Achieving Critical Mass

Why were the streets suddenly filled with slow-moving bicyclists? Until drivers found themselves backed up for blocks and police called to the scene on June 1, only ardent area bicyclists knew that a Critical Mass was coming to downtown Sacramento.

Borrowing an idea that originated in the Bay Area, bike messengers, bicycle advocates and people who just love to ride have organized a series of protests for the first Friday of every month, starting at 5 p.m. at Cesar Chavez Park, to forcefully claim their equal rights to use the streets.

“Sacramento is one of the worst places I’ve ever lived in as far as incompatibility between cars and bikes. The percentage of people who are courteous is almost zero. I’ve had people swerve toward me, yell and honk at me here,” said Rich Maile, an employee of City Bicycle Works who participated in Critical Mass.

“For me, personally, it’s about visibility,” said Mary Maroon, a bike messenger for Capital Mall Couriers. “You’re totally invisible during the workday, so with a thing like Critical Mass, car drivers are forced to recognize you.”

What makes the alliance seem secretive is its lack of an identified figurehead. The only advertisement is by word-of-mouth and some hastily made, photocopied flyers scattered around town with no contact information.

“You won’t get a name from anyone because then the police would have someone to pin it on,” said Maroon.

The recent advent of Critical Mass adds a confrontational new element to the battle Sacramento bicyclists have been waging to improve the conditions for pedaling through the central city, and to tout the energy and air quality benefits of biking.

Previously, the most vocal and visible local bicyclist was Walt Seifert, spokesman for Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, who said his group is “neither for or against Critical Mass.”

SABA promotes the benefits of bicycling by working with government agencies to fund bicycle projects like new bike lanes, trails and parking. Seifert said bicyclists give Sacramento a sense of community, something that cars take away.

“Bicycling puts people out on the street, not encased in … steel cages,” Seifert said. “It puts people face to face.”

What every bicycle advocate seems to agree on is that it would be in Sacramento’s best interests to be more tolerant and open to bicycling as a means of transportation, and to make biking in the central city safer.

“The more urban this place becomes, the more driving is an issue. Traffic is a huge problem, and will only get worse, especially with the new Capitol buildings being built,” said Maile. “[Governor Gray Davis] works six blocks away working on energy decisions, and everyone who works for him drives to work.”