As the sun slants through emptying office towers on a Friday evening, most things on wheels are headed out of town.
But on an asphalt strip that used to be a dead zone beneath a now-demolished freeway, George Beale is strapping on skates and tucking his gray hair inside a helmet. "After working all week," says the computer programmer, "it's a great way to let off some steam."
Mr. Beale is joined by about 200 others, who dance, stretch, and socialize as music thumps from a portable stereo. After some desultory rap commentary, leader and disc jockey David Miles reminds fellow travelers of the rules of the road. And then, they're off, a herd of disappearing Day-Glo moving along the waterfront for a 12-mile joy ride that will end back here just before midnight.
Welcome to this city's Friday Night Skate, known among enthusiasts worldwide as one of the coolest in-line skating events on the planet. And now, the same enthusiasm that put this event on the map is pushing San Francisco toward becoming the nation's first major city to incorporate skating as a legitimate form of transportation.
In a city where tourists line up to ride lurching cable cars down steep hills and bicyclists cause street anarchy on a monthly basis, transportation is a charged topic.
The hottest issue right now is a program wending its way through the city's Board of
Supervisors that would legalize skating on certain designated streets. Skaters would be certified and allowed use of most of the city's network of bicycle-friendly roads. The program would also compile safety statistics that would help settle the question of just how safe it is to attach wheels to your feet and merge with traffic.
"This is a pilot program for San Francisco, but also for the country as a whole," says Dave Cooper of the International Inline Skating Association. "They're way ahead of the curve."
"It's part of an overall effort to unclog the streets," says Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who is spearheading the effort. He notes that while it is technically illegal to skate on the streets right now, thousands do it and the number is growing. "We're trying to simply regulate the activity," he says.
It's an exploding activity nationwide. The International Inline Skating Association, a trade group representing skate and equipment manufacturers, says skating has become the 10th most popular recreational activity with 30 million practitioners. "That's more than golf," claims association executive director Gil Clark.
In the vast majority of states, skating laws are archaic, written in an era when skates were toys for children. As a result, street skating is usually illegal. But that's changing. Wisconsin, New York, and New Jersey have all amended state laws to include in-line skating in vehicular codes, which means under certain conditions they can be used on the roads.
Transportation has been a particularly sensitive topic in San Francisco over the past year. Since the early 1990s, bicyclists have taken to the streets on the last Friday of each month in a chaotic demonstration known as Critical Mass. The aim: to demonstrate pedal power over motor power. But last summer the numbers swelled so large that city hall and the police attempted a crackdown. Relations have calmed since then and the city's Parking and Traffic Department will soon hold public hearings on the highly controversial notion of removing some automobile lanes from congested city streets and reserving them for bicyclists.
All that history has made skaters wiser. "We've never been about rebelling, just about the positive side of alternative transportation. We wanted to work within the system," says Paul Pilliteri of the California Outdoor Rollerskating Association (CORA). He's quick to point out that skateboarding is not part of the plan.
The Friday Night Skate began in 1989 when skaters took a fancy to a closed, earthquake-damaged stretch of downtown freeway. Though the freeway span was eventually torn down, skaters continued to congregate in that location and the Friday night event became a ritual, drawing several hundred people on average, and gaining notice worldwide.
But two years ago, police decided to enforce the law, issuing more than 50 tickets on one night. Skating enthusiasts, led by Mr. Miles, went to city hall and pushed for new legislation, only to run into a buzzsaw of opposition from city departments that had not been consulted. Over the past year, CORA has worked closely with affected departments and Supervisor Ammiano to address those concerns. Out of that process, the current one-year pilot project was born.
A spokesman for Mayor Willie Brown says "as a concept, we're not opposed to safe in-line skating, but the mayor wants to see the legislation that emerges and discuss it with the affected departments." The plan should be ready for a final vote in a month.
About 180 miles of city streets are designated as bike routes and the bulk of those would be available for skaters if the legislation is approved. Advocates say most of the city's legendary hills are easily skated around, and where unavoidable, advanced braking technology in skates makes them easily negotiable. The city's compact size has always made it feasible for people to get around on skates, given a little asphalt and the city's legal blessing.