Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Tim Holt, Rosa Parks, and Critical Mass

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


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.


Rob Anderson
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.

Labels: , ,


At 3:16 PM, Anonymous paul c said...

It might be hard for you to see the commonality since your choice of words about critical mass convey a deeply flawed understanding of what it is about. I invite you to participate in critical mass just once to see the positive energy shared amongst participants, the vast majority of whom are everyday riders, San Francisco residents, on their average beater bikes. The positive energy also extends to the law enforcement officers on the ride.

Bicycling in San Francisco (and in most cities in the U.S.) is more unsafe than it should be. Dangerous conditions are caused by neglect of our roadways and bike lanes, poor design of roads and intersections for bike and pedestrian traffic, and dangerous drivers. I do not deny that this gathering is disruptive, but it seeks to demonstrate that bicycle riders are as an important part of street traffic as any other vehicles. It shows that there is a strong contingent of bicyclists in San Francisco who choose this form of transit, and whose concerns should be heard by city hall and drivers on the roadway. Cyclists are at an extreme disadvantage in both of these venues.

I will not argue that this is as important or monumental as the civil rights movement, but this act of civil disobedience demonstrates that many choose an alternative path from the mainstream automobile culture. Bicycling is a healthy, fun, convenient, and environmentally friendly way to get around our city. This group deserves the respect and consideration needed to ensure rider safety.

At 4:39 PM, Blogger Tom Hilton said...

Absolutely right--comparing Critical Mass to the civil rights movement is obscene.

Critical Mass is an event in which people who think the law shouldn't apply to them gather in numbers sufficient to guarantee that it doesn't. It's pure selfish joyriding, and any supposed environmental agenda is 100% rationalization. (What's more, all of the improvements in bicycle safety--which I support--have been achieved in spite of Critical Mass, not because of it.)

At 10:47 PM, Anonymous Terry Z said...

$3000 Bikes? Critical mass is 99% beaters, mine was $300 and I think that's rather pricey for the crowd on average.

But anyway, this Paul dude is right. Rob - you should check it out some time. I'll buy you a beer if you do.

- Terry Z

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comments about biking are very dissapointing and hateful. I'm sorry you feel the need to stoop so low.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

"Hateful" and "low"? How so? Could you be more specific? Interesting too that, like a lot of my pro-bike critics, you make your comment anonymously.

Paul: So Critical Mass is all about "positive energy"? You concede that it's "disruptive" but still seeem to think that the negative of making it harder for commuters to get home from work is a good thing. Hard too to see how angering those who drive and take the bus advances the cause of cycling. Seems like mostly bad PR to me, but don't let me stop you from indulging yourself at the expense of everyone else.

Speaking of expense, I wonder how much it costs city taxpayers for the 40 cops on overtime who "escort" Critical Mass?

Cyclists are not at any disadvantage at all at City Hall, since the mayor and the board of supervisors have given the SFBC everything they've asked for so far---without, however, consulting the city's voters. Maybe you and your politically juvenile pals should put Critical Mass on the ballot as an advisory measure and see how it does with city voters.

At 12:16 PM, Blogger juannie said...

my wife and i are taking my 3 year old son on the halloween critical mass in a little trailer and we will laugh and laugh it's so much fun. critical mass is the absolute best fun you can have on a Friday night. stop by and partake, and stop being a cranky old man for a few hours.

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Yes, I occasionally see cyclists pulling their small children in those little canvas trailers. I saw such a husband and wife team only recently in front of my apartment building, as they cruised through the intersection without stopping at the stop sign, a bit of reckless negligence that shocked even me. It's one thing for you crackpots to put yourselves in danger as you disrupt commuting traffic---and anger motorists---but to put your child in the same danger is simply child endangerment. I may be a "cranky old man," but you are an unfit parent.

At 12:57 PM, Anonymous Michal Migurski said...

Seconding Terry - not many $3K bikes out there from the rides I've participated in. Besides, if you're going to play the class warfare card, what kind of "working people" drive to work in downtown SF? The parking costs alone will buy you a decent bike in a month, so I highly doubt we're talking about janitors and rustic shopkeeps here.

Regarding hateful comments, calling bikes a "recreational accessory ... to a political lifestyle" (as the Chron quoted you today) is a low, cheap shot. I use mine for my SF/OAK commute, which doesn't sound recreational to me. I certainly agree that the Civil Rights / Critical Mass comparison is a bit specious, but what can you do? It's not Tim Holt's fault he's a hack.

I'll be there today riding in the mass, because like a lot of cyclists I agree that the best way to make streets safer for riders is to periodically remind drivers that they're not the only ones on the road, which seems to require getting them to slow the heck down for a few minutes.

(Not commenting anonymously, apparently unlike a lot of your pro-bike critics)

At 1:09 PM, Anonymous Michal Migurski said...

One more thing - bikes ARE commuting traffic. The uniform vehicle code says so, but drivers can't seem to remember.

At 1:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, The leaders of this "progressive city" have given the bicycle (the most efficient and cleanest form of transportation) its just due. They like other leaders in the country (corporate and political) are recognizing the mainstreaming of a serious issue, Our Dirty Air. The math is simple; more bikes and trains and less cars = better air and less asthma.

But you and your injunction threw a wrench in our spokes so to speak. Hopefully, Mayor Bloomberg in N.Y. doesn't face such opposition as you, your attorney, and Judge Busch from his ivory pulpit preventing healtheir living and that is the simple essential we're talking aboout.
The Chronicle painted the right picture of you. That Adequate Review stuff is just a disguise. The 99% part of the plaintiff title is a blatant example of your bias. Your quote in the Chronicle is perfect representation of the real you. I'm sorry you think of the bike as a "recreational accessory." So, you pissed me off again and will get me to act. I'm going to ride my bike (the only thing I've transported myself on for the last 15 years) down to critical mass. Congrats, Rob. You just caused 1 more cyclist to clog the streets ths Friday, uh wait a minute, isn't that what cars do 24/7?

At 1:37 PM, Anonymous jenny said...

Why is it that cyclists think that stop signs do not apply to them??? Why is it since a year of living in the city only ONE cyclist has announced themselves while coming from behind while walking with my child in in the park. I have also seen parents with trailers run stops, you are a moving vehicle, get a f**king clue, obey road signs for your childs sake!

At 1:50 PM, Anonymous Ari K said...

I ride across town to work in the financial district.
I am one less car.
I am one less elbow on the 38.
I am one more parking space available to you.
I give you a better chance at making a light.

My wife tried riding to work, but was scared of a section in fisherman's wharf. You know Rob, that section you sued the city to prevent painting a bike lane on?

So my wife tried the bus, but it's too slow for her. So she drives to work, every day, from out in the avenues to the heart of the financial district, where she parks.

She's one more car ahead of you that makes you miss the light. She's one less parking space available to you, making you circle the block.
She goes to work at 9, and leaves at 5. She is one more car that makes downtown a standstill during commute.

She would rather be on her bike, and she tried, but that one section you sued the city and won, kept my wife in the car.

You really do a service for your fellow drivers. When they are stuck in traffic, circling for parking, and breathing in fumes, they have you to thank.

thanks Rob.

At 2:04 PM, Anonymous Jon L said...


I saw your quote in the Chronicle this morning "Bikes are really nothing more than a recreational accessory - and an accessory to a political lifestyle here in Progressive Land". I hope you weren't misquoted.

I applaud you for contributing to the public forum that makes our democracy work. If you don't mind. I'll make a contribution as well. I ride a bicycle for recreational purposes about once every two weeks. The rest of the time I am on my bike, pedaling to work, running errands or visiting friends.

I agree that it is beyond the pale to impose my political beliefs on drivers while I am riding and that is why I too disagree with the adversarial behavior we have seen in the Critical Mass rides.

My sole concern riding is to be safe, so I obey all rules of the road and I practice my freedom of expression to other riders who brazenly flaunt the most basic traffic laws, by running red lights & stop signs. I'm the guy who yells: "Stop signs are for stoppin" & "Sidewalks are for walkin."

When I began riding, I'll admit that seeing this behavior made me somehow think it was acceptable and I was one of the runners, because I desperately tried to maintain my momentum. (Here's a little secret, its easier to pedal if you maintain speed. And it becomes more tempting to keep that speed the longer you ride & the more tired that your legs get.)

So even though I may wish that I was free to ride without stopping, I have come to accept that I don't live in that world. I read the vehicle code for bicycles, CVC 21202. (I recommend this to everyone.)


The SFPD has a laissez-faire attitude toward bicyclists who violate traffic laws. Cops need to cite bicyclists and Critical Mass would be a great place to start. Civil disobedience has a price and if anyone really believes in the idea that traffic laws should apply to bicyclists should be willing to pay the price that the law imposes. Fight for what you want in the courts. Fight for what you want in the legislature. Being a bully in the street does not make anything better. That's why we have a rule of law.

So here's my other beef. The city was sued to delay implementing the bike plan. Bike lanes let drivers know where I will be on the road. This is safer for the bike rider & less frustrating for the driver. The routes that exist now steer riders onto better suited streets and away from most residential streets. I wish we had railroad right of ways or canal paths in this city like they have in the East Bay. Bike paths could be placed there & completely remove the bike/driver interaction. That's not the city we live in though. So when the environmental impact report comes back, let's get on with developing a sensible network that works for drivers and riders.

FYI, I may be in the ride tonight. I'll be the one riding as close to the right curb as practicible, stopping at all lights and signals, yielding to pedestrians and signalling before all turns and lane changes. The last I rode, the pack lost me after the first mile.

Thanks for listening.

At 3:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I only read as far as the tripe comparison to Rosa Parks. You are an idiot. You ride with idiots. I have never despised a group of people more. Despite the honest and supreme intentions of some, the outlandish, rude and often disgusting behaviour of quite a few riders has left me cold, uncaring and unfeeling for this cause. I too ride a bike and though I've been happy to see some of the changes, the methods to get those changes and the offshoots of some of those methods piss me off no end. Extending peoples bus rides home, harassing women and children in cars, preventing pedestrians (who have rights too) from stepping off the curb while the ever-so-proud hooligans overtake the streets is not my idea of anything good. It's stupid. I hate it. Until you get rid of the a**holes this will never be more in my eyes and I will never join.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Alec said...

Even if you don't ride a bike, be glad that I do. I reduce the pollution you have to breathe; I'm one less hazard to your life; and if I drove my car, you'd face more traffic.

How am I rewarded for my sacrifice? Many rides, I am nearly killed by a car. Sorry to "disrupt" your commute the last friday of every month, but mine is disrupted every day by near death collisions. Critical mass is effective in raising driver awareness. Participating has taught me safer ways to ride, particularly taking a full lane of traffic (as required by law.)

If you like cars so much, why don't you move to L.A., where the city is designed around them? Cities where cars don't move smoothly--like San Francisco--are more compact, and more vibrant. The more the city is designed around cycling, walking, and public transit, the nicer it will be.

Critical massers don't just ride once a month to cause disruption. It's a way of life. And it's lots of fun. You're invited to give it a try.

At 4:04 PM, Anonymous wenk said...

Holt and the other SFBC types always refer to the the "Valencia epiphany," as something wonderful without ever noting what really occurred in the larger, surrounding area.

While work on I-280 was being done for the post-1989 earthquake retrofit cars had to exit the freeway at San Jose Ave. Once in the City the cars would load balance onto Guerrero, Valencia and Mission St.

After Valencia lost two traffic lanes, the number of cars on San Jose increased noticably. A "coalition to save our streets" formed, massing at the intersection of Guerrero and Chavez for a rally. They got two lanes taken out of San Jose Ave and bike lanes put in.

Same number of cars still exited 280, but now more used Mission and two years later dammed if another coalition didn't form and rally at Mission/ Chavez because of all the traffic - traffic that once was spread out between Valencia, Guerrero and Mission.

Now that the Central Freeway ramp is open most of the cars continue on I-280 past the San Jose exit, no longer using it.

These "coalitions" made permanent alterations to the infrastructure in response to a temporary situation - the freeway retrofit. They blocked off Tiffany Ave between 29th and Valencia to keep cars off the street and put in this "pocket park," three scrawny trees and an ugly chunk of concrete with cutouts for bicycles through it.

This is called an "epiphany."

At 9:03 PM, Blogger georoad said...

Ari K: unfortunately, Rob Anderson is actually the one in the bus behind your wife's car. Or walking on the sidewalk. Apparently he does have a driving license as he has referred to driving "friends" cars. With regards to riding- try a no-cost bicycle traffic class where you learn how to ride in SF with or without bike lanes.

I likewise invite Rob Anderson not only to a bicycle traffic class, but a critical mass ride. Perhaps after opening his mind so he could understand that bikes are the best form (for safety, economically, environmentally) of personal transit.

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Catherine Bednarczyk sent this comment to my email address:

"Bikes are really nothing more than a recreational accessory"

Are you serious? Believe it or not, there are people out there who find it unnecessary to use an automobile for their commutes and do NOT consider their mode of transportation as mere accessories. I have no beef with you, I just find it ridiculous that you would make such a comment.

I've saved the little money I have left over after paying my bills, utilities, and overall necessary expenses to purchase a decent, albeit a little rusty, commuter bike because I do not have the necessary means to purchase a form of transportation that costs more than my yearly income. Someday, after school, I will purchase a car, but at the moment my bike is my car and I find it offensive that you made that comment.

Good day,
Catherine Bednarczyk

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Devin Kruse sent this comment to my email address:

re: Bikes are really nothing more than a recreational accessory. I guess until we run out of gas the car luddites will never get it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-luddism


Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe was vilified by motorists for widening sidewalks and replacing car lanes with bike and bus corridors. He's been accused of trying to eradicate the automobile from the French capital. But the new bike scheme has been so successful that his poll numbers are shooting up.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home