SFGate: Wheels of revolution turning toward cheap, friendly transit
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Sunday, August 21, 2005 (SF Chronicle)
Wheels of revolution turning toward cheap, friendly transit
Americans are subjected to a daily catechism extolling the comfort,
status, sex appeal and freedom bestowed on us by the Almighty Automobile.
This prevailing orthodoxy is just beginning to be challenged by local
officeholders across the country, but a grassroots, two-wheeled rebellion
has been brewing in San Francisco for more than a decade. It is
anarchistic, playful and youth oriented, celebrating a level of freedom no
longer delivered by the automobile. And it has spawned a wide range of
creative expression, from bicycle ballet to bicycle rapping.
With minimal support from government, it skims along the borders of urban
life, on a thin sliver of the city's streets, and in nonprofit groups that
nurture an urban bicycling culture. It bursts out in the open once a month
in Critical Mass rides, which have evolved over the past 13 years from a
turf fight with cops and motorists to a celebration, complete with
ear-splitting music and wild costumes, of the collective power of
Like the outsiders who came before -- the "Monkey Block" bohemians of the
'30s, the Beats, the hippies -- San Francisco's bicycling culture thumbs
its nose at mainstream society and middle-class strictures. It trumpets an
anti-consumerist message, reveling in its freedom from what Critical Mass
co- founder Chris Carlsson calls the ball and chain of auto debt and
Like those earlier movements, cycling attracts iconoclasts and free-
thinkers with a natural affinity for the creative arts: Two-wheeled travel
is celebrated in Mona Caron's colorful murals at Duboce and Market streets
and at 15th and Church streets. Bicycle music ranges from the rock 'n'
roll balladry of Victor Veysey ("The Schwinn Cruiser") to the whimsical
rapping of Paul Freedman, a.k.a. Fossil Fool. At irregular intervals, the
haute monde of the bicycling world gathers at undisclosed freeway on-ramps
to view, from above, synchronized bicycle ballet performed on one-speed
"It's about having fun, showing the positive side of cycling," says
Freedman, a 27-year-old rapper whose day job is producing and distributing
bicycle accessories. By night, Freedman is a major presence in the city's
bike party scene, not only rapping but organizing San Francisco's monthly
You can divide San Francisco's bicyclers into roughly two camps: the arts-
and-party crowd -- the bike culture represented by Freedman, Caron and
Veysey -- and the more straight-laced, politically connected camp
represented by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which pushes for bike
lanes and other cycling amenities. There is a good deal of overlap between
the two, but the first group speaks the language of the street poet while
the latter speaks the language of the traffic engineer.
"I have a lot of respect for what the coalition is doing," Freedman says,
"but a lot of their advocacy is based on logic and reason and programmatic
change. That has its place, but in the popular culture it's no match for
the sex appeal of the automobile. What I'm trying to do with my rapping is
to bring in the joyful side of riding a bike and at the same time give it
a little sex appeal."
The arts-and-party crowd was out in force in May at the second anniversary
party of the Bike Kitchen in the Mission District, one of a number of
community outreach operations that offer low-cost, do-it-yourself bike
repair sites for neighborhood youths and anyone who makes a small
The party featured a bike rodeo with youthful cyclists trying to maneuver
bizarrely constructed bikes around a ring of used tires. Some of the
cyclists were precariously perched on raised seats. Others were steering
bikes with push-mower blades instead of front wheels. There was a
Huffy-throwing contest, and pedal-powered rides for kids. Jay Groemmel's
dazzling art bike, a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge on two wheels, was
All in all, it had the feel of an old-time county fair, minus the pie-
The Bike Kitchen is staffed by volunteer mechanics and "aims to make
bicycling accessible to all," according to its mission statement. Much of
that effort is directed toward neighborhood kids, who, after helping out
in the shop and getting some basic training in bike mechanics, are given
old bikes to fix up for their own use. The Kitchen also takes its repair
stands and tools to YMCA youth programs and the Crucible in Oakland, an
industrial arts school. At-risk kids receive training in bike mechanics at
two other San Francisco bike shops, the Bike Hut and Pedal Revolution.
"A lot of this is really about creating communities," Carlsson notes. "In
that sense, the bicycle is just a tool, helping to bridge age, class and
race barriers." And, he adds, it's a natural vehicle for social
interaction on the city's streets.
Compared with motorists, cyclists are visible and accessible. If you see a
friend sitting outdoors at a cafe, for example, you can pull right up and
have a chat. When's the last time you tried that in your SUV?
San Francisco has the potential for becoming one of the leading cycling
cities in the country. Twenty-eight percent of San Francisco households
are carless, according to the 2000 census. The city has a daytime
population of about 1 million, crammed into 49 square miles, giving it one
of the highest urban densities in the country and making it fertile ground
for nurturing bike use. Bicycling accounts for 4 percent of all trips in
the city. Still very low, but both the Bicycle Coalition and the city have
adopted a goal of 10 percent of all trips by 2010, through creation of a
network of bike-friendly routes connecting every neighborhood in the city.
Even the few gains made thus far -- the first bike lanes on Market Street,
the push for bike-friendly policies at City Hall -- have produced visible
results in small but significant ways: A few distinctly buttoned-down,
middle-aged folks now join the young and restless at Critical Mass. It's
not uncommon to see cycling parents with kids in tow in those Market
Street bike lanes. There is free valet bicycle parking at Giants games.
City Hall employees are being encouraged to use city-owned bikes for
Little by little, it seems, bicycling is getting respectable. Even the
city's scruffy messengers have lost their outlaw panache. Gone are the
days when black-clad punks hurtled through red lights and smashed the
windows of offending motorists. Gone too, apparently, are the days of
widespread drug use. Nowadays, with their own fledgling union, the
messengers seem more concerned about pay rates and potholes than the price
The time is coming when bicycling will no longer be a fringe activity.
When the looming oil crisis finally kicks in and gasoline hits $6 a
gallon, every day is going to be Bike to Work Day. What will happen then
to the city's bike culture? Will there be any real need for all that
celebratory propaganda -- the colorful murals, the bike ballet, the Fossil
Fool rants -- when San Francisco starts looking like Amsterdam?
Tim Holt is a longtime cyclist and the author of Songs of the Simple Life,
a collection of essays. Contact us at insight@.... ----------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright 2005 SF Chronicle
| It is anarchistic, playful and youth oriented ...
=v= Nice article, but "youth oriented?" Biker culture in S.F.
(and elsewhere) is remarkably pan-generational. Methinks the
writer made one too many trips to the well of shopworn cliches.
=v= I remember a few years back when a bunch of bikers went to
a S.F. Board of Supervisors meeting, after which one Supervisor
griped about letting "a bunch of twenty-somethings" trying to
make city policy. Most of those bikers were actually in their
mid-30s to mid-50s!
- --- Jym Dyer <jym@...> wrote:
Methinks the writer made one too many trips to the
well of shopworn cliches......
Todd: Yes, I am actually VERY surprised that some of
this made it into an article about San Francisco IN a
San Francisco-based publication... I lived there from
1984 to 1996.. but when one visits SF now you get the
feeling that cycling IS - relatively speaking -
already somewhat mainstreamed, in that many or most of
the commuter cyclists just "ride their bikes" and dont
even bother to join the Bicycle Coaltion, etc.
The whole "freaks vs. bureaucrats" thing is ridiculous
because in fact the energy created in the Critical
Mass and other actitivies gets harnassed by the Bike
Coaltion (SFBC... www.sfbike.org...) and also creates
the environment where it is able to work with the city
to improve infrastructure more easily, etc.
Dave Snyder, the director of SFBC - which had many
effective staff members - during a great part of time
when conditions started to improve due to this Grand
Synergy, told me that the Critical Mass did more to
improve cycling than the SFBC ever did... he was being
honest, but I think also strongly implying that the
SFBC rode - and rides - this wave, rather than moving
in a different current.
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