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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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Bicycling Activism in Quito, Ecuador: An Interview with Heleana Zambonino

heleana_w_bullhorn_in_GDL_2134.jpgHeleana Zambonino conducting a basic bicycling skills class at Sunday Streets in Guadalajara, Mexico, Sept. 2009.

In Guadalajara last September I met dozens of cycling activists from around Mexico, and one remarkable woman from Quito, Ecuador, Heleana Zambonino. While riding in a big Critical Mass in Guadalajara, she told me about the cycling scene in Quito, and her organization CiclóPolis. Her story left me inspired and a bit embarrassed. They’ve accomplished a great deal more in a half dozen years in Quito than we have in 20 years in San Francisco!

cropped_pintada_colectiva_de_bicis_42.jpgArt from one of a half dozen thriving bike activist groups in Quito, Ecuador, Andando en Bici Carajo.
Chris Carlsson: You work for CiclóPolis, yes? Can you describe the organization, its history, its mission, and your role in it?

logoTodasalPedal.jpgTodas en Bici logo.
Heleana Zambonino:
By the time I attended the 2nd Annual Mexican Cycling Congress in Guadalajara I was working as Project Coordinator at the gender inclusion program “Todas en Bici” (TeB) supported by ICE (Interface for Cycling Expertise – The Netherlands) and as bike instructor for children and ladies. The aim of TeB project was to include women traditionally marginalized from access to bikes as a means of transportation. Also TeB builds a network of biking women who have tea and chat about their doubts when biking, also building self-confidence and awareness about the gender exclusion and harassment we women have to endure day by day while walking, biking, or using public transportation. (Unfortunately I was too busy as a grad student, so I sadly quit working for CiclóPolis.) CiclóPolis is about 7 years old; they work as a bridge between local government and residents taking back public spaces for family amusement from unhealthy traffic jams which grow geometrically each month in the city. They manage several bicycle advocacy projects as well the organization of the CicloPaseo de Quito, which is a conquest of citizens over automobile visual, environmental and spatial contamination.

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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.

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Bridge the Gap!

bikes_small.jpgPhoto: Matthew Roth
As I climbed the steps out of the Lake Merritt BART station this morning I heard loud chanting. "Wow," I thought, "those bicyclists have really pulled out the troops!" But the demonstrators that greeted me across 8th Street in Oakland were pile drivers, iron workers, carpenters and other trades workers, chanting "Jobs for Oakland Now!" Not far from their boisterous demonstration in front of the main doors of the Joseph Brot Metro Center were a few cyclists showing their signs to passersby, "Bridge the Gap Now" "All the Way Across the Bay" and "Safety Path!" Across the street, Transform and Urban Habitat were also making their presence felt, opposing the Oakland Airport Connector that the building trades unionists were clamoring for.

Democracy in action, I suppose. Long-time bicycle advocates from the East Bay and San Francisco converged on this meeting, hoping to convince the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) to support using some of the new tolls ($5 on all bridges as of July 1, with $6 congestion pricing on the Bay Bridge during rush hour, and for the first time, a half-price toll for carpoolers) to fund a new west-span bicycle/pedestrian/maintenance/safety lane to make the bridge safer, and to finish the transbay route for bicyclists and pedestrians too, not just motorized vehicles. But that effort was bureaucratically sidetracked before this meeting even started.

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StreetUtopia North Beach

view_se_from_russian_hill_towards_tel_hill_and_downtown_5090.jpgView southeast across North Beach from Russian Hill.

StreetUtopia is a new community organizing effort centered in North Beach. Launched by Hank Hyena and Phil Millenbah at an inaugural event in early January, they drew upwards of 150 people to an empty historic storefront at 1 Columbus Avenue, where they showed Streetfilms, had a small art exhibit, and conducted a survey of the folks who turned out. Hank Hyena explained his motivation in terms of European cities which are often greener, more bike-friendly, and with more pedestrian-centers than US cities. Along with several other parents of children at Yick Wo Public School, including co-instigator Phil Millenbah, a San Leandro city planner, they staged an inspiring evening of art, film, and conversation.

The questionnaire they handed out at the event started with a brief paragraph, assuming that we are on the cusp of a carbon-constrained transition to a future with far less cars:

The “modern” era brought television, automobiles and other technological changes. As part of this cultural transformation to the modern era and to support automobile use, society built millions of miles of paved roadway as both streets in urban areas and as highways connecting urban areas. The “postmodern” world is carbon constrained and the focus of transport is bus or rail and the old the roadway infrastructure is not needed in the same capacity. What should be done with the old infrastructure?

Then it asked a series of questions about whether or not Columbus Avenue should be closed to cars, if there should be “flex-streets,” if Washington Square should have a fountain, and what kinds of mixed-uses North Beach streets should have if cars weren’t the only priority?

Subsequently, I interviewed both Phil and Hank about StreetUtopia and their organizing, which you can read after the jump:

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Sign on, Root in, Branch Out

two_way_bike_traffic_Scott_1033.jpgImagine the Wiggle as fully green bikeway, with agriculture and an open creek instead of cars!

He skirted Market Pond and made his way up to the Wiggle. Passing through a green arching gate he rolled along next to a long aging wall that had seen better days. On the other side of the wall used to be some kind of warehouse or big store. Now it was a grassy knoll sloping down to Market Pond.

On the crumbling 110-meter long wall was an old mural from the late 20th century. A clever mural within the mural showed the city, starting from a pre-deluge downtown full of cars and bikes and heading past itself to show Hayes River turning into a path to the west to the beach where a huge snake became a bicycle tire track. The mural was considered a civic treasure from the time before and a lot of trouble had been taken to save it after successive quakes and major storms.

At the end of the wall he went over the rushing creek and the high-arching Sans Souci Bridge, steering clear of oncoming cyclists. The veloway followed the winding course of the Hayes River, willow and laurel trees studding the banks, along with impatiens and lupine bushes. Many spots along the creek were open to the surrounding homes, mostly old Victorians that had elegantly stood along this waterway since it had been buried in cement culverts long ago. The lush gardens that filled the small valley gave off a wild variety of sweet and organic smells in the moonlight.

--from After the Deluge, A Novel of Post-Economic San Francisco (Full Enjoyment Books: 2004)

I wrote that passage in my novel a few years ago, set in San Francisco 150 years in the future. Imagine my pleasure when I found out that an ornamental portal to the Wiggle is the first project envisioned by some activists along our much-loved route. A week ago I sat down on the Wiggle at Bean There Café with Morgan Fitzgibbons, one of the instigators behind the new Wigg Party, whose mission is to have the folks who live and ride and eat along this route “become the leading community in America in the transformation to sustainability.” Recognizing what more and more people are coming to grips with, that we’re on the cusp of a dramatic change in how we live in cities, and on earth, the Wigglers want to lead the way, taking action one community at a time, anchored in place. Given the high mobility and transience of so many young San Franciscans, a focus on a local neighborhood as a site of transformation is immediately encouraging.

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Guanajuato: A City for Flaneurs and Loiterers!

ruta_2010_bicentenario_y_independencia_4945.jpg2010 is a big year for Mexico!

I just completed another visit to Mexico, once again starting in Guadalajara, but then doing a 9-day driving trip through the heart of the country. This new year is Mexico's bicentennial and centennial (independence from Spain and the revolution, respectively), and signs denoting the historic routes of the country's history have sprouted up all over the place.

Our trip took us through a lot of the old colonial center of Mexico, with special mention for Patzcuaro and its surrounding region, and our amazing trip to the wintering grounds of the Monarch butterfly high in the Michoacan mountains. But for Streetsblog readers, there is a city in Mexico that is a must-see: Guanajuato!

view_down_from_el_pipila_4722.jpgView down into the center of Guanajuato.
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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.

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Hopenhagen or Carbonhagen, We’ll Still be Cycling Regardless

chic_cyclist_brown_3792.jpgCycling chic in Copenhagen, and this is a cold day in December!

I caught Mikael Colville-Andersen's inspiring talk on urban cycling from the Copenhagen context at San Francisco's SPUR on the last Friday of October. I suggested we could do an interview when I came to Copenhagen in December and he graciously agreed, stepping outside into the drizzling snow at a December 10 awards ceremony he was hosting. (The title of this post is a quote from him when he was on stage at the ceremony, and is a new tag line on his blog too.) They were handing out prizes for the best new designs for the next generation of Copenhagen's bikeshare program. He is well known for his blogging at Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycling Chic. The photos throughout were taken by me in Copenhagen during the last couple of weeks there.

Chris Carlsson: What was your experience in San Francisco? Did you have a good time there?

Mikael Colville-Andersen: I had a brilliant time. I just blogged a film with three of my friends, about Critical Mass.

C: Did you get in to the Halloween Critical Mass?

M: Oh yeah, all the way!

C: I saw you wrote some vaguely critical comments about Critical Mass in general.

M: I have done… it’s just that marketing thing. You’re not selling it if you’re pissing people off. Riding around… I didn’t see any bad behavior. There were so many people at that Critical Mass that it was more tame?

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Free Public Transit?

subway_crowds_3435.jpgA crowded moment in the Tunnelbana, Stockholm, Sweden's efficient and easy public subway system.

In Stockholm, Sweden, a fascinating political intervention has been taking place during the past few years. Starting originally around 2000-2001 in an anarcho-syndicalist youth organization, Planka.nu is a surprisingly innovative and effective transit activist group. Today it is still an entirely volunteer organization without paid staff, but they have a comfy office tucked on the western end of the Stockholm island of Sodermalm, just a hundred steps or so from the target of their activism, the Tunnelbana, or local subway system. 

Paradoxically they openly advocate gate-crashing (the name Planka refers to that process, especially when getting in to a concert or something like that) or fare evasion, but thanks to a clever redeployment of capitalist entrepreneurialism, they invented a "ticket fund" which insures planka's dues-paying members against fines they incur if they ever get caught by transit police. They have been so successful that about 50% of the organization's revenue is derived from the surplus accumulating in their insurance fund.

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