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08/01/97- Updated 12:00 AM ET

Radical bikers 'pedal' their influence

SAN FRANCISCO - It's a rare day that a car driver doesn't open his door directly into bicyclist Seth McGinness' path, a disaster so common that bikers call it "getting doored." Drivers scream, honk or gesture wildly. They block him off without a signal or a look.

Ever since McGinnis traded his Volkswagen for a $375, 21-speed bike three years ago, he's suffered abrasions, lacerations and a broken shoulder that put him out of work for two weeks. Battling for the right-of-way has brought a kind of mental stress that McGinnis, a 32-year-old graphic designer, calls "the rage."

"It builds every minute of every ride every day. We have to let it out."

That may partly explain an extraordinary conflict unfolding across the nation as a new breed of bicyclist demands its share of the road. Using a style of bicycle politics known as "Critical Mass," riders in at least two dozen cities are protesting for their rights in mass demonstrations. Riders clog streets, stop traffic and shout at drivers. In its most-explosive battle, 5,000 bikers flooded the streets here a week ago and paralyzed traffic. Hundreds were arrested.

"I have a right to be on these streets, and I fight for my space. You've got to do that to survive," says T.J. Martin, 28, a bicycle courier after he traded shouts with a motorist who ran a yellow light. "You can call me a Critical Mass of one."

These are serious bikers, people who ride to work every day, including some of whom have given up their cars for good. They pedal for business, political, environmental or just-to-be-happy reasons.

No longer content to pedal quietly, they're growing increasingly vocal, clamoring for bike lanes and paths, parking booths and more room on the road. Bicyclists, they contend, have arrived as a national political force, one that will make the bicycle a vital part of this country's transportation structure in the 21st century.

"We're in the pioneer stages of a political movement, and it's developing fast," says Jody Newman, executive director for the 35,000-member League of American Bicyclists. "Almost half the states have formed bicycle associations in the past 10 years. Bicycles are becoming a form of mainstream transportation, which has created serious concerns."

The stakes are high now because more than $175 billion in federal highway money is up for grabs this fall.

The last federal highway bill, passed in 1991, allowed almost $1 billion in highway taxes to be spent on bike and walk paths.

Bicycling advocates want to keep that money coming to make roadways more accommodating, educate motorists and teach bike safety.

Although bicycle associations have been working quietly with city and state transportation departments for years, mass rides have been by far the most-visible expressions of protest. Since San Franciscan bicyclists first gathered in 1993 for Critical Mass rides on the third Friday night of every month, the phenomenon has spread.

Generally, Critical Mass has no formal leadership, so anarchy often reigns. Inevitably, there have been clashes with police. Bicylists in Seattle, Tucson, Austin and Chicago have been arrested. In New York, police have fought Critical Mass by using scooters to surround bicyclists. In Eugene, Ore., this week, authorities promised a crackdown after Critical Mass riders temporarily blocked an ambulance carrying a 4-year-old boy who had been shot in the chest. He recovered.

Although leaders of established bicycling organizations criticize violence, many concede the mass rides have been fruitful.

"Frankly, they've applied pressure for constructive change," says John Kaehny of the 4,500-member Transportation Alternatives in New York. "Let's face it. Activism works."

But activism isn't the only force involved. Evidence suggests that environmental, health and financial considerations have made the bicycle a more-serious alternative for commuters.

About 100 million Americans own bicycles. The National Sporting Goods Association reports that about 53.3 million ride regularly.

And while there are no reliable numbers to show ridership is growing - bicycle organizations estimate a rise of about 2% a year - riders certainly spend more on bicycles than they did a decade ago. Annual sales have risen 57% since 1985.

The implication: Bicyclists today are more serious about it. Six million Americans bike to work. That includes, for the first time in U.S. cycling history, growing numbers of low-income workers. A 1995 Harris poll found that another 21 million would bike to work if conditions were right, meaning if it were safe and they had a place to park.

That's not an outlandish number. Half the national labor force lives within a 30-minute bike ride of work. Almost two-thirds of all automobile trips in this country are five miles or less.

Since the start of this decade, government slowly has been fashioning transportation systems to accommodate bicyclists. The big boost came in 1991, when Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which set aside funds for a variety of programs from bike lanes to bike parking stands. That's the program Congress will hotly debate this fall.

Here in San Francisco, the city approved a $25 million bike plan last year. It included many of the bike lanes and parking facilities that bicyclists said they wanted.

And city bike program manager Peter Tannen spends $2 million a year on bike programs. Still, he's added only seven miles in bike lanes since 1991.

In the most-crowded urban environments, attempts to mainstream bicycling as a transportation alternative have drawn howls from motorists.

That's because they would have to surrender lanes and abide by lower speed limits.

Neither idea has gone over well among motorists in San Francisco, already cramped on a tiny peninsula criss-crossed by narrow streets. To date, this city of 730,000 has only 11 miles of bike lanes compared with 85 in Madison, Wis., which has a population of just 200,000. That explains why San Francisco, already known for its political vigor, has become the mecca of bicycling activism.

The demonstration here last week began as a peaceful ride to clog streets, create frustration and give motorists a taste of what cyclists say they experience each day. But in this mass ride, some threw aside their bikes and jumped on cars. They spit at motorists. They hurled rocks and bottles, according to police. A few threw punches.

In truth, most restrained themselves. But hundreds were arrested, mostly for unlawful assembly. A few were arrested for assault-related offenses. Mayor Willie Brown, who had met with bicyclists the previous week to negotiate a more orderly demonstration, was furious. He vowed an end to Critical Mass, canceled police escorts and promised more arrests next time.

Pledged his spokesman, P.J. Johnston, "The city is not going to allow anything resembling that chaos to occur again in August."

Generally, bicyclists roll their eyes over that one. Many contend the mayor's involvement, and his ultimatums, have inflamed emotions.

Without his interference, they say, last week's uprising never would have happened.

"The mayor needs to stop the hype and address the problem," McGinnis says.

"We had 5,000 out in July, but we have a lot more than 5,000 bicyclists in San Francisco. Critical Mass could get bigger. This is a ground-breaking city, and the mayor better accept that this city will break new ground for bicyclists. It's time to slow down our lives a little."

By Richard Price, USA TODAY

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