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Critical Mass: Passion for a cause or just a bunch of obnoxious bikers?

After getting three parking tickets and two moving violations in the past year, it finally dawned on me that it is darn expensive to drive a car.

With tickets or not, paying for car registration, oil changes, new tires, regular maintenance, and of course, gasoline, adds up. Even my personalized license plate, BENNY*C, which at one point seemed so cool, is now just another $50 burden on my annual registration.

I have always enjoyed bicycling and have had a bike for as long as I can remember. Growing up in suburban San Diego, I often felt cooped up on my boring street in Allied Gardens (no one ever seems to know where Allied Gardens is; it is a safe little suburb off the Waring Road exit of the 8 freeway, just above and between Mission Valley/Mission Gorge).

As a kid, this neighborhood seemed so far away and isolated from the rest of the world and only one city bus route serviced the area. When I was about 13 years old, I figured out that if I rode my bike just over a hill towards College Avenue, it would eventually hit El Cajon Blvd, which seemed like a gateway to the world I was isolated from. From this point on, I biked everywhere: to the beach, the mall, and of course, when I realized I was gay, to Hillcrest.

But then I turned 16. The only thing I wanted to do for my 16th birthday was take my driver’s test – there was nothing I wanted to do or get more than the state’s approval to operate a motor vehicle. I passed on the first try and from then on, my life was all about driving.

I had saved about $1,500 from working as a lifeguard at a local swimming pool, but being under 18, it was in a joint savings account with my mother. Knowing that I desperately wanted a car of my own, she and my (now ex-) stepfather pulled the money out and bought me a not so-fabulous 1984 Chevy Celebrity.

Now this was in 1996, so an ’84 edition was only 12-years old at the time, but it was still a pit of a car. Hating it at first, I eventually made it my own, covering it with “91X” (radio station) stickers and I have been on the road ever since (no worries, though, I have had several new cars since the ’84 Celeb finally gave out on me in 1998).

I’ve driven everywhere. I love driving. I get bored sometimes and take drives. I live in North Park, a very walkable community, and sometimes scratch my head wondering why I drive around the neighborhood so much – sometimes circling around searching for parking, ending up parking one block from the house.

This love affair I have with driving though, costs way too much in gas, and isn’t too kind to the environment, either.

Since I was that 13-year-old kid who found El Cajon Blvd. to be the gateway to the promised land, I have continued biking - just not as frequently as in my pre-car days. There has always been a bike in my garage, since I buy a new one every couple years.

The Saturday after Pride, Ricky said, “Let’s go biking today.”

I didn’t know how we would do that since we only had one bike, so I just decided to buy another bike – I did want a more rugged, off-road bicycle, anyway (so far this has already proved to be one of the best small investments I have ever made).

Now being a “two-bike family,” Ricky and I couldn’t be happier. In just the last two weeks, we have begun biking all over the place, and have declared Hillcrest and North Park to be a “no-driving zone” unless we are going somewhere that requires us to dress-up or have extremely limited time between commitments and need the car.

During dinner on Thursday night with our friends Adrian and John, the monthly “Critical Mass” bike ride was brought up. Adrian is a regular participant and reminded us that the ride, which takes place on the last Friday of each month, would be happening the next evening. Ricky and I had never taken part in the event, but had discussed it every time we had been stuck in traffic behind the mess, cursing the existence of these seemingly rude, overly-aggressive bicyclers.

Critical Mass is a world-wide movement which hopes to encourage more and more people to kick the driving-habit and utilize other forms of transportation, especially the bicycle. The “mass” also stands up for biker’s rights, hoping that automobile drivers will play nice and share the road.

According to the San Diego Critical Mass website the concept began in San Francisco in 1992.

I must admit, I was a bit hesitant about joining in. The group, which sometimes swells to 1,000+ riders, has caused quite a controversy since it started in San Diego a few years ago. There have been numerous confrontations - some turning violent - between “massers” and drivers.

The size of the group will often slow down traffic on city streets for up to 15-20 minutes. Reports have often stated that riders have been rude, aggressive, and “in your face.” The monthly ride particularly affects us Hillcresters as it starts in Balboa Park and often ends up back in Hillcrest, causing a few traffic jams in the gayborhood throughout the evening.

I decided to go through with it, and was joined by Adrian, a group of friends that he regularly bikes with, Ricky, SDPIX photographer Josh Rice, and our friend Franz.

The ride turned out to be one of the most exciting things I had done in a long time, and I am so glad that I gave up a Friday evening be a part of the mass.

While I did witness some bike riders that were a little overly harsh towards our car-wielding friends, most of the bike riders were simply having a fun summer evening riding their bikes with a couple hundred others through beautiful San Diego.

We started at the Balboa Park fountain, headed across the Laurel Street Bridge, headed south on Fourth Avenue towards downtown, went through the Gaslamp Quarter, passed the Convention Center down Harbor, and eventually rode through the Airport Terminals. Along the way, pedestrians cheered us along like we were in a parade, and motorists honked at us to get out of the way.

San Diego Police accompanied the group (this has also been an item of contention for many, as some don’t believe the police should be utilizing resources to accompany such a group – police contend they have no option and are simply keeping the bicyclists and motorists safe).

After the ride, we went out for dinner and drinks, and began telling people about our experience. As Ricky excitedly proclaimed what we had just done, I found myself having to “soften the blow” in many cases, reminding people we were simply doing it so I could have the experience to write this column.

Some small business owners we spoke to were more than angry at the mass – saying they have made their employees late and customers inconvenienced. I also noticed one Facebooker warning people to watch out for the “Critical Massholes” that would be out that evening.

Despite all this negativity towards the experience, I continued to think about the movement wondering if what they are doing is the right thing, or if the group is just a bunch of punks who want to take over the streets for an evening. To this, only history will tell, but it reminded me of other movements I have been involved with – we have had to kick and scream to make a change.

Maybe the Critical Mass’ers simply have to be “in your face” to show people that they can kick the nasty driving habit, and to be a little more conscious of bicyclists and others they have to share the road with. I am certain the battle between the bike-riding mass and the road warriors will continue for sometime, especially in a place like San Diego, where we are a little too in love with our cars.

In the meantime, I plan to ride my bike a little bit more. In fact on Saturday, Ricky needed to borrow my car, so I spent the entire day car-less and it was great. I went shopping, ate, and even went down to cover a protest at the Manchester Grand Hyatt- all on my bike.

I realized I didn’t need my car as often as I thought and really enjoyed the day. Let’s just see if I still feel this way when it gets a bit colder in February, or on those rainy days (I can’t get my hair wet, after all).

Next time you see me on my bike, be nice and share the road with me!

Ben Cartwright is SDGLN's Higher Education & Nonprofit Liaison and has been a campus and community activist in San Diego for over 10-years. His community involvement began as a student at SDSU and from there he launched into a number of other community activities. He has written for a number of local publications including Update, Hillquest, and GLT. Cartwright won the Lambda Archive's 2007 "Community Hero Award"; 2008 Nicky Award for "Outstanding Community Activist"; and a 2009 Nicky Award for "Outstanding Writer/Columnist".