Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Tim Holt, Rosa Parks, and Critical Mass

(Letter to editor published in the SF Chronicle, Sept. 16, 2007)

Editor:

Tim Holt compares the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights movement with that of Critical Mass. Hard to see what people risking their lives fighting for voting rights have in common with elitists on $3000 bikes who deliberately disrupt traffic to make it hard for working people to get home. In his attempt to elevate this juvenile obstructionism, Holt trivializes a great historical movement.

Regards,
Rob Anderson

Critical Mass turns 15
Tim Holt
SF Chronicle, September 14, 2007

Critical Mass, which will celebrate its 15th anniversary at the end of this month, is a highly subversive activity. Every month "Massers" seize public space for a noncommercial use, while thumbing their nose at the driving engine of our economy. And this in an age when we're consumers before we're citizens or neighbors.

But subversive activities, and the ideas they represent, have a way of working their way into the mainstream. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is calling for a major public policy shift away from the automobile. He envisions a New York City of the future that provides more public spaces for pedestrians, bikeways, parks and plazas. Mayor Bloomberg is following the lead of cutting-edge cities like Bogota, which has already built hundreds of miles of bicycle paths and greenways and replaced one of its downtown avenues with the longest pedestrian thoroughfare in the world.

Paris is distributing thousands of cheap rental bikes throughout the city to lure people out of their cars. Every summer, it closes down a major expressway to create an instant beach and pedestrian walkway.

Closer to home, bikes and slowed-down cars share the road on "bike boulevards" in Berkeley and Palo Alto.

Fifteen years ago, it was generally taken for granted that public streets existed for the efficient movement of motorized vehicles. San Francisco's Critical Mass boldly challenged that assumption. It was from the very first a strictly bottom-up effort, providing what early participant Josh Wilson describes as "a near perfect example of direct democracy and grassroots culture in action."

The early Critical Mass rides embraced the idea that sometimes you have to live your vision by taking direct, and often illegal, action. Rosa Parks proclaimed by a simple illegal act that she was unwilling to live in a society that relegated her to second-class status. Nearly 40 years later, on September 25, 1992, 48 brazen cyclists decided they too were going to ride in the front of the bus. By May of the following year, the ride had grown to roughly 2,000 cyclists.

As another longtime Masser, Anna Sojourner, put it, "We found out the society we want isn't so unobtainable after all."

Critical Mass helps revive the social life of city streets, and in so doing helps restore an important function of the city. The isolation of automobile travel impedes a city from being a city, from fulfilling its traditional role in the interchange of ideas, news and gossip through myriad human encounters. Critical Mass, by replacing the automobile with a more sociable form of transportation, moves us closer to this core function, and to making the city a more vibrant and stimulating place to live.

After 15 years, Critical Mass is part of the city's landscape, a tourist attraction in its own right, with its own set of traditions and practices: resistance to any form of leadership or organized decision-making; strong taboos against any form of commercial promotion; and the very active social and political networking that occurs all along the ride, what another longtime Masser, Joel Pomerantz, calls "the equivalent of a middle-management cocktail party for grassroots activists."

That kind of activism, often with direct participation from dedicated "Massers," has spawned other public space breakthroughs in this city: The Duboce bike boulevard that serves as a gateway into the Lower Haight; Jack Kerouac Alley, which serves as a pedestrian link between North Beach and Chinatown; and the replacement of traffic lanes with bike lanes on Valencia Street.

Local transportation planners refer to this last development as the "Valencia epiphany," the realization that "you can take traffic lanes away and the world doesn't come to an end," according to Tom Radulovich of Livable City, a local nonprofit. On the contrary, businesses are thriving on the 16 blocks of shared street.

The legacy of Critical Mass continues with the soon-to-be-completed Mint Plaza, a broad, greened pedestrian space that's replacing a portion of Jessie Street one short block south of Market Street. Mint Plaza Project Manager Michael Yarne acknowledges his debt to those pioneering cyclists: "Critical Mass called into question how we use our public streets and helped us think differently about how we could use this public resource."

Critical Mass provides a dramatic and high-profile example of something we know instinctively: That it often takes a determined and inspired grassroots effort to push society past the limits of conventional thinking. Critical Mass turned long-accepted traffic priorities upside down, shattered the conventional wisdom of traffic engineers and planners, broke traffic laws with carefree abandon and, in the process, brought new life and energy to San Francisco's streets.

Despite occasional confrontations with motorists, Critical Mass remains an overwhelmingly affirmative event, one that a decade and a half ago acted on the then-radical notion that city streets could have more than one use. Today it celebrates the growing acceptance of that idea.

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