Kevin Kanarek


It’s like a full moon or a really low tide. It comes once a month and often catches me by surprise: on a Friday night I’ll be heading through the Mission or Market street and see a mass of cyclists and the flashing bike lights. Critical Mass always feels a little like mardigras or the circus passing through town. But even if I’m riding my bike when I see them, it seems I always have somewhere else to go. Or I decide that the crowd looks a little too raucous. And being all raucous like that really doesn’t further a serious cause like transportation alternatives now, does it…

Maybe under that judgment is the wistfulness of the kid with too much homework who wishes he could join in the fun. If I can’t have fun, then having fun must be wrong. Right?

Tonight I landed right in the middle of the surging crowd of cyclists riding up Division St. and just fell in without giving it too much thought. We rode up Valencia to 22nd, then to Mission St., looped back to Valencia and up Market toward the Castro. There must have been 1000 cyclists in a sprawling caravan of tinkling bike bells and blinking red tail lights as far ahead as I could see.

It was an unexpected feeling of solidarity and closeness. There were a few DJ’s with huge speakers on bike trailers booming and I’d find one I liked the sound of and keep pace with it pedaling in time to the beat. When you’re a driver among other drivers, you’re alone in your cacoon of music or silence or your cell phone conversation. If you interact with other drivers it’s often out of anger and righteousness. They disobeyed some rule or did something stupid, so you become irritated and honk at them.

Well, obviously, being in the middle of critical mass feels different from being in a car in a traffic jam. But it’s also different from riding to work on the Folsom St. bike lane from the mission to downtown, which I used to do on a daily basis. I mentioned that to my neighbor and she agreed, then added how when you go a distance along a bike lane, it’s like these little families or tribes that spontaneously cluster then disperse. “You ever notice,” she said, “how there will be like a mom and a dad and then a sister and a little brother, and you’ll be riding along together and it’s like this little family that just assembled itself on the fly. You can imagine everyone’s personality and the role they’d play. And then you get to 4th street and — Woosh! sister goes off to college and then at 2nd St. — Whoosh! mom leaves home without saying goodbye.”

In the transition from small virtual family to large mobile village comes not just stability, but safety. I guess that’s why they call it Critical Mass. I’d never realized that constant note of fear that plays in the background every time I ride my bike on a road shared with cars, fear that a car might run a stop sign or make a turn, the uneven stakes in terms of what it would mean for the car and what it would mean for me. And now that note of fear is gone, and that absence is the most unexpected and exhilarating aspect of the experience.

Most of the people in the cars were smiling or tapping on their horns or waving out the window. But at a few intersections I’d see drivers leaning on the horn, or screaming through their windshield at the cyclists who just kept coming like a parade, regardless of the traffic lights. One well-dressed driver stepped out of a sports car and was ranting at the bikes in front of him. “Look at the light! It’s my light! It’s a green light!”

It was my first ever night of riding with Critical Mass, and already I wanted to stop and and give him a helpful lecture: “Every night of the month, it goes by those rules, except once a month, on the last Friday, the rules change, like carnaval. you know, just to remind us that all invented systems can be changed if we decide to change them.”

Instead of delivering this speech, I kept on going, and saw other riders who seemed more familiar with the sort of thing just surround his car with their bikes and quietly calm him down. That seemed like a better way of diffusing the situation, but as I rode on, I continued my imaginary conversation with the angry driver:

We get to feeling that a car is an essential tool, or even an inalienable right. Anyone who interferes with your car is disrespecting you as well as the rules. But who invented those rules? Who benefits by them? Do cars have rights?

Once in I remember a cab driver complaining to me about the foot traffic in American cities, all the jaywalkers. In his country, he told me in heavily accented English, the cars get more respect. The pedestrians know that if they don’t jump out of the way, they will be killed by the cars.

In your country, he said, there are too many laws against killing the people.

Well, we choose to have a system where hitting people with cars is not cool. We could also have a system where it was easier and safer for people to ride bikes. It’s up to us.

As I put my bike in the garage and walked up the steps of my house, I had a lingering image of the angry drivers, who were kept from their plans by some random, unfair event. I imagined their reaction: “If it’s not a construction crew or an accident, it’s a bunch of freaks on bicycles.”

Maybe in regards to them, Critical Mass doesn’t measure up. To those who are already bicycle believers, it’s an affirming experience. But for those who are dependent on their cars, or who just believe that they are, we probably hadn’t opened their mind to other points of view. More likely that they felt confirmed their sense of their own righteousness — and victimization — in the face of irresponsible and raucous people who had nothing better to do on a Friday night than ride their bikes around, having way too much fun.

Article republished with permission from Sustainable Social Media

Photo Credit: luxomedia via Creative Commons Attribution/Remix license.


This speech was Obama’s first statement on climate change since the election, delivered on November 18, 2008. President-elect Obama unequivocably acknowledges the scientific consensus on climate change, stresses the need for the U.S. to begin working with the world community on these issues, and commits to concrete goals for action.

I first heard about this speech while listening to This American Life episode #372 “The Inauguration Show,” which described the overwhelming response of the audience — delegates from over 50 states, provinces and countries. For those who had been frustrated by the denial and inaction of the previous administration, and also the lack of specifics during Obama’s campaign, these statements were a welcome change:

  • We will establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them an additional 80 percent by 2050.
  • We will invest $15 billion each year to catalyze private-sector efforts to build a clean energy future.

Below is the complete transcript of the speech:

Let me begin by thanking the bipartisan group of U.S. governors who convened this meeting. Few challenges facing America — and the world — are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We’ve seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season.

Climate change and our dependence on foreign oil, if left unaddressed, will continue to weaken our economy and threaten our national security. I know many of you are working to confront this challenge. In particular, I want to commend Governor Sebelius, Governor Doyle, Governor Crist, Governor Blagojevich and your host, Governor Schwarzenegger — all of you have shown true leadership in the fight to combat global warming. And we’ve also seen a number of businesses doing their part by investing in clean energy technologies.

But too often, Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office. My presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process.

That will start with a federal cap and trade system. We will establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them an additional 80 percent by 2050. Further, we will invest $15 billion each year to catalyze private-sector efforts to build a clean energy future. We will invest in solar power, wind power and next-generation biofuels. We will tap nuclear power, while making sure it’s safe. And we will develop clean coal technologies.

This investment will not only help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, making the United States more secure. And it will not only help us bring about a clean energy future, saving our planet. It will also help us transform our industries and steer our country out of this economic crisis by generating five million new green jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced.

But the truth is, the United States cannot meet this challenge alone. Solving this problem will require all of us working together. I understand that your meeting is being attended by government officials from over a dozen countries, including the U.K., Canada and Mexico, Brazil and Chile, Poland and Australia, India and Indonesia. And I look forward to working with all nations to meet this challenge in the coming years.

Let me also say a special word to the delegates from around the world who will gather at Poland next month: your work is vital to the planet. While I won’t be president at the time of your meeting and while the United States has only one president at a time, I’ve asked members of Congress who are attending the conference as observers to report back to me on what they learn there.

And once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change.

Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious.

Stopping climate change won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But I promise you this: When I am president, any governor who’s willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House. Any company that’s willing to invest in clean energy will have an ally in Washington. And any nation that’s willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States of America. Thank you.

On 18 November 2008, US President-elect Barack Obama sent this video message to a summit on global warming hosted in Los Angeles by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.