Archive for March, 2010

Bad Press for Everyone!

March 30th, 2010 by hughillustration

Commenter Peter Smith posted a link to an item on Cyclelicious concerning the awesome San Jose Bike Party. It seems that even if you stop for red lights, eject anyone who acts like a jerk, don’t drink in public, and in all respects carry on like a model minority, you will still be blamed for the traffic woes of your city. From the San Jose Merc:

The bike ride through town snarled traffic, so police rerouted drivers away from N. Santa Cruz Avenue.

“It was terrible,” former Los Gatos resident Emerald Hathaway said. “I couldn’t even get onto N. Santa Cruz. They were riding around all the cars. It was quite a sight.”

Los Gatos Weekly-Times columnist Mary Ann Cook also got stuck in the melee, saying it took a long time to get out of downtown.

Notice that the sight of bicyclists riding easily through motorized gridlock is described as “terrible.” Really? I wonder what word they use to describe traffic the other 30 days of the week?

And then there’s that unpleasant word “snarl.” Journalists always use that one, as if they imagine traffic to be smiling until a nasty gang of cyclists rides by, causing traffic’s upper lip to curl defensively. Well, everyone knows traffic is predictably “snarled” every day as a result of poor city planning that has favored the private automobile for decades now. And we see the results.

Of course, the San Francisco Critical Mass gets this sort of press every month. I’m not bringing it up to disparage the excellent efforts of the San Jose ride. But the point is that you can’t change the rules of the road — even momentarily, even one day a month, even while stopping for red lights — without people blaming you for the very problem you are trying to solve.

Might as well accept the fact that we’re going to be unpopular, and get on with the task of building a genuine public culture, public discussion, public space for everyone!

KGO Radio on Critical Mass

March 6th, 2010 by hughillustration


Photo by Lara Schneider

KGO Radio did an hour on the subject of Critical Mass, and the reports that the SFPD is reviewing its policy concerning the ride (whatever that means). Host Gil Gross let me talk for 10 minutes or so, then opened the phone lines. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the comments from listeners. While several callers disliked Critical Mass, they were all pretty even-handed and they made some good points. And about half the calls were pro-Critical Mass, including great calls from friends Adam & Joel. So that was nice.

Here’s a recording in case you’re curious:

I should say that I’m really ambivalent about doing this type of media work. For one thing, I don’t feel I have the authority to speak for the ride, which is an unorganized, leaderless phenomenon. And I also find that most media don’t have much time to spend on important social questions — gotta get to that commercial break! — so you can’t say much interesting. And then there’s the fact that I often freeze up under pressure.

But in this case, I was inclined to talk to the media for a few reasons. One was that the KGO folks agreed to describe me as simply “a participant,” not an organizer or spokesperson. Another was that they were offering a full 10 minutes to lay out my case, rather than a 2 second soundbite. But the real reason I wanted to do this was to counter the narrative that presents Critical Mass as a conflict between ordinary folks in their cars being attacked by angry anarchists on bikes. With the police reconsidering their polices (whatever that means) and the media trying to whip up a storm against us, it’s more important than ever that we do so.

As I said in the interview, the truth is that Critical Mass is NOT universally hated. What we see when we’re out on the roads is a lot of positive energy and enjoyment of our ride, coming from pedestrians, motorists, tourists, children, bus passengers — all sorts of people cheer us on, honk in support, and even get out of their cars to dance with the music we bring into the streets. I don’t mean to sugar coat things, and it’s true that people are annoyed and delayed by our ride. But we also bring some joy to what is for most people a dull and dreary commute.

I’d be curious to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the pros and cons of speaking to the media! Leave a comment!

Why the Cops Will Not Shut Down Critical Mass

March 2nd, 2010 by hughillustration

Written up for, of all things, no front headlight.

Photo by Rock The Bike

Last Friday’s Critical Mass was like de ja vu all over again. Just like last month, we had rain that cleared up at the last minute. As in January, we had a nice, small, intimate ride. And we also had the pleasure of media presence down at Pee Wee Herman Plaza, though as usual we couldn’t get a journalist to ride with us. (Mainstream journalists, I find, live in fear of getting bicycle grease on their lapels.)

KTVU did get a couple of good soundbites from Critical Massers:

So, the media seem to be quite interested in this question of whether the police might want to stop Critical Mass, to the point that they are wasting air time on hypothetical affirmative answers to hypothetical questions. Well, they’ll have to keep doing hypothetical journalism, because it ain’t going to happen.

The first, most obvious reason is that, as I mentioned previously, they tried it before and it didn’t work. Mayor Willie Brown famously tried to stop the ride in 1997 and ended up blowing Critical Mass up to 5000-7000 riders, rather than the usual 1 or 2000. He backpedaled on that one pretty quick.

But there’s another reason, and it has to with elementary math. Here’s how it works:

The cops like to detain and arrest people in situations where they enjoy overwhelming advantage. Every time you see an arrest happening, you see one guy detained surrounded by what appears to be dozens of guys in blue. That’s just how the SFPD rolls — they like to outnumber their opponents, and who can blame them? I’d probably want the same security in numbers if I had their job.

So let’s say they want to do this thing with Critical Mass. Probably they could cut back and limit themselves to a 5-1 ratio. 5 cops detaining, ticketing, maybe arresting 1 biker. It’s tight, but they could do it.

Well, there are at a minimum 200 people at Critical Mass, and on a warmer evening, easily over 1000. You can see right there that the department just can’t afford the time, the manpower, the expense to even put a dent in a group our size. Add to that the mobility and agility of Critical Mass, and you can see it’s a headache no cop — or no cop interested in stopping real crime — wants to bother with.

The SFPD may be a lot of things, but dumb they are not. They know that Critical Mass has become part of the colorful (and sometimes disruptive) fabric of San Francisco’s social life, and it would take a major initiative to uproot it. Without major funding and major pressure from on high, they won’t bother.

That’s why they’ve tolerated us for so long, and why they’ll likely continue to do so.