Let’s just say right away that Critical Mass is a bike party, and the San Jose Bike Party has a lot more similarities to Critical Mass than differences. A half-dozen San Francisco and Berkeley Critical Mass veterans took a field trip to join the San Jose Bike Party on Friday night as it cruised through the heart of Silicon Valley. We piled onto a "Baby Bullet" Caltrain that got us into downtown Sunnyvale well before the 8 p.m. starting time. (Along the way we pondered how many cyclists it takes to make a Critical Mass and concluded that it takes enough to break into different factions that don’t like each other!)
After leaving the train, we soon came upon a couple with a big couch on a bike trailer, their two dogs occupying the seats of honor, and a sound system ready to pump some tunes from within. As we approached the gathering point, not really sure how to distinguish one intersection from another along the sprawling avenues of the South Bay, we were excited to see feeder rides streaming in from all directions, numbering anywhere from a dozen to nearly 100. Riders gathering in a big parking lot, hanging with friends, energy and anticipation rising.
By the time we got rolling there were over 1,000 riders, and possibly twice that many. Unlike San Francisco, there weren’t too many white hipsters in this ride. Most of the crowd was Latino and Asian youth on all manner of bikes from beaters to chrome low-riders, and a smaller number of "properly" garbed older white cyclists in yellow reflective clothing with helmets — classic bike nerds, in other words.
We talked about how different it felt in terms of the demographics of the riders, refreshing for us old-time San Francisco cyclists. And given the relatively short life of this ride, and the fact that it’s clearly growing fast, some of the most compelling reasons that we’ve remained enthusiastic Critical Mass riders for so many years were reaffirmed by the event. The hundreds of kids on this ride, ages 12-22, were all experiencing their environment in a new way. The material experience of a mass bike ride changes imaginations, changes how one conceives of urban (and in this case, surburban) space.
The origins of the Bike Party go back to a "get out the vote" ride in 2004, and then during the following year, individuals from the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition and other cycling activists discussed with each other how to stimulate a larger South Bay ride. Some folks had been tending the flames of a fledgling Critical Mass, but it sputtered out during the dark, rainy winter. On their website they explain how the San Jose Bike Party got started:
"Many conversations among involved riders led to the common conclusion that a ride styled after San Francisco’s confrontational and controversial Critical Mass would not work well in the car-centric South Bay, but we never arrived at a full consensus of what a "San Jose Bike Party" should look like. All sat quiet and calm for a few years until a wonderful meeting of minds happened. In the summer of 2007, one of the original organizers of the 2004 and 2005 "Bike Party" Halloween rides met a new roommate who had helped organize a bike gang in San Diego and had ridden with LA’s "Midnite Ridazz." Together, they determined to re-start the San Jose Bike Party idea…"
They decided to start it at 8:30 p.m. on the third Friday of the month, well after work and dinner, to pick a theme for each ride, and to have planned routes. This is quite similar to our approach in the early years of San Francisco’s Critical Mass, except the starting time, which has always been at 6 here. The Bike Party has a tight coterie of volunteer organizers, and they appoint themselves and others to be "Birds." My main experience of them Friday night was the two or three times I had a yellow-vest clad monitor running past me flashing their bike light in people’s eyes, yelling "stop! stop!" at a red light.
The San Jose ride’s main difference from San Francisco’s, besides having a self-designated organizing group who maintains close contact with police, is that it tends to stop at most intersections, and when the light turns red, not very many cyclists are inclined to keep streaming through. This is in contrast to our approach in SF, which was always premised on maintaining a dense Mass to preserve maximum safety for cyclists.
In Sunnyvale and Mountain View, the ride was pushed into the right lane of three northbound lanes on El Camino Real, with many police squad cars and some motorcycles riding herd on the cyclists. We split ourselves into dozens of small clots of cyclists, usually 10-50 riders each, and it was increasingly difficult to catch up with the riders ahead. After almost an hour of this odd experience, we did some turning and twisting before being herded by organizers into a mid-point parking lot for a regrouping stop.
The organizers are anti-alcohol, but plenty of folks were nursing beers and flasks along the way. The folks with the Beaners wagon above had a cooler full of beers on their trailer. But no one was as inebriated as the drunk guy who spends each and every San Francisco Critical Mass bellowing at the top of his lungs.
Overall, the Bike Party captured a lot of the magic that Critical Mass does. I found it frustrating and self-defeating to not hold intersections long enough for larger groups of cyclists to pass through, but one of the characteristics of mass bike rides is how they each find their own comfort level and culture. At least a half dozen sound systems were on the ride, pumping funk, hip-hop and other popular tunes.
Given the participants in the ride, I doubt if the culture will remain the same for long. The youth culture in San Jose hasn’t established its own voice in the Bay Area and it seems like the Bike Party might be a place where it could erupt.
During the mid-point regrouping stop, Jason Meggs, who was the first person to bring a rolling couch on Critical Mass (in Berkeley in the early 1990s) approached the folks with the rolling couch and their dogs. When he mentioned he was a long-time Critical Mass rider, the couch pedalers were visibly dismayed. I spoke to a dozen different cyclists while riding and most of them were curious about our Critical Mass and knew little about it. So even though the webmaster and (perhaps) the main organizers choose to characterize San Francisco Critical Mass as confrontational and controversial, parroting the distorted accounts that have been broadcast far and wide in the mass media, the San Jose Bike Party is clearly influenced by Critical Mass, in spite of deliberate attempts to distance the event from its more notorious predecessor.
Still, they have to make the same disclaimers about real or potential participants that we often make here in San Francisco: "At Bike Party, we welcome all riders. However, the atmosphere can be diverse and chaotic, much like a rock concert. There are people who act badly, as you might see at any large event like a concert at Shoreline. We strongly discourage inappropriate behavior… Still, no one can fully control someone else’s actions. Most people are generally respectful, friendly, and helpful."
Just like when we talk to the media and emphasize that they cannot get an interview until they come on a Critical Mass and experience it first-hand, the Bike Party describes itself this way: "We’re one-half political party, one-half street party — made up of all types of bicyclists and human-powered transportation advocates who celebrate and build community in a monthly ride that must be experienced to be understood."
Kindred spirits animate the ride. Describing it online they say:
Everything looks better from the seat of a bike. You can feel the wind on your face, the rhythm of the ground in your legs, you can feel your heart pumping, and the energy of your surroundings encompassing your body. On a bicycle, you can see the city, talk to strangers, escape the insulated bubbles of cars and feel free from the confines of cubicles. A bicycle is freedom, a bicycle is friendly, and a bicycle is life… Bicycling frees people from costly fees, stuffy cars, sedentary lifestyles, and dreadful commutes. Bike Party rides aim to teach riders the street skills and confidence they need to become daily riders on all kinds of roads.
We didn’t make the whole ride, but returned to the Caltrain station to catch the last train before it was over. We all agreed it was great fun to join a neighboring ride, and we welcome the San Jose Bike Party as a member of the Critical Mass family of rides. From the huge and nearly city-sponsored Critical Mass that happens twice annually in Budapest, Hungary, to the thousands-strong rides in cities from Vancouver, BC to Rome, Italy, to Sao Paolo, Brazil and San Francisco, every urban area reinvents the idea of mass bike rides for its own context and needs. Congrats to our southern neighbors for opening up a vital space for social transformation. San Jose and the South Bay are part of the worldwide bicycling renaissance. Check it out next month, May 21, 8 p.m.