By Paul Lewis, research fellow, Public Policy
Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the San Francisco
Examiner on August 1, 1997
Itís easy to look at the Critical Mass controversy as an overheated conflict
between self-righteous bicyclists and often-aggressive motorists. Certainly,
thereís some of that, and more than enough testosterone and mutual distrust and
disgust to keep this battle going through the summer.
But thereís a more timeless quality to the debate that can be summed up in
two questions that are unresolved elements of American public policy:
What are the streets for?
To whom do they properly belong?
Throughout much of this increasingly suburban nation, the answer seems simple
enough. Streets exist to move motor vehicles. Quickly.
At the metropolitan fringe, pedestrians and bicycles never have plied the
roads in large numbers, and government policy often implicitly treats them as an
Where sidewalks - or, more rarely, bike lanes - exist at all, they are often
sources of more terror than pleasure for walkers and bikers. Road engineers and
city planners have seen these "nonmotorized uses" as obstacles to speedy
Thus, bicyclists must negotiate past storm sewer drains on narrow shoulders
of the road while motorists speed by a few inches away. Pedestrians are required
to push buttons just to get a "walk" sign when the light turns green.
Never mind that improved auto speed and access draw more businesses and
residents, which means more cars and traffic congestion.
As many urban historians have pointed out, streets were not always viewed in
such utilitarian fashion. In photos at the turn of the century, city streets
seem crazily disordered, with pedestrians, vending carts, bicyclists and trolley
cars all coexisting.
Historically, streets have been public spaces - for meetings and speeches,
for children to play, for adults to meet, and for livestock to run. Through
events like parades and street fairs, we still observe these traditions.
It is ironic that San Francisco, one of the nationís more friendly places
toward foot-and-pedal power, should become the site for the uncompromising
warfare of Critical Mass. But in a way, such a public debate could take place in
few American cities.
San Francisco is an anomaly. Almost everywhere else, nonmotorized users lost
the battle long ago. San Francisco is a delight to negotiate by foot. Thatís a
big reason why moving here is a lifestyle choice for many people.
The conflict over Critical Mass is really a conflict over the purposes of
cities and, by extension, their streets. Are cities simply conglomerations of
commerce with streets provided for movement of goods and workers? Or are cities
communities, with streets as public spaces?
American policy has favored the utilitarian approach. San Francisco, with its
narrow streets, high density, and natural amenities, has the necessary elements
for an alternative vision.
As with other areas of policy in The City - how to shape development, how to
help the poor - there always will be conflict over how far to push an approach
that sets San Francisco apart from other cities.
These are not new issues. As the French planner Le Corbusier (Charles-…douard
Jeanneret-Gris) wrote of his beloved Paris in 1924:
"Day by day the fury of the traffic grew. To leave your house meant that once
you had crossed the threshold you were a possible sacrifice to death in the
shape of innumerable motors. I think back 20 years, when I was a student: The
road belonged to us then."