Thursday, April 05, 2007

Political tipping point against the bike people?

Let's tally up the serious public relations hits the Bay Area's bike people have suffered recently: First there was the story about how cyclists on SF's sidewalks were intimidating and injuring pedestrians and; then there was the story about mountain bikers tearing up Marin's watershed and, in the process, intimidating hikers and equestrians; to cap it off, there was the Critical Mass story a few days ago in Matier & Ross's column (complete text of that story is below in italics). All this bad press is long overdue, since the bike people have had a free ride from the local media in spite of a lot of consistently bad street behavior and arrogant political behavior, like trying to push the Bicycle Plan through the political process with no environmental review.

The monthly Critical Mass demo is typical: It's tied to no specific political goal and does nothing but alienate the public. So why do they do it? Don't they understand how it undermines their political support, even here in Progressive Land? My guess is that they do, but until now they calculated that that was a price they had to pay. The SF Bicycle Coalition, which lists Critical Mass on its website calendar, wants to have it both ways; they want to continue to use Critical Mass as a recruiting tool and retain their credibility with the young rads, even as they try to maintain the fiction that they don't endorse Critical Mass (see the listing on their calendar website, accompanied by the weasel-worded disclaimer at the top of the page:

At the very least, the recent Critical Mass fiasco undermines the SFBC's support for Healthy Saturdays, which is a positive development to those of us who think city voters already decisively rejected that idea in 2000. Mayor Newsom is reportedly negotiating with some bike people in search of some kind of compromise on Healthy Saturdays. But that now looks like an increasingly risky strategy for him in the wake of the Critical Mass fiasco, assuming there will be anyone in this year's mayoral race willing to defend the already-expressed will of the people on that issue.

The text of the Matier and Ross column:

It was supposed to be a birthday night out for the kids in San Francisco, but instead turned into a Critical Mass horror show---complete with a pummeled car, a smashed rear window and little children screaming in terror.

The spontaneous Critical Mass bike rides, in which thousands of free-spirited cyclists roam the city, have been a fixture on the last Friday night of the month since the early 1990s. But even bike-weary cops, who have seen their share of traffic disturbances and minor skirmishes, weren't prepared for what happened during the latest exercise of pedal power.

Here's the story:

Susan Ferrando, her husband, their two children and three preteens had come to San Francisco from Redwood City to celebrate the birthday of Ferrando's 11-year-old daughter. They went to Japantown, where they enjoyed shopping and taking in the blooming cherry blossoms.

Things took a turn for the worse at about 9 p.m., when the family was leaving Japantown---just as the party of about 3,000 bikers was winding down its monthly red-lights-be-damned ride through the city.

Suddenly, Ferrando said, her car was surrounded by hundreds of cyclists.

Not being from San Francisco, Ferrando thought she might have inadvertently crossed paths with a bicycle race and couldn't figure out why the police, who she had just passed, hadn't warned her.

Confusion, however, quickly turned to terror, she said, when the swarming cyclists began wildly circling around and then running into the sides of her Toyota van.

Filled with panic, Ferrando said, she started inching forward until coming to a stop at Post and Gough streets, where she was surrounded by bikers on all sides.

A biker in front blocked her as another biker began pounding on the windshield. Another was pounding on her window. Another pounded the other side.

"It seemed like they were using their bikes as weapons," Ferrando said. One of the bikers then threw his bike---shattering the rear window and terrifying the young girls inside.

All the while, Ferrando was screaming, "There are children in this car! There are children in this car!"

She had the presence of mind to dial 911 on her cell phone---and within minutes, the squad of motorcycle cops who were assigned to keep an eye on the ride descended on the scene.

The cyclists were loudly demanding that Ferrando be arrested for hit and run.
According to police, Ferrando had allegedly tapped one of the cyclists' tires.

When the alleged bicycle victim was approached, however, he said he wasn't hurt.He also refused to give his name or any other information.

Then, after a few swear words, the alleged victim took off on his bike while the rest of the crowd continued to yell at both the cops and the van.

Sgt. Ed Callejas---the lead cop on the scene and a veteran of Critical Mass rides since their inception---said he'd never seen anything like it before.

"I've seen the bikes swarm cars, and scratch them as they go by. I've seen guys get out of their cars and start fighting with the bikers, but if you had seen the faces on those little girls in tears," Callejas said. "All I could do was apologize for what they had been through."

The sergeant suggested that Ferrando write a letter to the mayor.

Estimated damage to the car: $5,300.

For Callejas and other cops assigned to the bike ride, Critical Mass has long been a study in contradictions.

For starters, San Francisco is a "green" city, and bike riding is about as green as you can get---yet residents and commuters complain endlessly about getting trapped in the rides.

The city tries to ignore the unplanned rides, but there are always cops on hand to monitor the gatherings, even though any kind of traffic planning is impossible because no route is announced.

And even though the rides are held every month, Critical Mass has no organized leadership -- so no one can be held accountable for the group's actions.

In 1997, then-Mayor Willie Brown tried to control the rides. The result was anarchy and mass arrests.

Since then, the rides have shrunk in size. The city's generally hands-off attitude leaves cops as little more than bystanders.

"We sit there and they just go right through the red lights," Sgt. Callejas said. "What else can we do? Arrest one rider while 500 keep going?

"The only way to control this is through a massive effort by police and the Sheriff's Department," he said.

As for reaction from City Hall, Mayor Gavin Newsom said such acts of violence---if true---"only serve to undermine the worthwhile message of Critical Mass, which is to raise the awareness of bike transportation issues."

The mayor also said that---if the charges are grounded---he expected the attackers to be "punished to the greatest extent of the law." Riiight.

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