Today is the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass, a movement of bicycle riders who gather to ride through cities on the last Friday of every month, which began in back in 1992. Critical Mass is considered something of a protest against car-dominated city street systems, but San Francisco now boasts the third-highest share of bike commuters among major U.S. cities. In many ways, the event will be a celebration of how far riding has come.
Of course it still has a ways to go. There to remind cyclists just how far will be Em Baker, who is planning to ride some 3,000 miles from San Francisco to Orlando, beginning the day after the Critical Mass anniversary, exploring the safety hazards of biking in the United States. Baker intends to weave the experience into a documentary called "Spoke."
"There's no reason that the U.S. can't have the kind of systems in place in the Netherlands or Denmark, where you're 30 times less likely to be hit by a car," says Baker. "What we're hoping to do is basically change the way that we look at using the road, and hopefully the way we think about building cities in the future, and the way we think about getting ourselves around."
Not exactly a small task, but the 23-year-old Baker believes she has the energy to pull it off. She'll be joined by two other spirited early-twenty-somethings: Nick Navarro, a graphic designer who will produce the film, and Lauren Gardner, a yoga instructor who simply wanted to go along for the 3,000-mile ride. (Really.) The trio has raised more than $11,000 on Kickstarter as of this writing — far surpassing its $8,000 goal.
After leaving San Francisco, the "Spoke" crew will travel down the coast of California, through Los Angeles and San Diego, then cut east along a route that will closely follow the Southern Tier suggested by the Adventure Cycling Association. Baker says their itinerary will include Phoenix, Austin, Baton Rouge, as well as cities in southern Mississippi and Alabama, and conclude the ride in bicycle-unfriendly Florida. The idea is to reach a mixture of places — not just those, like Portland or New York, where alternative transportation is already on the rise.
Along the way the group will speak with experts to discuss infrastructure models that American cities might implement to improve rider safety. They'll also interview people who've had their lives changed, at times tragically, by the hazards of riding. They've already met several times with the family of Joshua Raine Laven, who was killed in a hit-and-run just north of Santa Cruz back in May — doing a tour from Florida to San Francisco, as it happens. (Baker says the news stories have incorrectly spelled his surname "Lavin.")
"We want to highlight that this is 700 people a year," says Baker of the fatality rate. "It makes no sense that we accept this as a fact and don't try to alter the statistic at all."
With "Spoke," Baker and company hope to point out, first and foremost, that when people don't bike because biking is dangerous, that actually makes biking more dangerous. That point is consistent with the latest research. A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health, which we reported about in May, determined that installing bike lanes in New York City did not lead to an increase in accidents, and may actually have decreased the accident rate.
Baker expects the tour itself to last maybe three months and hopes to release the documentary in 2014. The Australia native says she's never been involved in a serious accident with a car ("luckily"), but that riding around places like Melbourne is nearly as dangerous as riding in the United States. A greater inspiration, she says, was the cynical approach toward bicycle safety she's perceived among riders and motorists alike.
"One thing I noticed was this weird combination of acceptance and animosity from the cycling community, where it was this attitude of: well they're going to hit us with their cars anyway, and we're going to hate them," she says. "It didn't make any sense to me. No cyclist wants to be hit by a car. No motorist wants to hit a cyclist. It's a nightmare for both parties and nobody wins. So why does it happen?"
She has 3,000 miles to find an answer.