AUGUST 29, 1997
Who owns the roads? This question is being addressed in the streets of San Francisco, where bicyclists are demonstrating their rights.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, who owns the streets of San Francisco. Bicyclists are making their case in a demonstration this evening. Spencer Michels explains what's going on.
SPENCER MICHELS: Kathleen Haviland is an attorney working in management at a San Francisco social service agency. Ted Strawser works at a banker's association. They both use their bicycles most days to get to work. And they both say the city by favoring the automobile makes life dangerous for bike riders, especially on the level streets they prefer.
KATHLEEN HAVILAND, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition: You have to compete with the cars on those streets because the lanes aren't wide enough. So I'm getting harassed by a maniac driver honking their horn at me because I'm trying to avoid another driver, who's not watching while he opens his door straight into my path of egress. It's really scary.
TED STRAWSER, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition: If this city could just make an attempt, like a lot of other cities have been doing, Seattle and Portland, to include bicycles into the transportation solution, then they could make a few safe routes; people could get where they want to go safely. It would start to attract those cyclists to those safe roads. And then the cyclists would not need to compete with cars on the other roads.
SPENCER MICHELS: Active members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Strawser and Haviland felt frustrated that their concerns were being mostly ignored by the city. So they gladly joined in a massive demonstration of bicycle power. Critical Mass--as the event is called--was for nearly five years small, peaceful monthly rides, part pleasure, but a show of bicycle solidarity. San Francisco police used to even stop auto traffic to let the riders through.
POLICE OFFICER: Stop at this time. Otherwise, you are subject to arrest.
SPENCER MICHELS: But a month ago, on the last Friday of July, right at rush hour, about 5,000 bicyclists sent a strong message to the city.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We'd like to say to the mayor that we have as much right to choose where we want to go on an individual or a group basis as the people in the cars.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I work in the city; I live in the city; I get off at 5:45; and at 6 o'clock I'm riding home any way I want.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Bicycle Coalition took part in but claims it did not organize Critical Mass. In fact, no one organized Critical Mass. During the giant protest ride, meant as a show of bicyclist strength, some cyclists blocked city streets as they rode, delaying cars and buses and ignoring the police. The riders ignited tempers of stranded motorists.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE MOTORIST: I've been stuck all over the place--North Beach--Union Square here--everywhere. I mean, they have to stop this. The whole city's a chaos.
ANOTHER UNIDENTIFIED MALE MOTORIST: They think the mayor is wrong. They're wrong. They're rebels, and they should all be arrested!
SPENCER MICHELS: In fact, 250 were arrested and their bicycles impounded. Mayor Willie Brown had thought he had an agreement with the cyclists to keep things calm. But he was wrong, and he was disgusted.
MAYOR WILLIE BROWN, San Francisco: It was a terrible demonstration of intolerance. I believe that there are a group of people connected with the bicyclists who are basically anarchists, and they don't wish to address any of the issues about bicycles on a rational basis. They really believe they need to basically destroy everything. The vast majority of the bicyclists were not pounding on cars. They were not putting their hands on the hoods and threatening to beat drivers up, or blocking the traffic. It was just a small band of folk.
SPENCER MICHELS: Some bike riders bristled at the mayor's criticism and tactics, especially impounding bikes. Kathleen Haviland dismissed his charge of anarchism.
KATHLEEN HAVILAND: I think that's irrelevant. I think that in a crowd of people you're always going to have troublemakers, just like in crowds of people who drive cars, you have people who run red lights and cut people off; same thing in the bicycling community. You have yahoos who are running through, you know, causing trouble. But the vast majority weren't being confrontative. I think that's kind of a red herring that the mayor's concerned about.
SPENCER MICHELS: According to Ted Strawser, the bad publicity from July's political mass could pay off by more attention being focused on bicycle issues.
TED STRAWSER: The city has got to change its direction. It's got to change its focus, and until it does that, Critical Mass will continue every month, and the bottom line is the city made a mistake when it focused on the symptom, instead of the problem.
SPENCER MICHELS: The problem, as bike enthusiasts see it, is the need for more bicycle lanes where cyclists can be safe. They want public transportation to be more accommodating to bicycles.
The Bicycle Coalition says this train, for example, allows two bikes on board. They pushed for spending some federal highway money to provide bicycle facilities on the theory that more bikes mean fewer cars. Bike groups are lobbying Congress to ensure that those funds remain available as the National Transportation Act comes up for renewal. In defense of their cause they point out that 105 million Americans own bikes and that 5 million use bikes to commute to work, at least occasionally. The bike industry, including clothing and hardware, brings in $5 billion a year, an amount that went up rapidly in the late 80's and early 90's but has now leveled off.
The mayor says he is sympathetic to the aims of bike riders for more bike lanes and bike racks on public buses. And despite Critical Mass and the fact that bikers sometimes make fun of him, he still supports those goals.
MAYOR WILLIE BROWN: Yes, I do support bicycling. I do bicycle myself. I will continue to do that, and I will not let the mere existence of a few persons interested in disrupting this process deter my commitment, my involvement, and my enthusiasm for enhanced bicycle use by the public.
SPENCER MICHELS: That resolve will be put to the test at the next Critical Mass ride and the ones after that. Brown has told bicyclists to get a permit. But since there is no acknowledged leader of the ride, that could be difficult. The mayor is hanging tough and has instructed the San Francisco police not to pave the way for the cyclists and to be sure there is no repeat of the chaos of the July ride.