these problems are rare, they do occur. Tempers are hot in the crowded streets of this dense, diverse city. Even on a normal day in San Francisco, there is a lot of competition for right-of-way on our narrow, congested streets.

On Critical Mass, there have been conflicts. On a few occasions in our 17+ years of existence, bicycles have been crushed by vehicles, and on at least one occasion a car window was smashed. Some of these conflicts were initiated by motorists, some by bicyclists.

Does this mean that everyone on Critical Mass is guilty of being abusive? Clearly not.

As the organizers of sports events well know, any large gathering includes a few anti-social individuals. The larger the group, the more likely that you will have problems with jerks who were not treated well as children and who do not know how to behave in public. Uncivil behavior exists as a small percentage of all groups. (In fact, we bicyclists often notice anti-social — and downright murderous — behavior emanating from people in cars on a regular basis.)

If you want to dismiss Critical Mass for the small number of negative events that have happened in our history, there isn’t much I or anyone else can say to convince you otherwise. But to be consistent, you should distance yourself from sports events, political rallies, Bay to Breakers, Chinese New Year, and every other large scale public event you can imagine.

Alternatively, we might want to think constructively about this problem, since it affects everyone and is apparently endemic to city living.

Critical Mass participants should practice self-management, and that means calling out bad behavior when we see it. Every time I have done so, I have seen the misbehaving person shrink away. As is often noted, bullies are cowards that fear confrontation. I would like to make this point especially to those who may have stopped riding on Critical Mass because they have witnessed things they don’t approve of. Why not stick up for your beliefs and confront behavior you don’t like? Democratic self-governance calls for it!

So, to answer this criticism, I say the following: these problems are A) rare and unrepresentative of the ride as whole, B) blown out of proportion by news media and others, C) inevitable given the size of the event, and D) easily confronted and minimized.

Here’s the rest of the series:
Argument 6: You Don’t Stop for Red Lights
Argument 5: You’ll Spark a Backlash!
Argument 4: Delaying Others is Rude!
Argument 3: You’re Angry!
Argument 2: I Saw An Incident!
Argument 1: Critical Mass Doesn’t Change Anything!

Argument #4 Against Critical Mass: Delaying Others Is Rude!

April 27th, 2010 by hughillustration

20060728_195758
Photo by Tyrell Voight Kampf

This week I am taking what I consider the 6 best and most common arguments against Critical Mass, and giving them each a fair answer — one per day.

Today’s argument: “Delaying Others is Rude!” Thanks for reading and commenting!

4. You are causing people to be delayed. This is rude and uncalled for.

It is true that people are delayed by Critical Mass. Mostly the delay is only a few minutes, and is on par with the traffic problems every other day of the month. But on occasion, especially in the warmer months when our ride gets larger, the delays can be longer.

This is unfortunate, and it is not the intention of most people on Critical Mass to cause anyone unnecessary inconvenience.

But if I can re-frame this problem for a moment, let me just remind you of the sort of delays and inconveniences that bicyclists experience every day of the month.

First, we are delayed by the fact that we ride in the “door zone”, the space between moving cars and parked cars. By riding in the door zone, we will arrive at our destination much later than otherwise, as we are slowed each and every time a car pulls in or out of a parking space, each and every time a driver exits, each and every time a delivery truck double parks.

By riding in the door zone, we are also choosing to accept a risk that a door will open on us, causing a serious wreck that can be deadly. Many motorists don’t know this, but bicyclists are not required by law to ride in the door zone. We are entitled to take the full lane when safety requires it, but we rarely do.

Here’s another example: taking a left turn. As bicyclists, we are entitled by law to merge with traffic in order to turn left on a two-way street. However, this is often too dangerous. So we often wait through one light, cross the road, and then turn to wait with the cross traffic to head the other way. That’s two lights instead of one, all so that you can get where you’re going and so that we won’t risk injury.

Put another way: We risk our lives and accept constant delays as a matter of course in our daily commute, all so that you — the dominant form of traffic — can get where you are going quicker.

One day a month, for only a few hours, we reverse those rules. Thousands of us ride together to see what the city would be like if bikes, rather than cars, were the dominant form of transportation. We do this once a month, and we like what we see. During Critical Mass, we can feel how much better life is, how much better our city is, on these new terms. Suddenly, rather than scurrying around town, afraid for our lives, we can take a leisurely stroll while exploring our city. Suddenly, the air is filled with laughter, conversation and music rather than car horns and exhaust fumes. The daily commute becomes a celebration of life, rather than a deadly and dangerous gamble.

Is this tit-for-tat? Not at all. We know it’s not your fault that our cities are poorly organized. We are not trying to delay motorists as payback for the delays we suffer. We are simply asserting ourselves! We are saying that we are traffic too! And we’re trying to demonstrate, for ourselves and for you, that our form of traffic is actually better — more efficient, more social, more fun, and less dangerous. We’re trying to make our city great.

We know we create delays, and for that we would like to say We’re Sorry! But again, let’s remember that it is only for a few hours each month, always on the last Friday of the month. Why not leave your car at home? Wouldn’t it be great if one day, it became a tradition in our city that most people walk, take public transport, or bike on the last Friday of each month?

We invite you to join us every month to see for yourself!

Here’s the rest of the series:
Argument 6: You Don’t Stop for Red Lights
Argument 5: You’ll Spark a Backlash!
Argument 4: Delaying Others is Rude!
Argument 3: You’re Angry!
Argument 2: I Saw An Incident!
Argument 1: Critical Mass Doesn’t Change Anything!

Argument #5 Against Critical Mass: You’ll Spark a Backlash!

April 26th, 2010 by hughillustration

20100326180445
Photo by Tyrell Voit Kampf

This week I am taking what I consider the 6 best and most common arguments against Critical Mass, and giving them each a fair answer — one per day.

Today’s argument: “You’ll spark a backlash!” Thanks for reading and commenting!

2. Critical Mass is counterproductive. It angers motorists and the general public, who will then be less likely to support bicyclists and bike issues. There will be a backlash.

I first heard this argument from the head of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition — in 1993. He told me that if we continued, the public and city planners would turn against cyclists, and the bicyclist cause would be set back by a generation. Critical Mass will create a backlash!

That is not what happened.

What did happen is that, in the years since Critical Mass began, bicycling has moved from the margins of society to the center. Each year has brought an increase in cyclists in San Francisco, each year has brought more investment in bike lanes and infrastructure generally. The SF Bike Coalition, which in 1992 had only a handful of members and met in the back of a Chinese restaurant, now has over 10,000 members and enjoys real clout with politicians and the city bureaucracy.

More importantly, motorists now largely respect bicyclists as legitimate traffic, which was far from the case when we began our ride in 1992. Back then, the prevailing attitude was that the streets were the province of motorized traffic, and that everyone else was simply borrowing access. And if you were on a bike, you felt this attitude quite clearly. Motorists would honk, yell at you to get off the road or get a car, and they often failed to even acknowledge your presence or your right to the road. (You may experience some of this now, but if you weren’t cycling in the early ’90s, take my word for it: it was much worse.)

So the predicted backlash against cycling issues has never materialized. It appears that, despite Critical Mass, more people are biking, more people support bike-friendly initiatives, more city and state money is being spent on bike infrastructure, and more motorists accept bicyclists as legitimate traffic. So far, there is no evidence — zero — that our monthly ride has had a negative or dampening effect on the rise of bicycling as a mainstream traffic choice.

What is more likely is that our ride made a meaningful contribution to this ongoing shift in our culture and our traffic priorities. But I’ll try to address that in an upcoming post.

Next up: You are causing people to be delayed. This is rude and uncalled for.

Previously: Argument 6: Critical Mass does not stop for red lights.