Courteous or Critical? Will bicyclists in San Diego ever belong?

A resident of Normal Heights, Marc Hawkins, recently contacted us, wanting Bike San Diego to take a stance on San Diego’s Critical Mass rides. Hawkins’ website, Stop Critical Mass serves as one man’s quest to end Critical Mass rides in San Diego.

In his email, Hawkins begins as follows, “Does ‘Bike San Diego” have a position on the illegal and disruptive bike event called Critical Mass?” This loaded question put us in a difficult position because our contributors and supporters span the spectrum on how they view Critical Mass. Is Critical Mass illegal? After all, it is, at its core, nothing more than group ride consisting of a few hundred cyclists riding on the streets, as a mass, as opposed to the everyday diaspora given how the City of San Diego has been built around the automobile.

As Bike San Diego strives to include all cyclists’ perspectives, I thought it would be much more instructive to look back to the origins of Critical Mass, its role in society today, and whether the ride as a movement has accomplished anything at all. Most importantly, I will address whether Critical Mass serves any purpose in San Diego.

Critical Mass rides can trace its history back to San Francisco in 1992. The 50 minute documentary below, We Are Traffic, serves as a good introduction on how it all began.

Critical Mass, if considered a movement, is certainly infectious based on how far it has spread. Now held in over 300 cities around the globe on the first Friday of every month, it is global. As a movement, it never fails to spark discussion amongst citizens falling all along the transportation spectrum.

Critical Mass in San Diego, began at some point during the last decade, gradually growing to a ride that is by far the most popularly attended ride in the city. On every last Friday of the month, riders from all over San Diego County show up at the big fountain in Balboa Park to ride with a group of people on a ride that has no pre-determined route, led by no one readily identifiable as a ride leader, all over the city. To an outside observer, it is rather remarkable that a ride with this many unknowns can even make a mark or attract the typically cautious San Diegan. Like San Francisco, the ride’s purpose is to demonstrate how unsafe and unwelcome the city’s streets are to cyclists. Most importantly the ride does convey the fact that cyclists are indeed, traffic. Not unlike rush hour’s or game night’s traffic gridlocks caused by automobiles, critical mass does tend to create a smaller version of such a gridlock. It fails only because a bicycle is much more limber than an automobile.

A visitor to San Diego would be hard pressed to find any indication of bicycle friendliness in San Diego. Major east-west and north-south routes in the City of San Diego have no space devoted to cyclists. Most businesses in the city do not provide parking for cyclists. When the city on occasion does decide to implement bike lanes on streets where they would be most beneficial, business owners and residents will show up en masse to protest any such implementation. In a city that has devoted most of its public space to the automobile’s movement and storage, it is no wonder that few ride. But given the city’s good weather, it seems intuitive that more would ride, if given the opportunity. But what prevents them from doing so?

In 2007, the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition wondered exactly that, and decided to survey its members. Members responded eagerly. 75% of the respondents wanted the Coalition to spend its time defending bicyclists’ rights to the road . 72% advocated for more and better bicycle facilities. 47% wanted the legal system to prosecute people who hurt or killed bicyclists.

In San Diego, the bicycle facilities that do exist are few and far in between or located in places too far and in  impractical locations to be useful. The most recent example is the Bayshore Bikeway that had a  ground breaking ceremony. While the Bayshore Bikeway will eventually be a beautiful bikeway, it will primarily be useful to recreational riders because of its location. The recently installed sharrows, while useful, still require cyclists to reject their own natural instinct and judgement and act against it. Riding atop of properly positioned sharrows may result in ultimately getting cyclists to ride with the direction of traffic, but as a bicycle facility they do very little to actually increase ridership.

San Diego’s Regional Transportation Plan does call for increasing ridership, but without a concentrated effort to give the cyclists what they are demanding, real estate, cycling in San Diego will continue to be the domain of a select few. Thus, it is no wonder that cyclists continue to gather on a monthly basis to assert their right to be on the road demanding space that is repeatedly denied to them. But is there hope of such an effort actually accomplishing anything?

One success story worth considering is New York City, a city that once had its own growing Critical Mass. New York sought to solve the Critical Mass problem by having its police arresting cyclists which only added to an increasingly tenuous relationship between the City and its cyclists. This was not unlike San Diego’s own history with its Critical Mass rides.

During the last decade as New York’s Critical Mass began to grow in size and infamy, the New York Police Department sought to address the issue by arresting or ticketing at least 83 cyclists between 2004 and 2006 in an attempt to put an end to the ride. However, the cyclists sued and eventually won nearly $1 million from the City of New York. Arresting the cyclists clearly didn’t seem to be a sustainable solution and thus in 2007, the New York Department of Transportation hired Janette Sadik-Khan as its Commissioner.

Build it and they will come. Photo of new bike lane installed on Park Boulevard in San Diego.

Under Sadik-Khan’s guidance, the city of New York has installed a growing number of bike lanes which has resulted in a 14 percent increase in bicycle commutership during the past year and a 262 percent increase in bicycle commuting since the year 2000. More importantly, the average risk of a serious injury to bicycle riders declined by 72 percent. The maxim, “build it and they will come” certainly seems to be holding true.

Tomorrow, I shall address how other bicycle advocates in the city are hoping to change the perceived negative image put forth by Critical Mass by organizing a Courteous Mass ride. I had an opportunity to speak with Penelope Robles earlier today and will write about her vision and goals in my post tomorrow.