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November 15, 2005

Left Pedal of Bicycle argues with itself

After 10 years of Activism in San Francisco Critical Mass came under some pointed, and well deserved, criticism, and analysis, by a writer for the Left-leaning, self-proclaimed Independent, San Francisco Weekly, in the May 14, 2003 issue:

The long-running pro-bike protest known as Critical Mass is a form of ritual self-abuse that hurts the cause of city cycling.

That's the sub-title of the article by Matt Smith. ;-D

What I'm going to do here is share  parts of this piece, and a published, though probably not well known, response by The Committee for Full Enjoyment at Talk Fast, Ride Slow.

There are links to both where you can read them in full.

For anyone trying to understand Critical Mass these articles are MUST READING.

Matt Smith's marvelous essay crystalizes for me, better than I have been able to so far why, despite a few positives, I think Critical Mass is the wrong way to promote the cause of Bicycling.

The Committee's response shows that the Radical Left just doesn't, or refuses to, get it.

Matt Smith writes:

1. throughout my life, important memories have always included bicycles. And like good thinking people everywhere, I've come to see bicycles as one of the keys to making a better, more peaceful world.

This week is Bike to Work Week in San Francisco. Thursday is Bike to Work Day. There may be no better moment to say the obvious: Isn't it about time this city's bicyclists relegated Critical Mass to the memory bin?

2. Critical Mass is, of course, that monthly festival of traffic-ordinance-breaking that, participants say, will somehow, someday, convince people to give greater rights to bicyclists. A thousand or so bicyclists gather at Market and Embarcadero the last Friday of each month, then ride together through congested streets at rush hour, briefly tying up traffic by blocking intersections.

I've cast my mind back over the six years since the famous Critical Mass demonstration in 1997, when police ran amok and over bicycle protesters. And I can't for the life of me figure out how breaking traffic laws -- which are the only real friend bike riders have when it comes to surviving amid cars -- is supposed to make streets friendlier for bicyclists.

The monthly demonstration infuriates motorists, and most voters in San Francisco, for good or ill, are motorists. It pisses off the police, and police are the only people in San Francisco charged with enforcing laws on the street. It undermines bicyclists' claim for equal rights. (It's hard to ask for equal protection when you're breaking the law without expecting to be punished.) It's made hoodlums of bicyclists, who, in any other city, are considered a wholesome, all-American group.

Mainstream environmentalists routinely denounce their nasty, tree-spiking little brothers in Earth First! AIDS activists publicly distance themselves from radical groups such as ACT UP. What better way to celebrate Bike to Work Week than for bicycle activists to likewise jettison their own nasty, mud-throwing little brothers?

3. There isn't a week of my life when I'm not reminded that bicyclists are regarded as arrogant hoodlums here. It's an attitude I've found in none of the other dozen or so cities where I've lived, and when I ask non-cycling people about this view -- that cyclists are irritating brigands, at best -- sometimes the non-cyclers explain by invoking the drug-inspired bicycle messengers of San Francisco legend. Usually, though, the anti-bikers bring up Critical Mass.

4. Here's my theory: Despite this city's pacifist pretensions, many people live here precisely because San Francisco is a permanent war zone....

Our acrimonious political culture has emerged from a proud tradition of fine-grained participatory democracy and hair-trigger dissent. But the tradition has been accompanied by the myth that squabbling is the best way to advance the commonweal. Plenty of other cities and counties have managed to make themselves bike-friendly without bicyclists making a nuisance of themselves. Here, the bicyclists protest mightily at the end of every month, and manage to set their cause back mightily in the process.

5. It's actually possible to promote bike use without irritating people. Bicycles, after all, are by nature not nearly as irritating as cars or trucks. Bikes never jackknife on freeway ramps; when they run stop signs, they don't kill pedestrians. When bikes suffer mechanical failure, they don't close whole traffic lanes. Bicycles don't generate 5 million deaths per year. Automobiles do.

6. Though bicyclists see the police as their enemy largely thanks to the 1997 crackdown on Critical Mass, hostility between the two groups is not the result of conflicting essential natures. Traffic rules like the ones that make road rage illegal are the most important allies bicyclists have -- regardless of how many bike riders think they should have the right to run stop signs. (On an interesting side note, Chief Alex Fagan's son -- that's right, the famous, fajita-linked one -- is an avid cyclist.)

There's no reason to think the Police Department couldn't be persuaded to do more to make our streets safe. Bike lanes, midlane stencils, and other bicycle-friendly measures should, and probably would, be an easy sell here, but for Critical Mass-generated animosity.

The full piece is here: Critical Masturbation.

All I can say is... WOW! If more people wrote pieces like this one, and more people read them, both cyclists, and non-cyclists the lot of the cyclist would be bettered, and Critical Mass would go from nuisance to irrelevant.

The response, by The Committee for Full Enjoyment, was instructive:

1. During San Francisco's Bike to Work Week as bike activists were working overtime to promote bicycle use in the city, Matt Smith wrote in the SF Weekly that Critical Mass is damaging the bicycle cause...

It would be easy to write off a swipe from the corporate Weekly. The paper is as famous for being a flagship of the alt-weekly chain New Times as for its hostility to activism. Some might consider anything in the paper illegitimate, or just irrelevant.

But it seems a shame to let Matt Smith’s piece disappear into the recycling bin without comment. He has written a reasonable sounding critique — entirely missing the point, but nevertheless making an argument that deserves a worthy riposte.

2. [ About the claim that CM is angering citizens, and cops ]

We’re familiar with these points. We’ve been hearing them since we started this event....

The backlash never materialized. In the 10 plus years that we’ve been riding home together, San Francisco has become vastly more bicycle friendly. There are more bicyclists, more bike lanes, more bike awareness, and issues that cyclists care about are on the agenda for good.

3. To be fair, the SF Bike Coalition, and not Critical Mass, can take the credit for many of the visible changes to bicycle infrastructure around town. The SFBC has worked doggedly over the years to demand changes in public policy, and things have changed for the better to a degree none of us thought possible ten years ago.

But would anyone have listened to the Bike Coalition if Critical Mass had not been putting the issue of biking in the city on the front burner every month? And where would the Bike Coalition have gotten its army of volunteers? Where would its hard working employees have found the enthusiasm to face the city bureaucracy day in and day out?

4. [ On rejecting "Noisy Public Activism" and working within the system instead ]

Needless to say, we reject that unspoken logic by our very presence here at Critical Mass. We know that the creative use of direct action and the patient nurturing of organic social movements has had positive effects throughout history. These ideas and methods have re-shaped the world repeatedly, and we’re happy to be part of a movement putting them to work in our home town.

5. In fact, Smith has made the common error of seeing Critical Mass as a protest, and as a part of what he calls San Francisco’s “acrimonious political culture”. While Smith makes a reasonable plea that people “stop the war” .... he fails to see that Critical Mass has managed to avoid falling into exactly this trap — the trap of divisive, angry, accusatory politics.

6. Critical Mass is not about bicyclists against motorists, or bicyclists against cops. Ultimately, it’s not really about bicycle advocacy, either. It’s about changing life.

When you go to the website of Hugh D'Andrade you must click on the H for a pop-up from which you click on the W to read the full piece excerpted here.

May 30, 2003: Weekly Attacking Critical Mass.

A well reasoned attempt at a defense of the movement.

Oh, and if you STILL think Critical Mass is "Spontanious", and "Leaderless", then this piece puts yet another nail into that particular coffin. ;-D

November 15, 2005 in Critical Mass | Permalink


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Critical Mass is REALLY about snot nosed punks being assholes! I loved it when one of the cocksuckers got run over by a truck! Bet he won't try that again! LOL

Posted by: Bubba | Nov 15, 2005 1:41:53 PM

Some may be assholes, as you say, Bubba but, in no way do I endorse your sentiment about a CMer getting his clock cleaned by a truck.

Regardless of who might have been at fault for the collision it is wrong to wish harm to the cyclist in question.

Posted by: Kiril Kundurazieff | Nov 16, 2005 2:29:16 AM

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