A Brief History of San Francisco Critical Mass

(I figured some of you would enjoy this.  Originally posted as "A Lost Decade for San Francisco’s Critical Mass?" at SF Streetsblog – DN)

xJuly07_Lombard_0032.jpgCritical Mass rolls down Lombard Street, July 2007. Photo by Chris Carlsson

Well,
no. We’ve had a great run in the 2000s. Averaging between 750 and 3000
riders on any given month, the birthplace of Critical Mass keeps going
strong, in spite of the total lack of promotion or organizing during
this past decade. But many of us long-time riders have been dismayed to
see the persistence of silly, aggressive, and counter-productive
behavior that makes the Critical Mass experience worse for our natural
allies on buses, on foot, and even folks in cars who might join us in
the future. Not to mention that it makes it worse for us cyclists too,
to the point that many former regulars have stopped riding. Part of the
frustration for us long-time riders is that we went through all these
issues quite intensively back in the early-to-mid 1990s, and to see
them cropping up again is a harsh reminder that we’ve done a piss-poor
job of transmitting the culture, the lessons learned, from one
generation to the next. Plenty of current Critical Massers were under 5
years old when we started it, and the ride’s culture has been more
loudly and consistently transmitted by distorted representations in the
mass media than it has by those of us who put our hearts and souls into
it for years.

To address this, a few of us launched a new blog dedicated to San Francisco Critical Mass.

Online for only a couple of months, it has already reprinted a well-digested list of “do’s and don’t’s”, and a rumination from a long-time former Masser on the hard work it takes to keep a space like Critical Mass open and inviting and pleasurable, as well as a look at the Budapest, Hungary Critical Mass and an always provocative look at bike helmets.
It’s a moderated blog with a limited number of contributors, but it’s
open to a wide range of comments including some markedly negative ones,
while it also seeks to keep the discussion constructive and insightful.

xbudapest_21.jpgCritical Mass, Budapest, Hungary. (Photographer unknown)

When
Critical Mass began in late 1992, over two dozen individuals spent a
lot of time thinking and talking about this new experience, and the
culture that was emerging with it. Part of those discussions involved
how to spread the idea to other cyclists, and eventually to other
cities. That led to a publication in those pre-World Wide Web days that
was called “How to Make a Critical Mass", which went far and wide and probably had a bigger effect than we ever dreamed.

june_1996_howard_street_west.jpgJune 1996, Critical Mass heads west on Howard Street at 4th. (photo: Chris C.)

During a bit longer than the first two years, some of us published a monthly newsletter called “Critical Mass Missives,”
but after April 1995 we ceased and more or less stopped being a “secret
cabal” behind the tone and etiquette of the ride in San Francisco.
Critical Mass was growing very large by then, reaching well over 1,000
riders, and by mid-summer 1996 the ride was drawing several thousand
riders. Already in 1995 several of us early instigators had grown bored
with the ride, feeling that it had lost some of its early vibrancy. The
political space we had so jealously fought for and guarded seemed to
wither away all by itself as hundreds and thousands of new riders
joined in.

During late 1995-early 1996 one guy tried pretty
hard to “take over” Critical Mass, doggedly printing hundreds of
posters, promoting long rides that stretched out to the far western
edges of the city, even inaugurating what became for a few years an
“annual ride to Sausalito.” His preference for elaborate routes that
went to hills and ridges all over the city, and required endurance and
sometimes speed to keep up, seemed to many of us regulars to be an
unwelcome departure from the convivial purposes of Critical Mass. It
wasn’t meant to be a road race, an endurance test, or a contest to see
who could ride the furthest or climb the most hills. It was supposed to
be a place where we met once a month on bikes and “road home together,”
enjoying a leisurely pace through town conducive to conversation,
political and philosophical discussion, and meeting new people, usually
ending in a park or a bar.

Happily, a newer group of riders
coalesced with the purpose of overthrowing this lone nut’s temporary
reign over Critical Mass route planning. Alternative routes began to
appear. A concerted effort was made to steer the ride back to a
friendlier and more celebratory experience, and redirect the emphasis
towards the social and away from the athletic. This effort was largely
successful and a series of rides with a rediscovered joie de vivre
took place over the 1996-97 months, leading to the infamous
confrontation engineered by then-Mayor Willie Brown in July 1997. (See
Ted White’s documentary “We Are Traffic!"
for a good account of it.) The following month saw thousands returning
to ride in the “Good Soldier Schweik” ride, where we “rode to rule,”
following as many traffic rules as we could, which predictably made
downtown traffic MUCH worse. 

After that, the police mostly
backed off, realizing that leaving us to conduct ourselves through the
streets was a better crowd control strategy than confronting us and
harassing us. Tickets were occasionally written, but in general, over
the years that followed, a tacit truce has prevailed. In the decade
since, the ride has percolated along, often quite euphoric and fun, but
in the past two years or so, taking on a distinctively repetitive
quality.

june_1999_potrero_hill.jpgAugust 1999, Critical Mass huffs and puffs up Potrero Hill. (Photo: Chris C.)

Most
months the ride leaves straight up Market Street, unnecessarily
blocking and delaying most of the city’s primary public transit lines.
Every month the ride seems to be drawn inexorably towards the Broadway
and Stockton Tunnels, and at least two or three times it turns back
towards downtown in a regressive loop. By the time we get to midtown,
someone usually has the bright idea to “circle up” in the Market/Van
Ness intersection, or an equivalently central locale. Along the way,
the drunken guy is cursing at passersby and bellowing like a stuck pig.
Young riders prove themselves as “really radical” by cutting across
into oncoming traffic and stopping cars for no particular reason other
than that they can. Failure to stick together in a tight mass (always a
problem, even in the early days) leads to cars finding themselves
trapped among throngs of cyclists. The calm driver usually inches over
and stops until we’ve passed, but some are confused and frightened.
Taunting and name-calling from self-righteous cyclists is all too
common, and when a motorist is provoked they are blamed for causing the
problem. (This is not to say that all confrontations are caused by
cyclists… historically, and in the present, many more problems are
caused by motorists trying to force their way through the cyclists.)

xaug_07_stockton7116.jpgAugust 2007, Stockton Street. (Photo: Chris C.)

Most
of these dynamics can be altered by simple courtesy and smart behavior.
Treat motorists with respect, thank them for waiting! They are people
like us, and they might want to join us in the future if they are
invited. Cars that get stuck in the Mass should be helped out to the
right if possible. If Mass is fragmented and dispersed, organize a stop
at a red light and regroup. People in the front are hugely responsible
for stopping regularly, far more than feels comfortable, but it’s the
only way to keep the Mass together. Don’t “cork” intersections where
the Mass is broken and only a few bikes are trickling through. Better
to stop the bikes on the red light and regroup. These are simple
lessons we learned years ago to make for a better Critical Mass
experience for everyone.

xhalloween_08_CM_broadway_party_Eduardo_2992935075_4365f429c6_o.jpgHalloween 2008, Broadway in North Beach, a party pause! (Photo: Eduardo Green)

You
may not care if you’re winning hearts and minds, but overall, the point
of Critical Mass is not a fraudulent “class war” between cars and
bikes. We started Critical Mass to be a new kind of public space, and
to help promote a different way of being together in city streets.
Rolling along on bikes, tinkling bells, chatting and discussing,
smelling an exhaust-free atmosphere, listening to humans instead of
motors, and feeling the city’s geography in a wholly new way, is
exhilarating and liberating—not just for us riding, but for the
thousands of people we pass by. Our pleasure is infinitely more
inspiring AND subversive than any amount of angry posturing,
self-righteous taunting, or childish tantrums. Critical Mass is for
adults of all ages, and encourages the brave young radicals who want to
FSU to take it to the other side of town during Critical Mass, and
don’t use us to hide behind as you work out your unresolved anger with
your parents!

xadam_a_aug08_marinadist_2813241088_0dcb7f7f01_o_d.jpgAugust 2008 in the Marina District. (Photo: Adam Aufdencamp)

Meanwhile,
Critical Mass rides on. It’s still a magical experience that will
surprise and endear you. Countless San Franciscans have ridden in
Critical Mass only to realize that daily cycling is within their reach,
and obviously a preferable alternative to being stuck in a car, or
waiting for MUNI… Join us next month, and in the coming year… it’s
been going for over 17 years and ain’t stopping any time soon… Last
Friday of every month, 5:30 in Justin "Pee Wee" Herman Plaza, foot of
Market Street. Bring your best selves!

  • The format of Critical mass is conducive to the not-so-nice outcomes the author frets about. The ride isn’t going to stop any time soon … unless local government creates a pervasive sense of safety for cyclists. You won’t need a mass when the streets are pleasant to ride on without one.

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