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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Thousands of commuters in cities across the U. S. ride their bicycles to work each day to avoid the hassles of auto traffic and parking. A few communities have come up with programs to make their cities more bicycle-friendly, and encourage people to get out of their cars, but, in most places, people who use bicycles for transportation do so at their own risk -- on streets designed for and ruled by the automobile. A movement known as Critical Mass is encouraging cyclists around the world to demand safe and equal rights to the roadway. Deirdre Kennedy reports from San Francisco, the city where the effort began.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thousands of commuters in cities across the United States ride their bikes to work every day. Communities like Missoula, Montana; Seattle, Washington; and Portland, Oregon, have come up with programs to make their cities more bicycle-friendly, and encourage people to get out of their cars. But in most places, people who use bicycles for transportation do so at their own risk on streets designed for and ruled by the automobile. A movement known as Critical Mass is encouraging cyclists around the world to demand safe and equal rights to the roadway. Deirdre Kennedy reports from San Francisco, the city where the effort began.

(A police whistle in the midst of a noisy crowd. A man's voice: "Please conduct yourself in an orderly, lawful, and safe fashion tonight. Thank you for your attention." A man shouts, "We want an escort!" Other voices shouting follow.)

KENNEDY: On a balmy Friday evening before Labor Day, nearly 2,000 cyclists pedaled through downtown San Francisco in an event that's become a regular feature of the city's life.

(Cheering, clapping crowds)

KENNEDY: The goal of the ride, known as Critical Mass, is to wake the public up to the number of cyclists who use the roadway every day. It started out about 5 years ago, when a handful of bike commuters decided to ride home together on the last Friday of each month. Many riders say that's the only day in the month they feel safe on city streets.

MAN: It's much more fun to ride in a group. It feels a lot safer. It's like in Holland or Germany, where there's a lot of designated pathways and you just feel like it's okay, you're, you know, 20 bikes riding along is much safer than 1 bike and 20 cars.

WOMAN: Very scary. Every morning I think about it, if I want to take the bike or the bus or walk. And I'm afraid, I always think of the possibility of getting hit.


KENNEDY: This past week, for example, 2 cyclists were struck and killed by delivery vans in separate incidents on busy Market Street. Each year as many as 4 cyclists die in accidents in San Francisco, and 3 dozen are seriously injured. Rallying around safety and other issues, the Critical Mass ride has grown into a major social and political event, attracting about 7,000 cyclists. And this past July, the event turned ugly.

(Sirens. Men yelling: "Shut them off, now!")

KENNEDY: Thousands of cyclists plowed through red lights and clogged up traffic, antagonizing motorists. Some of them got into altercations with drivers, and more than 100 cyclists were arrested.

(People yelling amidst motors)

KENNEDY: Animosity between cyclists and motorists has increased as the city's traffic has become denser. San Francisco has more registered automobiles per capita than any other US city. And every day, nearly half a million vehicles drive in from surrounding suburbs. Added to that, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake forced the city to tear down its seismically weak freeways, forcing thousands of those vehicles onto narrow surface streets. The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that the Bay Area has the sixth worst smog in the country, and it's ordered local agencies to crack down on polluters. Bay Area air quality officials blame the problem on the Bay Area's 5 million cars.

(Traffic sounds; horns)

KENNEDY: During rush hour, traffic crawls down San Francisco's main artery, Market Street, like a slow IV drip. Right now crews are working on digging up streetcar tracks, so pedestrians and cyclists must navigate through a maze of commercial vehicles, buses, railroad tracks, and potholes.


KENNEDY: Accidents here are commonplace. Officer Sherman Ackerson blames many of them on cyclists who disobey traffic laws.

ACKERSON: Sometimes we have bicyclists who go into the pedestrian lanes, sidewalks, they go into crosswalks, and they strike individuals. And of course a bicyclist traveling at a good rate of speed has got a lot of energy and knocks a person down and can easily result in injury. In most cases it's usually the bicyclist at fault.

MARTIN: Saying to a bicyclist today, if you just follow all the traffic laws everything will be fine, every cyclist knows that that's just not the case.

KENNEDY: T.J. Martin is a bike messenger who spends his day trying to get through the traffic quickly.

MARTIN: The laws, the traffic laws as they are set up do not ensure the safety of a cyclist. They basically ignore the fact that bicyclists even exist.

KENNEDY: Cycling advocates would like to see parts of downtown closed off to vehicles. They also want bike racks on buses, safe places to lock up their bikes, showers in businesses, and a bicycle lane along the Bay Bridge.

(People at a gathering, milling)

MAN: Okay, people, I just want to thank you for coming to the San Francisco Bicycling Coalition Voting Party. We appreciate your help...

KENNEDY: Critical Mass has generated increased demand for information from around the world, and spawned rides in cities as far away as Sydney and London. At a recent meeting of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, volunteers folded thousands of copies of their newsletter, The Tubular Times, to send out to new subscribers. SFBC leaders David Snyder and Stephanie Altenmees say they've finally gotten the ear of City Hall.

SNYDER: I think that the politicians understand the urgency of the issue now better than they used to.

ALTENMEES: And if it takes that many people to get, to get the attention of politicians, that's maybe, maybe just getting their attention is one of the best things that it's done. It's not a convenience that just a few people are interested in; it's something that thousands of people and thousands more would want to do, that you want to get on your bike and get somewhere.

POMERANTZ: It isn't just about creating better access for bicycles.

KENNEDY: Joe Pomerantz is one of the Bike Coalition's founding members.

POMERANTZ: The part of it that has to do with the city's commitment is that we really have to start viewing it as part of a transportation issue: how to change the transportation mix so that the city's healthier and more sustainable.

KENNEDY: Bike activists have been working with city officials to push through several new city-sponsored programs. One of them is a fleet of public bicycles.

(Noises on the open street)

These bikes are for San Francisco, for all the citizens of San Francisco who are tired of waiting for a MUNI bus or can't afford a bike or left their bike at home or whatever.

(Cheers from a crowd)

KENNEDY: Cycling advocates hope riders will jump on one of the spray-painted yellow bikes and pedal to their destination, then leave the free bike for the next person. Supervisor Leslie Katz is also working with cycling advocates on a bicycle transportation enhancement plan. If approved, it would expand bike lanes, create special bike parking spaces, and pay city employees to cycle to work. She's already gotten the city to start putting in bike racks on buses and on the streets and install showers in City Hall. But more controversial changes, like closing streets to traffic, could be a long way off.

KATZ: We are working on a master plan for transportation that will be due out some time in 1998, and obviously whatever we come up with has to account for the use of the cars, access to the freeway, but also improved and enhanced public transportation. Some of the improvements may not take place until as far away as 2020.

(Street sounds)

KENNEDY: The city plans to hold an alternative transportation summit some time this fall. But so far, the situation on the street hasn't really changed. Until the next Critical Mass ride, lone cyclists will have to carefully negotiate with motorists and pedestrians for their piece of the streets of San Francisco.

(Crowds, whistles, bicycle horns and bells, and cheers)

KENNEDY: For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy.



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