SAN FRANCISCO — In almost 35 years in public office, fedora-coiffed Willie Brown has grown accustomed to getting his way. From his long stint as Speaker of the California Assembly to his current tenure as mayor of San Francisco, Mr. Brown has ruled through a combination of smooth charm and imperious power.
But now this preeminent practitioner of the art of the deal is being sorely tested - by a lobby in lycra pants and Oakley sunglasses. Critical Mass, a group of bicyclists who owe their inspiration more to Kropotkin than Schwinn, is staging monthly mass rides to demonstrate its claim to the city's streets.
Over the years the event has grown from a few disgruntled cyclists into a tour de force of thousands. Its push for more bike paths and for people to get out of their cars has spread to more than 20 other US cities - in addition to far-off Dublin and Sydney. But perhaps nowhere has the revolt gained more visibility and adherents as in San Francisco, a city where the quirky can become the cosmic and lifestyle is a religious tenet.
Indeed, Critical Mass earned the enmity of city motorists - left snarled in Friday evening
traffic jams by columns of bikers - and set up a political confrontation with Brown, who is known more for driving a Ferrari than riding a bike. When June's ride backed up traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge, the mayor leapt in with his usual threats and an offers to "sit down and deal with the issue."
But last Friday, what seemed like another trademark deal collapsed faster than a punctured tire. An announced agreement to follow a police-escorted route, timed to begin after the commute was largely over, was ignored. While the mayor was addressing the assembled cyclists, thousands of them went off in different directions, bringing traffic to a halt and provoking motorists to blows. At least 250 people were arrested in the fracas.
On Monday, city officials were still fuming. "We thought we had a ... good agreement," said City Supervisor Michael Yaki, the chief negotiator. "We didn't realize how many of them had decided to make this their last stand. Well, it is their last stand."
Some of the anarcho-cyclists saw things quite differently. "Public disobedience works," proclaimed "John Ital" in a broadsheet posted to the Internet later that night. "Obviously we are causing problems for the status quo. But the answer, Mr. Brown and all like minded authoritarians, is not to try and stop us (read your history). The solution is to fix what's broken."
But many bicycle and public transit advocates were dismayed by the discrediting of their cause. "It's not good to get the kind of media attention we're getting," said Allen Greenberg of the Washington-based League of American Bicyclists, which lobbies for federal spending on bicycle use. "But the issues they are raising are right and the concerns they are raising are legitimate and real."
A much smaller group of riders has continued a daily Critical Mass to keep the city's focus on bikers' concerns. These riders, however, have obeyed street lights and caused little trouble.
Bicycle advocates have pushed for wider lanes, bike lanes, bike parking, and safe storage, as well as access to bridges and public transit. A number of cities have done a good job in promoting bicycle usage, such as Portland, Ore., Houston, and Chicago, says Mr. Greenberg. Bikers in San Francisco complain the city has lagged behind.
And some say Friday's chaos hurt this agenda. "The city ought to do more to make bicycle transit viable but the environment to do that has just gotten very difficult," says P.J. Johnston, spokesman for Mayor Brown.
Part of the problem, some say, is that Brown never quite understood the nature of those on the other side of the table. "It was a collision of two worlds," says Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, a bicycle-advocacy group that backed the deal. "There was no one he could make a deal with."
Critical Mass prides itself on being a leaderless group, without even the semblance of an institutional existence other than on the Internet. The rides are called an "organized coincidence," with bikers gathering at 6 p.m. on the last working Friday of the month (other times in other cities). They boast of having a "xerocracy" in which anyone can pass around copies of their ideas for routes and bikers vote on where to go.
Aside from contesting cars for a right to the streets, the political aims of Critical Mass are deliberately vague. "Its lack of formal leaders or agenda has opened it up for everyone to claim it for their own demands and desires," founder Chris Carlsson writes in an Internet-posted history.
In recent years Critical Mass had reached an understanding with the San Francisco police, who provided escort for the rides to minimize problems. But city officials say a substantial minority had a different agenda - chaos and confrontation with drivers. Mr. Carroll, who used to go on the rides, reluctantly agrees: "Now you know why anarchy gets such a bad name."