It’s a car-eat-bike world out there. Bicyclists in San Francisco and other cities need only raise their pant legs to prove it.
“Sometimes when I get to work, I say a prayer: ‘Thank God I made it to work in one piece,”’ says legal secretary Chris Coopey, who has a hefty scar on her calf from a losing encounter with a car and has faced everything from insults to a pistol-packing BMW driver who ordered her onto the sidewalk.
Now she and other two-wheelers have found a way to strike back.
They call it Critical Mass, a monthly bike ride that started in the city in 1992 with 40 people and last month drew more than 3,000. Now there are Critical Mass rides worldwide, from Seattle to Sydney, Australia, and Boston to Bergen, Norway.
The goal is to create frustration for motorists and give them a taste of what cyclists say they experience every day.
Nowhere, however, has it been as huge - or as troublesome - as San Francisco.
“Critical Mass has reached critical mass,” Mayor Willie Brown says. “Enough is enough.”
Brown and others say Critical Mass has become a traffic mess. The ride often requires more than 40 police officers to patrol it at a cost to the city of $7,000 a ride.
Initially, the mayor ordered a crackdown on this Friday’s event, threatening to enforce all traffic laws and keep bicyclists off the sidewalk. But he and the bicyclists later worked out a compromise.
The crackdown was an abrupt change in policy for the city, which has had an if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em attitude about Critical Mass (and plenty of other things, too). Police had even allowed the swarm of bikers to run traffic lights to quicken the pace.
But the resulting traffic jams have many motorists in an uproar.
“If they don’t straighten up, I’m against them,” Ulyssies Moore, a limousine company owner, says of the renegade bicyclists.
Police have all but crunched Critical Mass in other cities. In Tucson, Ariz., a few cyclists were arrested two years ago after they dropped their bikes and blocked an intersection.
Earlier this year in Seattle, there were similar arrests. Another ride followed in an attempt to undo the damage.
In San Francisco, one bicyclist characterized Critical Mass as “60 percent recreational riders, 20 percent activists and 20 percent total wackos.”
In a bid for peace with City Hall, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has tried to dispel the notion that the average bicyclist is a lawbreaking freak and has worked with the city to solve problems caused by Critical Mass.
“We’re professionals, students, families, artists, bike messengers - people from all walks of life,” says San Francisco Bicycle Coalition member Kathleen Haviland. She says the goal is to create a community with quieter streets, cleaner air and fewer parking garages.
To that end, the coalition and a few bicyclists agreed on Tuesday to keep their ranks in check, schedule Friday evening’s ride a half-hour later and change the route to avoid conflicts with testy commuters. In exchange, the city agreed to build more bike lanes.
Still, militant riders say those concessions miss the whole point of the event, which is spontaneity - and the element of surprise for motorists.
“Why shouldn’t they get to see what it feels like for us every single day?” Coopey asks.
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