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Collision of Wills in San Francisco

Drivers and anti-car activists brace for an anniversary showdown


SAN FRANCISCO — Cars get no love at this end of California. Take this month: First the toll for crossing the Golden Gate Bridge was nearly doubled, to $5. Then an anti-car Web site had to beg sympathizers to stop gluing "I Kill Children" fliers onto bumpers in the East Bay. Then, as part of its Sept. 11 moment of silence, San Francisco mandated a four-minute blackout of green traffic lights.

And more dings and arrows are coming down the pike this week. On Friday, radical bicyclists will convene here to celebrate a decade of wheeled uprisings on these city streets.

It's the 10th birthday party of Critical Mass, the in-your-face bike movement whose last-Friday-of-the-month mass rides have spread from the Bay Area to displace and hassle motorists worldwide. Thousands of cyclists are expected to gather downtown for the anniversary swarm into afternoon rush-hour traffic.

"Everybody is pretty excited and looking forward to a fun celebration," said Chris Carlsson, a 45-year-old San Francisco graphic artist and Critical Mass co-founder. "Although I don't know how enthused the city is going to be."

Neither does the city, as it turns out. On one hand, demonstrations are a way of life here. On the other, Critical Mass has a history of complicating the city's famously delicate traffic situation; the movement's leaderless, grass-roots structure verges on anarchy, and routes are withheld until the last minute. Even the least eventful rides swamp evening commutes with a surging sea of small Lycra shorts and big plastic helmets and shring-shringing bike bells.

"Three hundred people rode last month, even with Burning Man," said a twentysomething "masser" who complained that the ride made her late to the annual counterculture art rave. This ride, cyclists predict, will be bigger by far, though probably smaller than the headline-making 1997 ride that drew more than 5,000 cyclists and ended in violence. Also, like most things in San Francisco, it has a left-versus-lefter political component. In this case, the Critical Mass anniversary coincides with a separate municipal anti-car action, San Francisco's first Car-Free Day.

Based on a French experiment that caught on in Europe, that event would bar car traffic from part of the city during business hours, encouraging alternative forms of transit. Unlike car-free days in Europe, San Francisco's observance won't really free much of the city from traffic for a full day. At the behest of the affected merchants, it instead will clear only four blocks of Montgomery Street downtown from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.--a compromise that backers say will promote future cooperation and that Critical Mass riders say has made the event pointless.

"If you're going to have a car-free day, it ought to last all day," said Kay Hoskins, a 36-year-old event planner and regular Critical Mass rider. "My guess is that when 2 o'clock rolls around, a bunch of people are going to just stay out there in the street, no matter what the police say. I've talked to people who will be going down there. I might just be one of them."

Such only-in-San-Francisco political theater underscores the city's almost un-Californian ambivalence about cars. If California had an anti-car-culture capital, it would be this city.

About 485,000 motor vehicles a day roll in and out of San Francisco, but they get little of the respect accorded to those in, say, L.A. Populist revolts against freeways--both proposed and existing--date to the 1950s; in the last one, the city voted to do without the Central Freeway, damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The scarcity of real estate--and of political will to build parking garages--has squeezed parking capacity to the point that, at any moment, hundreds of drivers are circling in a vain search for a meter. Front lawns have been paved over by garage-deprived vehicle owners. Cheap tricks have arisen to facilitate the hoarding of curb space, from strategically placed traffic cones and fake "No Parking" signs to the practice of covering fire hydrants with upside-down metal trash cans and then parking next to them as if they weren't there.

Other adaptive behaviors, meanwhile, have stuffed the city with scooters, skaters, skateboards, Italian motorcycles, motorized wheelchairs, Segways and countless other wheeled gizmos. And each has its lobbyists.

Thus, in the last decade, narrow city streets have been narrowed further to triple the space allotted to bike paths. Street signs have been installed, scolding that bicycles have as much right to the road as do cars. Anti-car lobbies have forced the city to extend crossing times at crosswalks and to close chunks of Golden Gate Park to motor vehicles on weekends. A pedestrian campaign against the new Segway has City Hall scrambling even before the storied invention has hit the market. Ridership on public transit is six times the state average. Politicians hoping to get elected make it a point to say nothing nice, ever, about SUVs.

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