International Car-Free Day, September 22, is a day that in the Bay Area we don’t normally pay much attention to. But given that the week-long festival celebrating Critical Mass was just beginning, this year we had to do something special. So we went to the middle of the San Francisco bay to have a Car-Free Day Picnic! Yes, it took three van-loads to get us all there with our bicycles, but after a somewhat contradictory and ironic interlude of driving back and forth, the picnic was underway under sunny skies, sheltered from the mounting wind and fog rolling in through the Golden Gate as the afternoon started to wane.
Just the day before, Friday September 21, was International Park(ing) Day, when people take over parking places and turn them into parks for the day. It was well represented along Valencia Street, where a half dozen permanent parklets have replaced parking places during the past couple of years. Park(ing) Day started in San Francisco about six or seven years ago, instigated by the folks at Rebar, and it, like Critical Mass, has spread around the world.
But back to our Car-Free Day Picnic. Our choice of location wasn’t accidental. Recently California’s Transportation bureaucracy (Caltrans) affirmed that they are studying a long-term plan to make bicycle and pedestrian crossing possible, in light of the fact that next year the new east span will open with its separate bike-and-pedestrian lane alongside, allowing people to leave the East Bay and make it as far as the middle of the Bay. From there, to make it all the way across the Bay to San Francisco, you’re basically stuck waiting for a bus that runs every 20 minutes and will only accommodate 2 bicycles per journey. In other words, the Caltrans plan to accommodate bike and pedestrian bridge traffic is a farce! (A fuller argument about Bay Bridge access is appended at the end of this account below.)
We wanted to bicycle back to San Francisco as an act of civil disobedience, not to get arrested, but to physically demonstrate the necessity of access to the Bay Bridge, and to underscore our simple and cheap solution. Go back to the 6-lane configuration that existed from the 1937 bridge opening to 1962, and give the sixth lane to bicycles and pedestrians—all this for a few thousand dollars and a day or two of work, compared to the 10 years and $1 billion estimated by Caltrans for their hair-brained scheme. We came very close to riding the bridge, but due to an unpredictable sequence of events, our plans were thwarted.
As we finished our convivial picnic and mustered our determination to cross the bridge, the word arrived that the California Highway Patrol (CHP) had pulled a car off the bridge and the officer was ticketing them just below our starting point. OK, we would wait. Then it turned out that the motorist was being put in handcuffs, arrested, his passengers evicted from the automobile, and the car was being impounded. More CHP, and a further wait for a tow truck. Finally after 45 minutes it was over and the CHP drove away (or so we thought). Our plan to enter the fast-moving traffic at the Yerba Buena Island entrance was to use a vehicle to block for us, rolling into the right lane with flashers on in a way that we could maneuver ourselves in front of it. Then they would stay behind us as a protective barrier as we would be riding at 10-15 mph while the cars were whizzing by at 45-50 mph.
There were high winds by the time we started our approach to the bridge but our adrenaline was flowing and all 17 of us were ready to make the ride. We rode up the long incline to the ramp that curves down to the beginning of the Bay Bridge’s west span. As we reached the entry point we divided ourselves along right and left and let cars pass us, expecting our support vehicle to appear in seconds.
Two or three long minutes went by without seeing him, and then suddenly there was a CHP vehicle (later we learned it was the same officer that had the arrested driver in the back of his car—why had he returned to the island? A mystery) who upon seeing us boomed out from his PA system: “All you bicyclists MUST NOT ENTER THE BRIDGE! Turn around now!” We felt caught, so we started to circle back to demonstrate compliance. Still our support vehicle had not appeared, but just as we were riding up the ramp, there he was. Now what? Some people wanted to turn around and go for it. Many others had lost their will. More »