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April 5, 2007
Warfare on the Streets of San Francisco (updated)
One of many reasons I rarely drive across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco is the existence of Critical Mass, a group (that claims it is not an organization) which stages monthly mass bicycle rides through the streets, forcing all other traffic to stop and often behaving extremely obnoxiously. Charmingly, they don't give the public advance warning of their route, announcing it shortly before they begin to ride.
I was once inadvertently caught in one of their rides, and endured not just immobilized traffic, but an unpleasant experience of being passed by hundreds and hundreds of cyclists, some of whom shouted curses at me for daring to drive on their streets, and a few of whom thumped on my car. Raw anonymous hatred is always just a bit scary.
(By the way, my gasoline taxes pay for their streets and highways. Exactly what financial contributions do bicyclists make toward the maintenance of the public rights of way?)
Something along similar lines to my experience, but much worse, happened last Friday to Susan Ferrando and her two young daughters. According to her account in the San Francisco Chronicle:
This is entirely believable to me. Many of these SF cyclists are not exactly full of warm feelings toward families in minivans, and their ride serves as a vent for their hatred of cars.
Some of the Critical Mass people have it differently, though:
Let me specify that I like bicycles. It is wonderful exercise, doesn't pollute, takes up less road space than a vehicle, and doesn't need as much parking space. Bicycles are good. If I didn't live 1000 feet above the Bay on a steep hillside, I would probably ride one a lot. A couple of my close friends do ride bicycles a lot. One of them is a young male living in SF who doesn't even drive a car - the kind of guy who brings his bike on BART when he comes over to the East Bay where I live. By the way, he despises Critical Mass.
My complaint is with the bad attitude way too many bicyclists have toward others. I am certain there are drivers who scare the wits out of them and endanger their lives. But that is no reason to give into a self-righteous fury at all drivers.
Self-righteousness is the most common mental disability of our time, and bicyclists demonstrate more than their share of it. Many do not seem to think that stop signs - or even red lights - apply to them. I really, really do not want to ever collide with a bike. I wish they would help me respect their status as traffic of equal worth (and equal responsibilities).
Gavin Newsom, mayor of SF, is promising to take a close look at the incident. But the fact is that SF city politics consists of palliating various interest groups, and motivating them to turn out to vote for you. There are enough CM people that they will be once again able to prevent any adverse action directed at them by authorities. That is how it works, and that is why so many outlandish groups get their way.
Update: Bookworm posted her thoughts on Critical Mass. I sympathize with her fears when she was twice pregnant that CM would block her access to the hospital. It is precisely the sudden and random nature of their disruptions that make them have such a terrorizing impact.
Hal Call writes:
Believe what you will, but these facts are in evidence:
(1) bicycles are traffic, and thus they are entitled to ride the streets just as cars can;
(2) a bicycle can take up the entire lane of traffic if necessary to ride safely;
(3) Critical Mass does not have a route because it is not an organization. People show up to ride, and they don't have itineraries. This is exactly like you going out for your Sunday drive with no particular place to go in mind.
(4) In short, Critical Mass riders are doing everything car drivers are doing, but doing it on bicycles.
Remember: Bicycles don't block traffic; bicycles ARE traffic. But, you're going to believe what you want to believe. The facts (and the DMV laws) prove otherwise.
Thomas Lifson responds:
I agree with you that bicycles are traffic, and I want them to behave like traffic - obeying the same tarffic laws as vehicles. I am happy to respect bicycles, and ask the same in return. I expect slow moving cars to pull over and let traffic pass (there are laws in California that they must do so when 5 cars are kept in a queue behind them on a highway).
I have, however, experienced many bicyclists who seem to relish obstructing cars. Like discourteous drivers, they deserve censure. When they break the tarffic laws, they deserve citations.
The CM group I saw did not observe the traffic lights and stop signs. They held up all traffic (including any non-CM bicyclists who might be there) with their spontaneous-yet-scheduled group-yet-not-organized activities.
That is hypocrisy in my book. Trying to have it both ways in multiple dimensions.
Update: Bookworm writes:
Regarding Hal Call's contention that critical mass is just "bicycles as ordinary traffic," that's disingenuous. In response to a thoughtful comment left on my critical mass post (the same one to which you linked), I went out looking at critical mass websites and discovered that their goal is to disrupt auto traffic as much as possible, while minimizing the risks to themselves. To this end, they feel justified in blocking traffic, running red lights and creating gridlock. (I included select clips of CM instructions and philosophy in the same post.) The websites all advocate traffic disruption, then assure people that their goal is safety and a reasonable degree of lawfulness. The actual idea, though, whether expressed outright or more coyly, is that CM participants have no intention of following the rules of the road but hope to create an anarchic state of chaos that they, in a miracle of topsy-turvey thinking, believe will incline people more favorably to bicycles as the majority form of transportation.
Bookworm also notes Friday's San Francisco Chronicle fiery editorial condemning Critical Mass. As she says, some sort of breaking point may have been reached.