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Spinning turmoil in S.F.

Motorists fume as hordes of bicyclists jam city streets in free-form rides that draw kudos and condemnation.

August 12, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- The sea of bicyclists surges up this city's Financial District, a boisterous mass of freewheeling humanity, 1,500 riders strong. Pedaling six abreast, they send pedestrians scurrying as rush-hour traffic hits the brakes.

A cable car slows, engulfed by riders who whoop and holler or chat on cellphones. A traffic light goes red, green and red again. Still the bikes keep coming.

As a bystander high-fives passing cyclists, one car in a line of idling motorists lets loose with a long, blaring, impatient horn blast. A tourist snaps a photograph and asks: "Are you protesting global warming?"

"No," one rider shouts back, "we're taking over the streets!"

Some call it a bicycle insurrection against the thoughtless motorists who hog city streets. Others say it's about nothing more than fun.

On the last Friday of each month, the cyclists of Critical Mass embark on an unrehearsed crosstown jaunt that -- for a few hours -- transforms the urban landscape.

When Critical Mass hits the streets, bikes rule. Sometimes with sharp elbows, riders brush aside the cars, trucks and buses that stand in their way. And often, tempers flare.

Bicyclists and drivers get into fights, cyclists slam their locks onto car hoods and police make arrests amid pointed turf battles. A decade ago, former Mayor Willie Brown declared war on the marauding cyclists, whose exploits he dismissed as "the ultimate arrogance."

But Critical Mass stubbornly survived, and even flourished.

Started here in 1992 by a handful of idealists, the free-form events have spread to every continent but Antarctica and to 300 cities worldwide, including Los Angeles.

Next month, the ride celebrates its 15th year. But it still has no leaders, no route plans, no spokespeople.

"How the rides unfold is always a mystery," said Chris Carlsson, a ride co-founder and editor of a book, "Critical Mass: Bicycling's Defiant Celebration."

"They're predictable yet unknowable. People keep coming back to see what will happen."

Critical Mass riders, who refer to themselves as "massers," insist that they're not tying up traffic -- they are the traffic, albeit a two-wheeled variety. Their aim is to force cars to share the road and leave enough room for bike lanes, so cyclists won't have to fear injury and death.

"For 29 days a month, cars call the shots. It's Auto Mass," said Kate McCarthy, a member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. "But for a few hours of one day, we turn the tables. We take the streets back."

The rides develop their own loopy anarchy. One thing is certain: Cyclists gather at 6 p.m. at the foot of Market Street. After that, anything goes. False starts are common as would-be leaders try to lure the group in one direction. No one knows where the ride will go or when, exactly, riders will depart.

There's even a Critical Mass lexicon, with words such as "xerocracy," to describe the way riders record ideas about proposed routes and photocopy them for distribution at the event. A motorist who pushes into a group of cyclists is a "homicidal maniac driver." Aggressive, overly confrontational massers are a "testosterone brigade."

Anger at arrogance

Many criticize the cyclists' holier-than-thou arrogance.

"There's an incredible self-righteousness, like the traffic laws obviously aren't made for them," said blogger Rob Anderson, who has written about the massers. "We're all trapped in our tin cans, while they ride unfettered. They run people out of crosswalks, yelling, 'Get out of our way! We're not burning fossil fuels!' "

Though his predecessor feuded with Critical Mass riders, Mayor Gavin Newsom has extended an olive branch of sorts. Last year, he named the head of the bicycle coalition (which claims independence from Critical Mass but advertises the rides on its website) as a commissioner overseeing the city's powerful Municipal Transportation Agency.

Meanwhile, in the 15 years since Critical Mass began, the number of San Francisco bike commuters has doubled to more than 2% of the population. Bike activists have successfully lobbied for more cycling lanes, bicycle racks on buses and a weekend ban on cars in popular Golden Gate Park. The city charter even guarantees that "bicycling shall be promoted" in any drafting plans for traffic flow and public safety.

"Critical Mass energized the bicycle movement here," said former Berkeley cyclist David Cohen. "It lent a sort of spiritual energy, the idea that we could gather en masse. There were no leaders. We were all leaders."

That's one point of view.

Four years after leaving office, Brown still steams at the mention of Critical Mass. "They're bad for the city," he said. "They disrupt honest people trying to get home from work. That's their whole point."

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