Is Sunday Streets the Next Critical Mass?

sunday_streets.jpgFlickr photo: Michael Bolger
Though it occurred for just four hours on two miles of streets in the Mission, this week’s Sunday Streets event has transformed the livable streets movement in some of the same ways that Critical Mass transformed San Francisco’s bicycle rights movement in the early 1990s.

“Even better than Critical Mass,” was the answer I got when I separately asked three men who had been riders on the first Critical Mass rides in 1992 how they compare Sunday Streets to Critical Mass.

“It’s more true to the original intent of most of the early Critical Mass participants--taking public  space and transforming it from an inhospitable and deadly river of steel into a convivial place where friends meet, talk, play and celebrate their community,” said Jon Winston, who was there Sunday with his family and there 17 years ago on the early Critical Mass rides. This event does what Critical Mass did, Winston said, but it lasts longer and invites a wider variety of people. "Friends meet and tarry in the street to catch up on gossip but also, lines of class and race are crossed as people mix freely and the street is returned to what it had always been for thousands of years before the automobile– a commons."

As one of the participants in the early Critical Mass rides, I saw thrilling parallels between these two events that take over the streets for just a few hours but seem to have impacts far beyond the event itself. I remembered the palpable joy of being in an unprecedented social space, a reclaiming of a violent and privatized street for public interaction.

If it’s true that people learn by doing, then Critical Mass enabled thousands of people to imagine a different world for bicycling — a world where safety and conviviality dominated instead of traffic law and motor vehicles — by experiencing that world for a couple hours at a time. Sunday Streets does the same thing, no bicycle needed. It’s not like a street fair where the streets are closed for a temporary shopping mall or familiar entertainment arena. It’s more like the streets are opened for your regular activity, just without the cars. Thousands of people experienced car-free streets space for the first time; who knows what they will do with that knowledge, but it will probably be good!

IMG_4878.jpgPhoto: Myleen Holero
"It's fixed space, which allows for fundamentally different kinds of conversations than you can have at Critical Mass," pointed out Chris Carlsson, also a participant in the first Masses.

Even the professionals at the Congress for New Urbanism are getting in on the act; a panel on promoting new urbanist principles included a presentation on the ability of Sunday Streets-type events to illustrate those principles best, i.e., experientially.

There are more parallels, but they are not infinite. Critical Mass has the unofficial sanction of the police; Sunday Streets has official sanction. Critical Mass started here and spread around the world; Sunday Streets owes its origins to the Ciclovía started in Bogotá, Colombia.

The appeal of the event is truly global, as the events in the United States have held true to the original intent that goes beyond bicycling to public health, the creation of open space, and the promotion of social interaction. What has changed is the name.

Miami has had “Bike Miami Days,” seven of them, more than any other city, since November of 2008. (San Francisco will earn that distinction with its eighth event September 6.) Portland has “Sunday Parkways” and New York has “Summer Streets.” El Paso changed the name of its event from “ciclovia” to Scenic Sundays. Nobody I talked to was thrilled with the name, with the most common complaint, “why restrict it to Sunday?”

The Miami organizers, according to the event’s coordinator Kathryn Moore, are trying to come up with a new name that better reflects the event’s appeal to all Miamians, not just bike riders. Thinking of the experiential learning people enjoy on Critical Mass and Sunday Streets, as we call it, points, perhaps, to the Chicagoans’ choice of name for their event: Open Streets. Chicago’s first Open Streets event, including eight miles of carfree streets, takes place on August 1.