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Posts from the Critical Mass Category


How Have Attitudes Toward Critical Mass Changed? Just Read the Papers

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.

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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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Critical Mass: Good for Cycling or Bad PR?

There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere lately about the merits of Critical Mass, the long-running, monthly group ride that has taken hold in cities around the world since its debut in San Francisco nearly 20 years ago.

In many cities, Critical Mass has been a powerful force for building a community of cyclists. But the stop-light-running and assorted infractions often associated with Critical Mass have led some bike advocates to conclude that the rides give cyclists a bad name. In response, some have tried to meld the appeal of group rides with a purposefully courteous riding style.

Chicago's Critical Mass has come under fire from a sensationalist author. Photo: Grid Chicago

This ongoing debate withing the cycling community took a turn toward the sensational in Chicago recently. It looks like the guy wagging his finger this time has his own interests at heart more than those of cyclists, according to Dottie at Network blog Let’s Go Ride a Bike:

This week, some guy who wants to sell his book on “urban cycling” wrote a highly inflammatory post against Critical Mass, using the horrifying photo of a car driver crashing into (and killing members of) a group of cyclists in Mexico with the caption, “When is something like this going to happen in Chicago thanks to Critical Mass?” The text of his post is as bad, with gems like this: “Critical Massholes are to fundamentalist terrorists what Islam is to cycling.” That does not even make sense, but you get the idea. His book cover is equally awful, a yellow and black graphic of a bicyclist plunging over a car.

I am very tuned in to Chicago’s bicycling scene, but I had never heard of this guy or his blog until today. I’m not buying what he’s selling and I won’t link to his site from here, but apparently his distasteful publicity stunt is working, because he also got the attention of the press.

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Streetsblog Interview: SFPD Captain Al Casciato, Head of Traffic Company

A bicyclist getting ticketed on Valencia Street earlier this year. Photo: Bryan Goebel

In light of the increased enforcement on Market Street, and stories I’ve been hearing from bicyclists about being targeted for minor infractions, I’ve had a number of questions for the San Francisco Police Department. I decided to turn to the person who heads up the SFPD’s Traffic Company, Captain Al Casciato, who is also a bicyclist.

We talked about a wide range of issues involving cops and bicyclists. Reading the transcript I realized there were some missed opportunities and follow-up questions I should have asked, but I hope it will be part of an ongoing dialogue with SFPD, and welcome your questions for a future interview.

Bryan Goebel: The first question that I would like to ask cuts right to the heart of what some bicyclists feel about SFPD, and that is, does the San Francisco Police Department have a bias against bicyclists?

Captain Al Casciato: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s true. Because we have a lot of officers who are bicyclists, and a lot of us are bicyclist enthusiasts in our off duty time, and the officers you see on bicycles at the various stations and stuff, they’re all volunteers. And when we put the bicycling course out for officers to become bicycle officers there are plenty of sign ups, more than there are positions.

BG: So when an officer goes through training at the academy does he or she learn how to deal with bicyclists?

AC: I don’t know what the academy curriculum is right now.

BG: Let me rephrase the question. What type of training do San Francisco police officers receive to deal with bicyclists?

AC:  Generally, I don’t have an answer to that, because I’m not in the training department. But within traffic we train ourselves, we have our own in-service training, and our liaison officer, Sergeant Pat Tobin, is responsible for keeping our officers on the motorcycles up to date on everything that’s going on with the Bicycle Coalition, and with issues regarding the bicyclists. And he coordinates the programs, like when they handed out all the lights, the bicycle lights, he coordinates those programs. He coordinates the enforcement programs. They do give bicyclists a lot of admonishments. They do cite bicyclists for going through crosswalks and running the red lights, especially with pedestrians present. And they also cite for bicyclists who cut off vehicles, large vehicles, and are driving through traffic cutting off vehicles, because those two violations are what causes the most injury to pedestrians, and the other one is how bicyclists mostly get killed.

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San Francisco Bike Party Set For Its Inaugural Ride Tonight

Photo: Bikes and the City

The first-ever San Francisco Bike Party, a celebratory monthly group ride through the city, kicks off with its inaugural ride tonight. The organizers are inviting anyone and everyone “to explore diverse bicycle routes, make friends with fellow riders, and feel more confident on a bicycle.”

Like the San Jose and East Bay Bike Parties, the ride is purely for fun, making stops to dance and socialize along a route planned to “explore all different parts of the city” while riding in a legal and respectful manner.

In the Bay Area, the parties have been “particularly successful at bringing together a very diverse group of people – of all ages and skill levels – to ride together as a community, and to create community with non-riders they meet along the ride route,” according to the party’s founding co-op.

Tonight’s ride will be a “rockin’ birthday party for the whole city,” taking a celebratory roll starting at the Giants ballpark down the Embarcadero, over Russian Hill, out to the Richmond and Golden Gate Park, and finally heading back to Civic Center via the Panhandle and Alamo Square.

The San Francisco Bike Party is organized by a co-op of volunteers including “local bicycle bloggers, founding members of San Jose Bike Party, East Bay Bike Party, Critical Mass, Critical Manners, and other social rides.” Bikes and the City features a gallery of photos from a test ride last month, where some of the core group can be seen.

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Detroit: The Return of the Repressed (Bicycling Culture)

big_empty_downtown_intersection_8342.jpgDetroit's once bustling streets are a bicyclist's paradise now, wide open and empty.

Visiting the ghostly motor city these days is an eye-opening and surprisingly inspiring experience. The city has fallen from more than 2 million residents a generation ago to around 800,000 today. A great deal of the land area where homes and factories once filled the blocks are now expansive vacant lots, masquerading as greenways in this wet June, filled with grasses and wildflowers. Some of these vacant lots have been converted into urban farms, but the larger majority is simply empty, reverting to some version of nature. Wild pheasants skitter across the vacant lots while songbirds, from bright red cardinals to brilliant yellow finches, fill the trees and bushes with their cheerful sounds.

wild_pheasant_8384.jpgWild pheasant runs across empty lot in east Detroit.

A Rose By Another Name: San Jose’s Bike Party

crowd_6730.jpgA crowd assembles at the beginning of San Jose Bike Party, April 16, 2010.

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.


Reviewing the Policing of Critical Mass

Now that the new police chief has announced he is going to "review" department procedures with respect to Critical Mass, I think it might be a good time to "review" the history of the relationship between Critical Mass and the police. I have to emphasize that this relationship has evolved in the context of a police department that has been consistently biased against bicyclists for as long as anyone can remember. Recent efforts to bring the SFPD into the 21st century have not yielded noticeable results yet. Chief Gascón has an opportunity to direct the department culture towards an altered cityscape with thousands more bicyclists and pedestrians, or he can maintain an obsolete approach to reinforcing a car-centric society's prejudices. I have to admit that I'm not hopeful. Also, I hope this review further debunks the silly reporting from KPIX starting last summer, that somehow Critical Mass is not paying for the police that accompany it, and thus costing the city some $100,000 a year in police overtime.

cm_july09_union_square_post_street_cu_0784.jpgJuly 2009, Critical Mass circles Union Square
Back in the beginning of Critical Mass, when we first gathered at PeeWee Herman Plaza at the foot of Market to "fill the streets with bikes and ride home together" in September 1992, there was no police presence at all. Between 40-50 riders went straight up Market Street, turned left on Valencia and pulled in to Zeitgeist. That was it. But it was a revelation too! No one knew how euphoric it would be to ride in a big pack. It was a happy surprise to discover a new public space, in motion, rolling up the street with a crowd of bikes, no cars to dodge, a solid mass that took the road and changed it in so doing. It was an open mobile meeting space where you didn't have to buy anything to participate, and you could meet countless interesting, good looking people and often have amazing conversations!

In the following months, the ride grew steadily, hitting a couple of hundred by February 1993, and still there was no police presence. I think there may have been one motorcycle cop who came upon us during those months and just rode on. In April 1993 it changed though. The ride had grown to several hundred cyclists, and those of us who were publishing the monthly "Critical Mass Missives" and preparing proposed routes with maps, writing flyers, handing out stickers (all under the happy neologism of "Xerocracy") were already worried about the culture of the ride. Too many people were bleating that Orwellian chant "Two Wheels Good, Four Wheels Bad!" and admonishing motorists in an entirely unpleasant self-righteous moralistic tone.

Behaviorally, we already had identified the "Testosterone Brigade" as a problem, young men who seemed to be looking for confrontation, perhaps exercising unresolved anger with their parents by taunting motorists or deliberately riding into oncoming traffic. Another group was dubbed the "snails" because no matter how often we stopped at the front to give everyone a chance to "mass up," a bunch of folks would just dawdle way at the back and never catch up. This led to long stretches of thinly-occupied streets, where just a few cyclists were noodling along. In April 1993 in just this kind of scenario, a motorist tried to cross Market to Guerrero and when cyclists surged in front to block him, he hit one girl. Her bike was totaled, ending up under his car, which careened into a hydrant on the corner while he was trying to escape. The girl was not physically harmed luckily, but her boyfriend, not knowing that she wasn't under the car, reached in and took the keys out of the ignition. The cops came up and arrested the girl and her boyfriend and let the motorist go, treating him as the victim, even though it was widely felt by all present, including bystanders on the street, that he had behaved with homicidal intent.



Critical Mass Not the Only Universal Aspect of Bangalore Bike Activism

bangalore-CM-thumbs-up.jpgBangalore Critical Mass starts, sometimes with a thumbs up salute, from Cubbon Park at 4:30 p.m. every last Saturday.
What a joy to ride my bike through the insanely congested Bangalore streets, surrounded by a group of rambunctious bicyclists! The first anniversary of the Bangalore Critical Mass attracted about 50 riders and felt shockingly familiar, taking me right back to the first anniversary of our Critical Mass in 1993, when SFBC volunteers presented Critical Mass riders with a big birthday cake on the Panhandle. The Bangalore Critical Mass ended at "Food Street," a famous alley that's evolved from a magnet for street vendors to a sort of Indian food mall.

But the ride isn't nearly all that's universal about our movement, I've come to learn.

Bengaluru, as Bangalore is now called, is a huge city of 6 million people. More so than the rest of India, it's transformed in the past decade, becoming the Silicon Valley of South Asia and host to a large middle class with international tastes. Along with the wealth has come an abandonment of the bicycle, with only six percent of trips made by bike down from 16 percent a decade ago.

A small group of bike activists is aiming to change that.

They shun the classic Indian upright bicycles for mountain bikes, just as Americans have shunned old Schwinns. Many of them wear helmets, the only Indian bicyclists I've seen with them. And they go on recreational rides, posting their routes on and sharing information as on the sfbike mailing list.


A Lost Decade for San Francisco’s Critical Mass?

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.