The Revolution Will Not Be Motorized

Gil Scott-Heron‘s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” [listen / info] was right on when it came out – and still is – but I like to think that if he were writing it today, instead of singing “The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat,” Gil might have sang “The revolution will put you in the bicycle seat.” Or something cool and witty about bicycles at any rate.

Bicycles were already a pretty big thing in the Bay Area, and had been for a long time, when I left San Francisco for Europe in 2002 to escape the odious and oppressive atmosphere of post-9/11 Fortress America. While I was gone though, some sort of tipping point seems to have been reached – so many bicyclists, so many bike businesses, so much bike awareness – and bicycle culture became a major, widespread feature of San Francisco life, a player in the San Francisco scene.

In my old stomping grounds in The Mission, Cafe Macondo was replaced by a bar, Gestalt Haus, with double-decker bike racks along one wall inside the bar. (Sadly, these racks were recently removed and Gestalt now seems much more run-of-the-mill – and significantly seems to attract fewer bicyclists.)

Over in NOPA (North of Panhandle – aka the Western Addition),  a newly-opened cafe with a bike store in the back called Mojo was promptly labeled the “best combination since crack and hookers” by San Francisco Magazine, as well as being included in the San Francisco Bay Guardian‘s Best of the Bay list [here].

Back in The Mission, ground zero for the explosion of bike culture in San Francisco, one of the many new bicycle businesses to appear in the last ten years is Pedal Revolution – a non-profit bike shop that in addition to selling and repairing bikes provides employment and job training for at-risk youths. They offer internships in which the kids learn how to assemble and repair bikes and also about business activities like sales and inventory management.  A bit of personal disclosure: I purchased my most recent bike from Pedal Revolution last year – a Surly Long Haul Trucker, which seemed like a good choice for someone who wants a bike as their primary vehicle:

my bicycle

Surly Long Haul Trucker

Pedal Revolution is the only non-profit bike shop around, but it’s not the only progressive/alternative one. Not too far away in The Mission is Box Dog Bikes, a worker-owned collective that bills itself as “a bicycle shop for people who are passionate about bicycles and bicycle riding.” Box Dog is one of the main outlets for IRO single speed and fixed gear bikesfixies – which have been the hip thing to ride in recent years (for people who aren’t old and creaky enough to need those pesky gears).

Box Dog is in illustrious company, joining Missing Link, another worker-owned collective bike shop, located in Berkeley. Having been around for 36 years, Missing Link is one of the oldest worker-owned collective businesses in the Bay Area, and also one of the oldest bike shops of any kind. In addition to having an incredibly knowledgeable and friendly staff, Missing Link offers free classes in bike repair and riding skills, and loaner tools that can be used on projects in the shop. (More personal disclosure: before the Surly, my previous four bicycles all came from Missing Link, and when I got this most recent bike it was a toss-up between the Surly and a Jamis bicycle from Missing Link.)

Box Dog doesn’t offer classes or tools like Missing Link, but nearby in The Mission is a place that does – another contributor to the growth of San Francisco’s more progressive bicycle culture, The Bike Kitchen. This funky, volunteer-run bicycle resource started in 2003 as a cooperative, do-it-yourself bike repair shop, with all the tools and parts you need to fix a bicycle or even build one from scratch, and members and volunteer mechanics are always happy to give advice and answer questions about bike repair.

In addition to their repair facilities, the Bike Kitchen offers a number of classes and programs – including basic tune-up and advanced maintenance classes, and their “digging rights / earn-a-bike program” program which lets you assemble a complete bike from their inventory of used parts with the help of their mechanics. They are also attentive to gender/orientation issues, as one would hope of a progressive group in The Mission, and make a point of welcoming “all women, transfolks, genderqueer folk, femmes, and other people who’ve had gender bias, homophobia, or transphobia keep them away from the wrenches!”

Reflecting their commitment to bicycling – and maybe a bit of looniness as well – when the Bike Kitchen recently relocated to bigger, better quarters, the move was done entirely by bike – in the rain. The soggy move into their smurfy new quarters was covered in an article on and in a series of photos on – a blog of photos documenting San Francisco’s bicycle culture:

Dustin Jensen / SFwiggle

The Wiggle

The “wiggle” in the name of refers to one of the most well-known stretches of the many bike paths that traverse San Francisco – a zig-zag route that runs between Market Street and the Eastern end of Golden Gate Park, avoiding a number of hills and steep grades along the way – basically connecting the residential areas in the Western portion of the City (Upper Haight, Richmond, Sunset, etc.) with the business and commercial areas in the centre and East (SoMa, The Mission, The Castro).

More on “the wiggle”:

Knowledge of special routes like “the wiggle” – particularly ones that avoid The City’s many hills – used to be somewhat confined to the more dedicated of San Francisco’s bicyclists, but with the rapid expansion of The City’s bicycle culture such knowledge has become much more wide-spread, with official signage (as in the picture, above) and through the work of organized rides and advocacy groups like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC).

Founded in 1970 by neighborhood and environmental activists, the SFBC is one of the oldest bicycle advocacy groups in the United States. Some its early victories included “winning bike lanes on upper Market Street, removing the ban on bicycling through the Broadway Tunnel, and gaining access to the Golden Gate Bridge.” SFBC was also instrumental in getting bicycle riders allowed on BART (a regional high-speed transit system), a significant step in making bicycle commutes feasible for many people.

Moribund through the 1980s, SFBC reemerged in 1990, and since then has grown to have a significant role in transportation issues in The City – and more than 10,000 members. Among its recent achievements have been the creation of bicycle lanes on Valencia Street in The Mission and strengthened requirements for bicycle parking facilities. [For a more detailed introduction to SFBC, see the About page on the SFBC website.]

Death Monsters Ahead

Another recent SFBC achievement was the installation of a special bicycle traffic light at one of the most dangerous  intersections for bicyclists in The City, Fell and Masonic, along the bike path running through the Panhandle at the Eastern end of “the wiggle.” The light provides a window for bicyclists to cross Masonic Street, during which time cars are not allowed to turn across the path, the cause of many accidents in the past. Before the installation of this light, bicyclists had been alerted to the intersection’s hazards by stencil art on the bike paths with the warning “Death Monsters Ahead” over the outline of a car. The new traffic-calming signal at Fell and Masonic features a green bicycle when bikes (and pedestrians) can cross without fear of turning traffic. The signal is a first, but San Francisco bicyclists hope to see that glowing green bicycle appearing at other dangerous intersections around the The City. Unfortunately, while the installation of this light was a significant step, it is too often ignored by cars, resulting in a number of serious accidents, and leading to urgent calls for stronger enforcement efforts until drivers get the message [see here and here].

Along with information on routes such as the wiggle, stories and anecdotes about bicycle riding have played an important role in the development of the shared identity that is major factor in the emergence of “bicycle culture.” Unfortunately, in San Francisco (as elsewhere) too many of those stories over the years have been horror stories – about accidents at notorious intersections like Fell and Masonic, bone-breaking encounters with trolley tracks and the like.

Bicycle accidents due to the trolley tracks are common enough that people in San Francisco can be see sporting t-shirts like those “I love whatever” shirts, with a heart symbol replacing the word “love,” featuring in place of the heart an icon of a bike wiping out on tracks – saying, in effect, “I bicycle accident San Francisco.” It sort of sums up the bittersweet love affair of San Francisco’s bicyclists for their city. And comparing scars is a popular ice-breaker when two bicyclists meet. (I always enjoy these exchanges: I have a fractured eye socket and small facial scar from an encounter with trolley tracks on Church Street in San Francisco; a much bigger scar and some metal hardware in my right elbow from another accident elsewhere; and a number of other scars, bits of road rash, etc. from more minor accidents. And stories to go with all those injuries. And I have one of those t-shirts.)

Critical Mass

The monthly “Critical Mass” bike ride has also played an important role in the growth of bicycle culture in The City, as well as generating a whole sub-genre of stories and anecdotes – often having to do with encounters with police and/or irate motorists while on Critical Mass rides. “Critical Mass” is a mostly unstructured bicycle event typically taking place on the last Friday of the month, in which large groups of bicyclists gather at a set time and place and set off on a ride through the city streets.

Critical Mass started in San Francisco in 1992 as a way of drawing attention to how unfriendly, and unsafe, the city was for its cyclists. Banding together in large groups allowed bicyclists to travel safely in areas and along streets that were normally fairly perilous or difficult for solitary cyclists, such as through San Francisco’s Financial District or tourist areas or along particularly busy streets at rush hour.

Critical Mass bike rides have become a global phenomenon, and are now held regularly in more than 300 cities around the world, and have been the subject of at least one book. They have also been the subject of police crackdowns, to a greater or lesser extent at various times and in various places, as the Critical Mass rides often take advantage of their superior numbers to ignore traffic rules with impugnity, and express their indignation about motor vehicle activities  – like ignoring, cutting off and hitting bicyclists – by trapping cars in a wave of bicycles and slowing or stopping the evening commute.

For more information on the Critical Mass idea, and Critical Mass rides around the world, see the unofficial Critical Mass webpage; as a movement and idea rather than an organization, there is no organization behind Critical Mass with an official webpage to consult.

Bike Messengers

Over the years, spots downtown where The City’s bike messengers congregate have proved popular stops and staging points for Critical Mass rides, and a frequent post-ride destination for the Critical Mass crowd has been Zeitgeist, a bar in The Mission that is a major unofficial watering hole for bike messengers and their ilk. As with Critical Mass, bicycle messengers played an important part in the formation of a bicycle culture in San Francisco that was initially pretty hip and edgy, and also militant and somewhat exclusive, but which has since grown to be more inclusive and widespread.

And also as with Critical Mass, San Francisco has played a key role in the development of bike messenger services. Although there have been bicycle couriers pretty much as long as there have been bicycles, the bike messenger business as it exists today in the United States (and perhaps other developed Western nations) really seems to have gotten its start with Sparkies, the first all-bicycle courier company, founded by Carl Sparks in San Francisco in 1945 [here and here].

Bike messengers have played important roles in the evolution of San Francisco’s bike culture in a number of ways: in personal style, the clothes and tattoos; the militancy of Critical Mass and bicyclists here more generally – including contentious activities like “kryptoing” (taking out the side windows of transgressing cars with a Kryptonite bike lock); the popularity of various kinds of bicycle equipment and particular styles of bikes, such as fixies (fixed-gear or fixed-wheel bicycles); and so on.

San Francisco’s bike messengers have been immortalized in print and on film – in, for example, William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties, whose protagonist is a bike messenger and which is set on a post-earthquake Bay Bridge now squatted by the kind of people who currently are reside in The Mission; and less edgily in the 1986 film, “Quicksilver,” in which Kevin Bacon plays a failed stockbroker (yikes!) who gets a job as a bike messenger in The City.

More on the bike messenger scene:

Bicycling: A Quiet Statement against Oil Wars – and Global Warming

Of course, it isn’t the new bicycle businesses or the enduring coolness of The City’s bike messengers that have made “bicycle culture” such a vibrant force in San Francisco, though they’ve certainly helped. The big change that has caused bicycle culture to move out of the fringes is the rapid growth in the number of bicycle riders in The City.

In the past decade, the number of people biking for transportation – as opposed to just recreational riding – has doubled. And in recent years this already rapid growth in bicycling has accelerated. In its “State of Cycling” report [available here], the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) notes that  “[over] the past several years the number of people bicycling in San Francisco has surged.” The report provides numbers to back this up:

a 14 percent increase in overall bicycle ridership from 2006 to 2007, a 24 percent increase in overall bicycle ridership from 2007 to 2008 and a 43 percent increase in overall bicycle ridership from 2006 to 2008.

The 2008 “State of Cycling” report drew on a variety of sources and techniques – including “counts” at dozens of locations around the city and qualitative surveys – to produce a fairly comprehensive overview of bicycle riding in San Francisco, addressing such things as gender distribution of bicyclists, comparisons of downtown and non-downtown ridership, rates of unsafe riding practices, and so on.

One of the most interesting and important statistics to come out of the “State of Cycling” investigations was not on how many people in San Francisco ride, but on why:

Bicycling rates in San Francisco are distinct from national trends. While nearly a third of bicycle trips are for leisure or exercise, the majority of bicycle trips in the City are for utilitarian purposes, particularly commuting to work and school and shopping…. This is notably different from national trends, which indicate that 52 percent of bicycle trips are recreational and only five percent are school or work-commute related. Bicycling in San Francisco is clearly a viable means of everyday transportation as evidenced by the number of people who are successfully using their bicycle to get to work and school and to shop.

One reason for this very high rate of “utilitarian” bicycling would appear to be concern over global warming, and over the role of oil in the Iraq War. Green values and anti-war sentiments are of course – somewhat notoriously – particularly high in the San Francisco Bay Area as compared to the rest of the country, and bicycle riding has emerged as a viable action people can take around these issues: “A Quiet Statement against Oil Wars” – and global warming. yellow_oil-war-sign_sm2 Of course, while there is broad agreement about bicycling as a way of combating car culture and the oil addiction that is seen as one of the factors leading to the Iraq War, as well as causing global warming, not everyone wants to be so polite or quiet about it… yellow_nofuckyou3314

That humor, militancy, and commitment to bicycling as a genuine alternative – to cars, to business as usual, to the destruction of the planet – are all a part of San Francisco’s flowering bicycle culture. For a lot of regular bicyclists old and new, of course, the issues are more prosaic – fitness, cost, San Francisco’s nightmare parking problems – but among many of The City’s riders, in places like The Bike Kitchen and Missing Link, in the murals around Church and Market [here and here], on Critical Mass rides and Bike to Work Day, or just commuting through the wiggle, you can see something powerful beginning to take shape, a living-out of the idea that “another world is possible” – and that we will probably get there, in part, by pedaling.


Further Info and Resources

More on San Francisco bicycling, and bicycle culture generally:


3 responses to “The Revolution Will Not Be Motorized

  1. oh my god! That’s a hell of a job! what an essay! thanks for compiling the info and links!
    I knew SF has always been ahead in the fight and counter-culture actions but this is huge! Massive bike culture out there! JEALOUS NOW!
    Congratulations if you are somehow part of it!


  2. This is a great post, thanks so much! It’s starting to be really fun to ride around SF, especially since I don’t have to go up Harrison during rush hour anymore. More work to be done but we’re getting there. I just posted a little photo essay about Amsterdam, it’s my vision for a future SF!


  3. Awesome blog very informitive! I like it!


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