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Ruminations of an Accidental Diplomat: Critical Mass at 20

Some Critical Mass veterans riding in 2007. Photo: sfcriticalmass/Flickr

Editor’s note: Next Friday is the 20th Anniversary of Critical Mass. The following is an excerpted version of an introductory essay from Chris Carlsson, one of the founders of Critical Mass, who co-edited the new book Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20, a compilation of essays on the movement from authors around the world.

Critical Mass was born 20 years ago among dozens of people in San Francisco and has reproduced itself in over 350 cities around the world thanks to the diligent efforts of countless thousands across the planet. Often just a few people start riding together and it attracts others to join, gaining momentum steadily until it bursts onto a city’s political and social landscape. Moreover, the concept of riding together en masse is open-ended enough that people have adapted it in many ways during the past decades, from altering the structure of formal recreational riding to using “Critical Mass-style” rides to bring attention to a wide range of political campaigns and issues.

And as we learn from some of the essays in this new collection, mass bike rides weren’t invented in 1992. They took place in different parts of the world years before we started in San Francisco, notably in Bilbao, Spain and Helsinki, Finland where our writers describe earlier rides. Chinese cities were full of bicycles as primary transportation for decades; observing traffic patterns in 1991 Shanghai from a hotel window, New Yorker George Bliss described how bicycles would pile up at the side of a flow of traffic until they reached “critical mass” and broke through to create their own traffic stream—this is where our name came from. Not far from where I lived as a boy in North Oakland, early ecological activists staged an annual mass bike ride called “Smog-Free Locomotion Day” on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue from 1969-71. In the deep social genes of San Francisco itself, mass bike rides of 5,000-8,000 cyclists jammed muddy, rutted streets a century earlier, in 1896, to demand “Good Roads” and asphalt (unknowingly setting the stage for the next vehicle of speed, convenience, and personal freedom that soon followed: the automobile). My mother was born and raised in Copenhagen where I visited as a small boy and then again in 1977 as a young adult—the sensible organization of public streets with space dedicated to bicycle transit was self-evidently preferable to the freeways and rigid, car-dominated street grids of my California childhood.

Critical Mass was a new beginning, but it grew quite naturally from fertile ground where many different seeds were germinating. When it finally emerged 20 years ago it was a hybrid product of late capitalist urban design, long submerged anarchistic political ideas, a growing refusal to submit to the imposed necessity of embedded technologies, and an urgent reclaiming of cities as a lost public commons. The ease with which it replicated itself across the planet was eloquent testimony (and a creative rebuttal) to the creeping monoculture shaping city life everywhere…

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Amateur Film Offers a Glimpse of San Francisco Streets in 1955

This piece by noted amateur filmmaker Tullio Pellgrini features a windshield-bound tour of some of the city’s most famous sights in 1955, but it also offers a peek into the changes some of our major streets have undergone since the earlier days of the motor age.

Some differences are striking, like the additional vehicle lanes on streets like Market and the Great Highway and the lack of parked cars on others. One eye-catcher for me was seeing cars driven through the Powell Street cable car turnaround on what is now Hallidie Plaza. A friend also pointed out the since-removed mid-block crosswalk on Van Ness between City Hall and the War Memorial Opera House.

A reminder of the flexible nature of our streets, for better or worse, is always refreshing. San Francisco streets have changed before and they can change again.

H/T BoingBoing.


Whose Streets?

Market and Kearny and 3rd Streets, 1909. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

“Whose Streets? OUR Streets!” yell rowdy demonstrators when they surge off the sidewalk and into thoroughfares. True enough, the streets are our public commons, what’s left of it (along with libraries and our diminishing public schools), but most of the time these public avenues are dedicated to the movement of vehicles, mostly privately owned autos. Other uses are frowned upon, discouraged by laws and regulations and what has become our “customary expectations.” Ask any driver who is impeded by anything other than a “normal” traffic jam and they’ll be quick to denounce the inappropriate use or blockage of the street.

Bicyclists have been working to make space on the streets of San Francisco for bicycling, and to do that they’ve been trying to reshape public expectations about how streets are used. Predictably there’s been a pushback from motorists and their allies, who imagine that the norms of mid-20th century American life can be extended indefinitely into the future. But cyclists and their natural allies, pedestrians, can take heart from a lost history that has been illuminated by Peter D. Norton in his recent book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. He skillfully excavates the shift that was engineered in public opinion during the 1920s by the organized forces of what called itself “Motordom.” Their efforts turned pedestrians into scofflaws known as “jaywalkers,” shifted the burden of public safety from speeding motorists to their victims, and reorganized American urban design around providing more roads and more space for private cars.

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Ferries on the Bay

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series of reports from Chris Carlsson on the history of transit in the Bay Area.

William Coulter was a maritime artist who also drew for the local press. This 1896 image depicts three whales inside the bay near a Sausalito-bound ferry.

William Coulter was a maritime artist who also drew for the local press. This 1896 image depicts three whales inside the bay near a Sausalito-bound ferry.

There are thousands of people using ferries on the San Francisco Bay these days, so it’s hard to remember that ferry service died out for several decades. Of course the long history of Bay Area mobility is a story of water travel. Whether moving hay into the City to feed the thousands of horses pulling wagons and omnibuses, or bringing the lumber in to build the wooden City, or taking big loads of grain or (by the early 20th century) canned fruit and vegetables to far-flung ports, everything came and went by ship for a long time. But it was also true that most people wanting to go from one part of the Bay Area to another would find ferry travel the most convenient and appropriate means to make their trip.

The Southern Pacific Company's Bay City ferry plies the waters of San Francisco Bay sometime between 1870 and 1900

The Southern Pacific Company's Bay City ferry plies the waters of San Francisco Bay sometime between 1870 and 1900

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19th Century Bicycling: Rubber was the Dark Secret

Boneshakers in the 1870s.

Boneshakers in the 1870s.

“If the increase continues, the time is not very distant when not to own and ride a bicycle will be a confession that one is not able-bodied, is exceptionally awkward, or is hopelessly belated.”
“The Bicycle Festival,” July 13, 1895 New York Times

The bicycle came to San Francisco during the last quarter of the 19th century. Like other places, it first developed based on wooden wheels, similar to those that were bearing stagecoaches and being drawn by horses. Horse-drawn streetcars were the predominant mode of transit in the 1870s, peaking in the 1880s, at a time when the individual horse was also still a major source of personal transportation.

Emperor Norton on a velocipede

Emperor Norton on a velocipede

And then came the velocipede, an odd device that attracted some early adopters of the era. Here’s Emperor Norton, a fellow who was adept at self-marketing long before Facebook made it a basic survival skill!

The boneshakers were aptly named, running over heavily rutted streets on solid wooden wheels, eventually improved by coating the in solid rubber. The bicycle was not a transit option at that early stage, but a novelty, and a device that attracted the adventurous few who were ready to break with the limits of human powered locomotion. In “The Winged Heel” column in the San Francisco Chronicle of January 25, 1879, the writer fully grasps the possibilities:

“The bicycle ranks among those gifts of science to man, by which he is enabled to supplement his own puny powers with the exhaustic forces around him. He sits in the saddle, and all nature is but a four-footed beast to do his bidding. Why should he go a foot, while he can ride a mustang of steel, who knows his rider and never needs a lasso?.. The exhilaration of bicycling must be felt to be appreciated. With the wind singing in your ears, and the mind as well as body in a higher plane, there is an ecstasy of triumph over inertia, gravitation, and the other lazy ties that bind us. You are traveling! Not being traveled.”

(I have to admit a great appreciation for that last aphorism, echoing through time a later motto of Processed World magazine that I helped produce in the 1980s: Are you doing the processing? Or are you being processed?)

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Bike Tour Taps San Francisco’s Water Innovations

barrels.jpgBlair Randall shows off the rain barrels. Photo: Matt Baume

When most San Franciscans turn on a faucet, they'll see water that's traveled as far as two hundred miles from Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. But that's not the case for some locally-minded gardeners, for whom careful water stewardship is as important as selecting their crops.

This past weekend, the San Francisco Bike Coalition organized a rec ride that visited several gardens around the Sunset, highlighting low-impact water sources. The ride was led by Sarah Roggero of TransitionSF, an organization that promotes a locally-sourced lifestyle as an alternative to dependence on fossil fuels.

Garden for the Environment

The tour began at Garden for the Environment, a pocket of green on 7th Avenue just a few blocks north of Laguna Honda Reservoir. Executive Director Blair Randall grabbed handfuls of earth, squeezing the soil into a ball to show the roughly three dozen attendees how healthy soil should clump.

In San Francisco, Blair explained, gardeners will need to provide their plants with supplemental water during the dry summers. Even native drought-tolerant plants will benefit from a little assistance, around half a gallon per plant per week. Vegetables and fruit trees will need more, he added -- theirs receive much as fifteen gallons per week, some of which comes from rainwater catchment barrels. A modest installation alongside a greenhouse collects water during storms, then parcels out the moisture during dryer months.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission recently completed a highly successful rebate program to encourage residents to install their own rainwater collection systems. Although the rebate has ended, the PUC continues to encourage the practice, offering instructions and a video tutorial for building your own. Organizations like Greywater Action offer further training and workshops.


Of Cable Cars and Whales

clay_street_cable_car.jpgA Clay Street Hill Railroad dummy and traile cable car atop Nob Hill, c. 1875.

The invention of cable cars in 1873 by Andrew Hallidie is an oft-told saga, with a perhaps apocryphal point of origin on a rainy winter day in 1869 when he saw a team of horses pulling a horsecar up a steep grade on Jackson Street between Kearny and Stockton. One horse slipped, the car man slammed on his brake but it broke, and the horses and streetcar ended up at the bottom of the hill in a mangled, mutilated mess. Andrew Hallidie wrote that he wanted to construct a public transit system that would alleviate the “great cruelty and hardship to the horses engaged in that work.”

Horsepower was the primary means of locomotion at that point in history, but it was another great beast whose bodily fluids gave rise to the industrial revolution that is often overlooked: the whale. While San Francisco was growing by leaps and bounds a relentless industrial exploitation of the great creatures of the sea was unleashed at the same time. Long forgotten now, San Francisco was during the later decades of the 19th century the primary whaling port on the west coast of North America. Before the discovery of petroleum oil, the first oil war wasn’t between nations, but between humans and nature in the form of the vast numbers of whales that once populated the seas. Slaughtered at sea, chopped up and boiled, the resulting precious whale oil when brought back to shore would command handsome prices. It was the essential ingredient to early illumination and lubrication for the burgeoning industrial revolution.

In some cases ships came in with whale carcasses in tow, not yet finished with their brutally simple reduction of complicated life into uncomplicated commodities.



The Heyday of Horsecars

foot_of_market_1907.jpgIn 1907 the horse was still a major part of the transportation picture, but the horsecars that dominated the 19th century were being replaced.

Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of stories on the history of transit in San Francisco.

After walking through the mud and sand of early San Francisco, locals were ready for other kinds of transportation. A brisk business began as soon as roads could be laid out, relying on horse-drawn omnibuses and hacks (stagecoaches and carriages). The breakthrough came quickly, when the horsecar made it to San Francisco after sweeping the market in eastern cities in the late 1840s.

Unlike the omnibus ride, the horsecar was smoother and went a reliable 6 mph on its steel rails, making regular stops and providing straps for standing passengers to hang on to. As the horsecar regularized urban inner city transit, it helped usher in zoned fare systems and ringing bells for passengers to signal a stop. Not that it was accepted without resistance. Interesting to note, during these days of challenging the dominance of the private automobile over urban space, how at a much earlier juncture in transportation evolution citizens fought the new-fangled horsecars too.

ferry_bldg_w_horse_drawn_omnibuses_1875.jpgHorsecars line up at Ferry building in San Francisco, 1875.


Wind Powered Transportation…Back Then

This is the second installment of a slow journey through San Francisco transit history. All of this information is derived from our Shaping San Francisco collection that you can explore on

Coulter_Arrived_All_Well.jpg"Arrived All Well" by William Coulter (1909) is a painting that hung in the Merchant Exchange over the chalkboards that indicated what cargoes were arriving on which ships. The title is the tagline for any ship-and-cargo that arrived safely. If you look closely you can see, ranged along the yardarms that branch out from the ship's main mast, more than a hundred dizzying feet above the deck, tiny men furling the heavy canvas sails after months of sea and wind.

Most of us in 21st century San Francisco are firmly terrestial. We got here in a car, on a bus, a plane, or rarely now a train. Part one took a look at walking across the sand dunes that once dominated the landscape.

Today, we look at the experience of travelling by sailing ship, which is how most of the early San Franciscans arrived. Arrival by ship was the main option until after 1869, when the transcontinental railroad opened. Ship transit continued as a common experience until well into the 20th century. It really wasn't until after World War II that transoceanic travel left the seas in favor of the skies. Who knows, maybe it'll be back again soon, challenging us to overcome our landlubber status!

There had already been a steady ocean-going trade across the Pacific for two centuries before the San Francisco Bay became a participant. Manila galleons carried goods between Mexico and the Philippines, Spanish colonies during the 1500s and 1600s (it's a little known fact that Filipinos were among the first to arrive in California, long before the Gold Rush). By the time Mission Dolores was being founded in the Spanish territory of Alta California, and the United States won its independence from England, American merchants were aggressively entering the world shipping business. Ships flying the stars and stripes were soon calling at ports in the West Indies, China, and India, not to mention leading the industrial exploitation of the largest mammals in the sea, the whales.

The Mission economy, based primarily on trade in cow hides and tallow, was supplemented by the first great slaughter on the west coast that decimated the native sea otter population between the late 1700s and the 1840s. Richard Henry Dana was a sailor in that era, and colorfully describes his experience in the San Francisco Bay in 1835 in his classic "Two Years Before the Mast."


Put it on the Street, A Look at Curbside Recycling

trucks_and_tractor_at_transfer_stn_6818.jpgEver wonder where your garbage goes? This is the first stop on the way to the big land fill at Altamont Pass.

(Editor's note: this is the latest installment from contributor Chris Carlsson, The Nowtopian)

At least once a week all of us in San Francisco schlep our garbage to the curb to be picked up by our local scavenger services, long known as Sunset Scavenger or Golden Gate Disposal, and recently renamed Recology. The familiar blue, black, and green bins clutter the curbs for a night and sometimes a day, blow around in the wind, are rummaged through by the hard-working legions of homeless seeking a way to supplement their meager resources, and are a ubiquitous presence to any urban explorer.

Who hasn't woken to the screeching roar of passing garbage trucks in pre-dawn San Francisco? This is our contemporary system of trash removal, not quite like (perhaps) apocryphal accounts of the old days when Italian scavengers went through the streets in top hats picking up the garbage while singing opera! 

Waste has been a burgeoning issue for decades, as capitalist economies have radically expanded production and distribution, relying heavily on a consumerist mentality that is continually discarding used products in favor of new ones. Not to mention that so much of what is produced is made crappily, engineered to last just a few months or years at best (when it could be designed to last 25-75 years or longer, and be easily repaired to extend its life once broken or damaged). Instead of paying more for quality durable products, we throw away everything to go and buy anew. 

tour_w_ewaste_guy_6811.jpgFree tours of the Recology Transfer and Sorting Stations are held on the last Wednesday of the month. Here we get a short presentation on how E-waste picked up by our local garbage service is NOT shipped intact to China, but is dismantled and recycled at facilities in Hayward.