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San Francisco has the perfect climate to nourish the flowering of new ideas, and its winds send the seeds of change across the globe. Bicycle culture is no exception, and Critical Mass is just one testament to this.
By Kristen Steele
San Francisco has always welcomed emerging and fringe cultures. The city saw the origin of the Beats in the 1950s, the Hippies in the 1960s, and was a centre of the gay rights movement in the 1970s. San Francisco has the perfect climate to nourish the flowering of new ideas, and its winds send the seeds of change across the globe. Bicycle culture is no exception, and Critical Mass is just one testament to this. The monthly ride in celebration of cycling started here 16 years ago and has since spread to communities across the globe. The ride began with just dozens of cyclists and has grown to a steady showing of thousands. Cycling in the city has more than doubled since.
Even the city’s chilly summers and hilly streets don’t deter the local cyclists. An estimated 120,000 of the city’s roughly 800,000 residents ride a bike. In a recent survey of San Francisco residents, five per cent said the bicycle is their primary method of travel and recent counts by the city have shown that bicycles outnumber cars at peak commute hours on downtown’s Market Street.
Proximity is the pedaller’s privilege in this city. Everything is close by. San Francisco is second only to New York as the densest US city. This makes the bicycle the most energy-efficient way to get around the city, as well as the most time-efficient. Bicycling trips most often are faster than taking the bus or driving.
A bastion of progressivism in the US, San Francisco’s culture of activism and expression is another big reason why cycling has made such strides in the last three decades. Founded in 1970, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) is one of the oldest bicycle advocacy organizations in North America and now has the highest per capita membership of bicycle advocacy organizations in major US cities. At 9,500 members (one in every 78 San Franciscans), the Bike Coalition has been heralded as “one of the most potent political forces in the city” by the San Francisco Chronicle. And advocacy in the surrounding Bay Area is also impressive. The metropolitan area has more biking, walking, and transit advocacy organizations than any other metropolitan area in North America.
The combined power and influence of these coalitions has helped create a region where the connectivity among walking, cycling, and transit, makes it relatively easy to not own a car. Before the SFBC was founded, bikes had limited access to streets and transit. In the 1970s the SFBC won access for bikes on the Golden Gate Bridge and – with the East Bay Bicycle Coalition – won access for bikes on BART trains (the Bay Area’s regional rapid transit system). Today bicycles are allowed on almost all transit vehicles in the Bay Area. Caltrain trains even have dedicated bike cars with places for cyclists to lock or tie up their bikes and go have a seat. Accommodating bikes is now institutionalized with the city’s Transit First Policy, which states, “Decisions regarding the use of limited public street and sidewalk space shall encourage the use of public rights of way by pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit, and shall strive to reduce traffic and improve public health and safety.”
For those who love bikes and biking, the local cycle calendar is full of flavourful events. February brings Love on Wheels, the 1970s-style dating game and party hosted by the SFBC. Easter is the date set for the Bring Your Own Big Wheel Ride down Lombard, San Francisco’s “crookedest street.” In April, local cycling heroes are cheered at the SFBC’s Golden Wheel awards. May’s Bike to Work Day rewards tens of thousands of commuters with coffee, treats, and more at 25 energizer stations throughout the city. In June you can ride with the Bicycle Music Festival and help pedal their human-powered PA system. July entertains with cycling flicks at the Bicycle Film Festival, and with the Tour de Fat’s fire-jumping bike acts, cycling games, a bike parade… and beer! In September, new and inspiring public spaces emerge on PARK(ing) Day – a day where car parking spaces transform into temporary public parks; the Cyclecide crew hosts its Pedal Monster bike rodeo event; and Critical Mass celebrates its birthday.
At other times in the year you can check out the San Francisco Bicycle Ballet, a fascinating display of choreographed cycling, viewed from above and accompanied by marching band-style music. Every Sunday is Car-Free Sunday in Golden Gate Park, and – for half the year – a stretch of the park is closed to cars for Healthy Saturdays. The city’s new Sunday Streets feature biking, skating, yoga, and dancing along four miles of waterfront streets closed to cars. Bike Polo games (with mallets provided) happen every week in Speedway Meadow. You can fix your own bike at the Bike Kitchen. There are also frequent cycling classes, bicycle rides, history tours, and other bicycle events.
The Bike Coalition, Critical Mass, and a thriving bike culture make it impossible for this city to ignore cycling needs. San Francisco has now implemented 201 miles of bike network (the city is only 49 square miles) which includes striping over 40 miles of bike lanes, creating 23 miles of bicycle paths, and posting 82 miles of signed bicycle routes. The city has also painted 1,250 “sharrows” (shared lane markings) on San Francisco’s Streets. The city also has the strongest requirements for indoor bike parking at public events in the country. Any public events that anticipate more than 2,000 people must provide valet bike parking. The San Francisco Giants ballpark even has a permanent bicycle parking station.
A recent lawsuit has halted progress – a downer for cyclists – on implementing the city’s Bike Plan until a complete Environmental Impact Review is performed. Bike lanes bad for the environment? But this lawsuit hasn’t slowed down San Francisco cyclists; in the last year alone, cycling has increased by 30 per cent. The SFBC continues to press the city for more car-free spaces and better pavement quality for bikes, and the city currently has a widespread public education campaign aimed at educating motorists and cyclists on sharing the roadways. The “Coexist” campaign covers city buses, transit shelters, and billboards with messages promoting mutual respect between cyclists and drivers. On top of this, Mayor Gavin Newsom has set a goal for 10 per cent of all trips to be made by bike by 2010.
The pioneering culture that surrounds cycling is the most impressive thing about San Francisco. Two San Franciscans were among those responsible for the advent of mountain biking in neighbouring Marin County. And besides being the birthplace of Critical Mass, San Francisco is also ground zero for Bike Summer, the Bicycle Ballet, and the Bicycle Music Festival. It is rumoured that the first Bike Prom was dreamed up during a 2005 San Francisco Critical Mass. Since then, Bike Proms have emerged in Victoria, BC; Chicago; Washington, DC; Denver, CO; and Lexington, KY. The “sharrow”, the shared lane pavement marker, was first studied and institutionalized on San Francisco streets. Bicycle Magazine was founded in neighbouring Berkeley. And PARK(ing) day was also invented here and has since spread to over 50 cities around the world.
New culture is created through the spread of good ideas. And San Francisco has proven to be a leading exporter of cycling’s seeds of change.