The Cyclists' Uprising

The last thing I remember was turning down the Wiggle with my friend Rich as we headed to the Mission to get some late-night tacos.

I have a vague memory of being lifted into the ambulance with a plastic neck brace. I woke up for a few minutes in the MRI machine in a teary, but weirdly comforted daze, and really regained my consciousness in the hallway of SF General Hospital’s emergency room. When I asked Rich about it later, he told me that I was making a turn over some Muni rails when my bike wheel got caught in the track, and I landed face first onto the pavement and was immediately knocked unconscious.

The thing is, I’m a proud cyclist. I love that I leave my house every morning to soar down the Glen Park hill and into the Mission to the EFF office, already refreshed and awake from my commute. I love that I don’t pay for car insurance or maintenance, and that I can remain blissfully ignorant about the current price of gas. I love that biking was really the thing that first got me to care about exercise after a stupidly lazy Freshman year of college and its unlimited access to university dining halls (which I’d unfortunately taken full advantage of at all hours of the day).

And finally, I love the cycling community. Of course there’re assholes in every mass interest group, but I’ve met so many awesome people and have had tons of pleasant conversations and interactions with cyclists from SF Bike Party to my daily commute. Unlike car drivers, who are isolated into a big metal pod of pricey convenience, bikers are exposed to their total surroundings. That includes the weather and traffic, but it’s also the physical presence of fellow cyclists, who experience the same ol’ scary conditions of the roads as one other. There’s a simple sense of camaraderie that comes of out that, which I’d never experience as a driver growing up in Los Angeles (other than the endless commiserating over freeway traffic, which got old about 15 years ago).

Friday, the night before my accident, was the 20th Anniversary of Critical Mass. Just as expected, it was a huge bike lovefest. By some estimates, there were 10,000 cyclists riding the streets of San Francisco. All kinds of people, riding all sorts of bikes were there to celebrate a movement to take over city streets, and to make them safer for us to be on.

Critical Mass - Broadway Tunnel
SF Critical Mass 20th Anniversary: Bombing down the Broadway tunnel, bass drops from the music exploding out of the glowing bike tree.

I read my friend Parker’s post this past week, questioning whether Critical Mass undermines its purpose of making streets safer and more welcoming for cyclists. His conclusion seemed to be that the point of Critical Mass is to have fun, create a feeling of solidarity among us, and in the course of all of it, piss off drivers and make them hate cyclists by blocking their way and inconveniencing them for an evening. I agree with most of it. What I can’t agree with is that the *point* is to piss off drivers, and that this movement isn’t helping to make progress on our ultimate goal of making cars share the streets.

Every social movement is inherently inconvenient to the status quo. A group with a common interest has to band together to change the way things are, and so for the people who comfortably rely on the existing social structure, it’s gonna be upsetting for some to have to alter their way of living. Everything from the civil rights movement to the reproductive rights movement, there are people who are going to be angry and resentful of change no matter what. So the point of protest is to throw the issue into peoples’ faces. In any given movement, it’s normal for those who feel injustice to continue to silently suffer, to blame themselves, or to accept the current system as is. The problem is the majority is too busy to see or care about what those people are enduring, and won’t give a crap about it until they’re forced to.

I’ve been riding around San Francisco for the last year or so, and I’ve easily had about 4 incidents a month where I was scared I’d get seriously hurt by the conditions around me. It’s the clueless pedestrians, the huge cracks and bumps in the streets, Muni rail tracks, etc… but mostly, it’s the cars. I can honestly say that on several occasions, I could’ve have been killed by drivers if I didn’t ride everyday with my ninja-defenses on. Cars own the the streets, and given the unfortunate reality of Physics, us cyclists are no match for them.

Until my city accommodates cyclists as much as they do cars, there’s work to be done. It’s true that the way to make this happen isn’t to piss off other people-voters whether or not they’re drivers. I don’t even think I need to say how pissed off I am when other cyclists on my group rides slam the front of cars or knock on their windows just because they’re ig’nants who think drivers are the “enemies”. No one’s sympathetic to assholery. But the fact remains that cyclists are a political minority. Our urban infrastructure is built around the use of cars, so roads are inherently hostile to bikes. By the year, the awesome compound benefits of bikes—environmental, health, economic, and geopolitical (less reliance on oil)—are becoming clearer, and that there needs to be more efforts to make cycling appealing to people. Something’s gotta give.

SF Critical Mass 20th Anniversary: Massive crowd gathered at Justin Hermie Plaza

The point of Critical Mass is to be a huge inconvenience for people who take advantage of this structural bias…but just for one night a month. When it rolls through a neighborhood, someone might get stuck in their garage, be late for a date or a dinner, or much worse, not make it somewhere in an emergency. But the long-term consequences for allowing cars to remain the dominant form of independent transportation, especially in a clusterfuck city like San Francisco, is so much more daunting and unsustainable.

On a gut level, I feel bad that I’m making it difficult for people to get around for a night. But on an pragmatic-advocacy level, we have to band together. We have to show up, ride together (hopefully with music), see each others’ faces, and understand that we’re not alone out there, dodging clueless pedestrians, going over those scary Muni rails, and riding near speeding cars with defensive confidence. The most crucial element in a social movement is to have a solid community, so the point of Critical Mass is for cyclists to hang out together and to keep building a stronger one.

I’m slowly recovering from my face dive into the pavement. I got a bad concussion that night, so my concentration is shot and it’s taken me this whole freaking week to finish this blog post. But it hasn’t discouraged me from biking again. Biking has become part of who I am, and when I’m better, I’m hopping right back on. If anything, the accident’s only made me more resolute to ensure that the roads don’t accommodate cyclists as an afterthought, but that our safety becomes an elemental consideration in how we structure and utilize our roads.