Last week, press outlets in the Bay Area and beyond hyped the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass. Of course, it turned out to be one of the biggest rides ever (likely with the help of the media attention itself).
Looking back, it’s clear that local attitudes toward Critical Mass — from the media, the public, and politicians — have undergone quite an evolution. It’s important to point out that it’s these perspectives that seem to have changed, not necessarily Critical Mass. The ride itself feels as much like a convivial and liberating transformation of public space (which does tend to draw a few aggressive types) as I imagine it did on most of the hundreds of rides that took place over the past 20 years. (I’m not quite old enough to speak to that firsthand.)
Bay Area papers and news stations were buzzing with anticipation of the ride last week, for the most part in a balanced, if not quite positive, way. Perhaps the most pleasantly shocking embrace of Critical Mass in recent history came from last week’s staff editorial in SF Examiner, in which the paper declared:
…At its core, Critical Mass is a political statement about the roads we all pay for and how they should be used. And in spite of the occasional inconvenience that accompanies Critical Mass, it has been very effective as a political movement… Whether you love or hate the Critical Mass rides — and, at times, both attitudes have been appropriate — they have pushed urban cycling issues into the mainstream in San Francisco and around the world.
Granted, the change of ownership at the Examiner has brought a series of progressive editorials this year on issues concerning sustainable transportation and livable streets. But just compare this angle with some of the coverage from the Chronicle and the Examiner in July of 1997. Those pieces were geared to toe the line for then-Mayor Willie Brown’s unsuccessful attempts to co-opt, then declare war on, Critical Mass, which led to a fierce backlash from riders and supporters of the movement. (This history was recounted in a Streetsblog piece from Critical Mass co-founder Chris Carlsson and in Ted White’s 1999 documentary, “We Are Traffic.”)
In one notable piece from that time, the Examiner wrote what begins like a press release amplifying Brown’s calls to “confiscate [riders’] bicycles.” Brown, the paper wrote, “applauded motorists, who he believed generally held their cool under extreme provocation” (although a Chronicle article published the previous day listed reports of conflicts that indicated otherwise). Oddly enough, then-SFPD Chief Fred Lau noted in the article that “there was never any violence or assaultive behavior” before Brown’s attempted intervention.