CBS 5’s Joe Vazquez Has a Critical Math Problem

critical_mass.jpgCritical Mass, March 2009. Photo by Bryan Goebel.

I got a call a week ago from the SF Bike Coalition‘s media person. She was looking for someone to talk to Joe Vazquez of CBS 5, a reporter who was going to do a piece on Critical Mass. I declined, having been interviewed far too often over the years, and having learned time and time again that the mass media is not going to do any favors for Critical Mass by covering it. Sure enough, the piece is now online, and you can see for yourself just how absurd the slant is. I’ll give Vazquez credit for at least going on the ride, and in fact, in his sidebar piece, describing what it was like, he admits to becoming more sentient and feeling himself, instead of playing the (impossibly) neutral observer:

…along the way, I found myself unusually sentient. As a reporter, I am not supposed to feel anything while covering a story. That’s how we are trained:  focus on the story.  Get it right.  Be fair.  Leave your human reactions out of the story. In this case, though, I was feeling it. My legs were sore and tired (because I haven’t been on a bike in two years!)  The sunset was glorious.  Music was blaring from boom boxes on bikes… most riders were well-behaved and even polite (I watched one rider actually apologize to a car driver for tying up traffic). Critical mass is a riot, not just because it’s a moving mob with a cause.  It’s a riot because it’s a celebration every bit as exhilarating as it is exasperating.  A true San Francisco tradition.

We can only wonder what behind-the-scenes pressure led to this new coverage. Did an editor get stuck in traffic recently? Did a local politician put them up to it? Did the station’s owners get a call that a campaign would be helpful right now, in order to justify a coming attempt to control and abolish Critical Mass again? We’ll probably never know. But given the ridiculous angle the main story took, it doesn’t look promising. Vazquez’s main point? Critical Mass "costs $155,060 in taxpayer dollars annually!"… and how does he  arrive at this bizarre number?

Here’s an estimate of what critical mass would have to pay if they followed the rules: an event permit would be $1000. For a permit once a month, that’s $12,000 for the year. Required portable bathrooms are another $500 each time, or $6,000 for the year. Add a $1000 cleaning deposit twelve times too, so $12,000 a year. And then there’s police protection. For 20 officers, it’s more than $112,000 a year, and another $13,000 for two sergeants. That’s a grand total of $155,060 — tax dollars never recovered.

This is a patently absurd argument and really funny! First of all, there’s no permit, because there’s just an organized coincidence going on. We happen to all show up to ride home together once a month. I haven’t heard any plans to charge motorists who clog the streets EVERY DAY for a permit to fill the streets with their cars! I assume the $500 for "required portable bathrooms" would go to the private company that sells that service? So how does that impact the city’s budget? And what’s the "cleaning deposit" for? the porta-potties? or for Pee-Wee Herman Plaza? or what?… and if it’s a deposit, doesn’t it get returned? So that’s another irrelevant number. (And how exactly are the porta-potties going to be used by cyclists rolling randomly around the city?) And lastly there’s this curious idea of "police protection"! We’re NOT protected by the police! We’re being POLICED by the police! If they want to spend their money that way, which we’ve often encouraged them to forego and just leave us alone, that’s the Police Department’s problem, not ours! As far as I can tell, after riding in well over 100 Critical Mass rides since 1992, the police LOVE this duty. They get to bomb around on their motorcycles, occasionally writing a harassment ticket for corking or red light running (which usually gets dismissed in court), and have little to do but look at all the nice bodies and funny people on the ride. It’s as safe and pleasant as overtime can be and many of the cops seem to like it! So Joe Vazquez’s crazy math actually adds up to… Zero!

But there’s a deeper problem here, and this gives us a chance to address it. Our culture is in the grips of a deep madness that keeps trying to monetize all human activity. Too many people have internalized this crazy idea that everything, from public transit to schools to libraries, to social gatherings in the streets, are supposed to "pay for themselves." On the contrary, we need to expand the realm of human life that is outside of that logic altogether. We should be ecstatic that Critical Mass remains one of the few authentically free uses of public space in this city, one that is not reduced to instrumental purposes that suit the needs of business. Instead, it’s a rare example of normal human life, where people meet each other in a convivial and open-ended process of sharing space, moving through the streets of the city under a logic quite alien to the endless buying-and-selling that so many people seem to think is the be-all and end-all of our lives.

There is much to say about the etiquette and ethics of the ride, how it might be better received by passersby and participants if there was a greater commitment to the ideas that animated us from the beginning: a celebration of a better way to move through cities, an inviting experience welcoming to all, an assertion of a new kind of public space. As we’ve often said, "We’re not blocking traffic, we ARE traffic!" We do not go out, as Vazquez would have it, during rush hour to block traffic. We proceed after 6:15 on the last Friday of the month, after most rush hour commuters are on the bridges and highways, and do not for the most part have an agenda to make motorists lives worse, but rather, for one brief two-hour period each month, to make our lives as urban cyclists as magical as they could be all the time, if only our roads were radically redesigned to make meaningful space for all uses, and not just the endless asphalt sprawl dominated and overwhelmed ALL DAY EVERY DAY by private automobiles.

Every time there’s a new media story on Critical Mass, we have to go over all this again. This idea of "Critical Mess," that something really awful and dangerous is happening (which Vazquez helpfully did not promote this time, noting that claims of violence or mayhem from years past were not part of his experience, where most cyclists were quite polite and exuberant) is seriously out of kilter to the reality of a simple bike-in that happens once a month for about 2+ hours. From the hysteria created, and the breathless invocation of huge lost taxpayer dollars, you’d think something much bigger and more dangerous were underway. Channel 5 and all the other heavy breathers out there: Take a deep breath, relax, and come on the ride next month. It’s a great way to see the city in a new light, to experience the intensity of real life in the city, to work things out in the heat of the moment with other cyclists or motorists or pedestrians you may or may not feel comfortable with, and to have your imaginations altered forever.

  • s

    Yeah, because acting like this – – is a totally legitimate use of our streets. Especially when it cuts off public transit and pedestrian access to our city on a monthly basis. From what I can tell CM is used as an excuse to act like a jackass under the guise of some “civil disobedience” BS.

    The two times I have been unlucky enough to get caught amidst CM was as a pedestrian and both times cyclists intentionally blocked the crosswalk so that no one could cross.

    You’d probably get more respect if you obeyed traffic laws while using the roads. Just because cars endanger lives doesn’t give cyclists any more of a right to.

  • kit


    Writing off all of Critical Mass due to the behavior of a few rage-filled fixie kids is like writing off the meaning behind a protest because of the anarchists in attendance.

    CM has its own challenges with loud, obnoxious, confrontational individuals, but any time you get a big group of people together you find these types are always in attendance. That doesn’t mean it’s what the event is about, but if you’re only willing to look at the surface, it’s probably all you’ll see.

    Streetsblog made a joke awhile back about “Drive to Work Day,” but in all honesty I’m starting to think of it more and more as a good idea. If every cyclist got up and clogged commutes in pollution spewing vehicles with a sign on every car reading “I am a cyclist.” “I am a pedestrian.” and “I take public transit.” I think the impact might actually make drivers put up with us taking over the street for one day.

  • Chris, thank you for this well thought out article and timely for us in Ventura. As our First Friday ArtRides CMs grow, we’re facing some challenges and some decisions on how we want the ride to be. Some folks want to obey ALL traffic laws and others, who have lived in SF, are thrilled with breaking the laws.

    ps LOVE the spam protection here!

  • s

    In the two occasions where CM riders actively blocked off crosswalks I can only assure you that those using their bicycles to block off the crosswalk were more than just some “rage-filled fixie kids”. I don’t own a car. I think there are far too many of them. But you lose me when you start wrecking the commute of people who are walking or taking very green forms of public transit home.

    It just seems like you’re pissing off the wrong people and making enemies where you should be making allies.

  • You “haven’t heard any plans to charge motorists who clog the streets EVERY DAY for a permit to fill the streets with their cars”? Really? Are you sure? I’ve heard of a few:

    – You have to pay for a driver’s license
    – You have to pay to register your car
    – You have to pay taxes when you buy a new car
    – You have to pay tax on gas, repairs, and insurance
    – You have to pay for city parking
    – You have to pay to cross bridges

    There are probably more; those are just the ones that I, as a non-car-owner, have heard about.

  • Greg

    Filling public space with death-dealing pollute- and isolation-wagons: legitimate.

    Rolling through on safe, clean machines as a group: illigitimate.

  • kit


    I get where you’re coming from, I really do. I recognize that pedestrians should be treated as our greatest allies. We want much of the same things out of our city. And I do find the behavior of many cyclists towards peds both in Critical Mass and outside of it totally unacceptable. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen pedestrians in crosswalks flinch when they see me coming on a bicycle.

    All that said, Critical Mass takes over the street on any given corner for 5-10 minutes on a Friday evening. The mass has to stay together–when it breaks up, cars get into the mix and the danger increases. Peds who try to run in the middle of the mass are risking their safety and that’s something nobody wants.

    Next time, why don’t you smile and wave at the bubble bike girl, let out a “wahoo,” or stand between parked cars and reach out a hand for some high-fives. You might be surprised how quickly cyclists in Critical Mass warm up to you when you indicate your support for their cause.

    If waiting for 10 minutes to watch a parade of S.F. oddballs on a Friday evening really puts you out that much, perhaps you’re living in the wrong city.

  • SfResident

    Another angry pedestrian checking in here. Critical mass doesn’t bother me too much – if you live in the city you just learn that the last Friday of every month is going to be bicycle traffic-hell.

    That being said, if Mr. Carlsson really thinks that Critical Mass is one of the “few authentically free uses of public space in this city, one that is not reduced to instrumental purposes that suit the needs of business.” he needs to get out more. Critical mass is a fun diversion but, as I think the generally favorable Chronicle article points out, it has long ago lost its political edge.

    In any case, the real story in this article is the SFPD’s continuing attempt to shakedown everybody from MUNI to law-abiding nightclubs and citizen-organized public celebrations. Of late, the SFPD is more “extort and harass” than “protect and serve.”

    Also, can critical mass please not linger on Market Street as much? It’s a corridor that impacts public transit far more than it impacts motorists – if you want to be really revolutionary, ride down Mission Street or 19th ave or better yet, build a critical mass to bike down 101 or 280. . .

  • Nick

    I think the purpose of the ride would be better served if CM actually rode out of downtown once in awhile. Have you ever seen the ride go out to Oceanview, Ingleside, the Outer Sunset/Richmond, the Excelsior, or the Bayview?

    Out there people would still view it as a novelty, rather than a nuisance.

  • I’ve seen Critical Mass go to Sunnyside, to the Excelsior, the outer Sunset, and Golden Gate Park. I agree we should go to more places more often. Riding through the Broadway tunnel yet again is boring.

    I’d also like to see the ride depart from the east side of Justin Herman Plaza, since Market street is not a hospitable place to bicycle, with its railroads, vent grates, and other hazards.

  • Schtu

    I remember riding in what must have been the second CM in 1992. I road on and off for the next year. It was great, people would cheer and waive. The group was largely self correcting, calling out behavior that was unacceptable. Once when I decided to break off from the group and continue my ride home the cops up front followed me thinking I was “the leader”. The next thing I knew the entire group was following me home. Luckily I lived next to Dolores Park so people had a place to go.

    Then things slowly started to change. It started with the car kickers. People kicking car doors as they road by. The smiles and waives gave way to middle fingers. Blocking the intersection was not about safety anymore it was about entitlement. I remember looking at the woman next to me as we watched a cyclist scream at an elderly driver who was clearly confused but stuck in the middle of the group who passed her from behind. We both said “thats it, I’m done.”

    Since then I have thought of riding with them again but sure enough, CM road through the Castro last year. I watched as a driver attempted to back up to clear the crosswalk. Two straight frat boys on bikes scream “where you going?” and blocked him in. Who were they trying to win over?

    Kit, if I could ride with people like you, which I know are the majority, I would be back in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, it only takes 5% to make a critical mass of jerks to drown out the good people like you. On Fridays, if I am heading home from work and I see CM. I turn my bike the other way.

  • Critical Mass jumped the shark long ago – the fact that one can predict WHEN it happens and can figure out where it will start ensures that this is no longer a revolutionary act of any sort – it’s a tradition, it’s a regular happening, heck it’s EXPECTED to happen downtown at rush hour blocking buses and streetcars, and it stays in safe Liberal San Francisco.

    There’s nothing shocking about it any more, it gets cops to escort them through the streets, and has protection from many establishment people and institutions.

    I’d be more impressed if CM tried this somewhere outside the liberal bubble where it might make more impact now. Like maybe the Peninsula, or Marin County, or anywhere where you can’t count on a liberal establishment to give the OK.

    Revolutionary acts aren’t staged on a regular basis like the civil war re-enactments. And they also aren’t owed a damn thing by the governments and institutions they hassle. You want to act out, fine, but just because you’re all free spirits doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t paying.

  • Pat

    sfresident is right about the police shakedown story-behind-the-story. Your own had coverage of the slow death of public events in San Francisco due to crazy-high fees and the requirement that the event pay police to stand around and do nothing. That was the “perhaps we will never know” motivation behind CBS 5 writing this story. Now we know.

    Back in 2007, I went to a CM in Seattle before I moved to San Francisco, then went to the SF CM the next month. The difference was huge. In Seattle, every time there was a person in a car yelling or angry, at least three different people would roll up to calmly tell them what was happening, say it will only be like 5 minutes please be patient, and then invite them to join the next month. We also went on the freeway.

    In San Francisco, it was people driving up the wrong side of the street individually to provoke cars, yelling at people that were sitting in their cars calmly and just being general retards. It is mostly just scene-tourists that do it here now.

  • Pat

    That said, anything that handicaps private automobile traffic within a city is a good thing. So CM is a good thing.

  • s

    Kit —

    Parades are great, but CM isn’t a parade. A parade has an announced route (so those who don’t want to get caught up in it can avoid it), it applies for permits, pays for any additional security that’s needed, etc… essentially all the things the article in question is suggesting CM pay for.

    But CM isn’t a parade. While it may have once served some political purpose, that’s been lost for a long time. And you’re right, 10 minutes isn’t a long time, but remember that the cyclists who block off the crosswalk are the ones breaking traffic laws and endangering everyone else. I take exception more to the self-righteous nature of the event than the random chance that my commute might be disrupted.

    CM is just one facet of the uglier side to the cycling community. This is the side that blazes through stop signs and red lights without even so much as a pause and then flips you off when you protest. It’s the side that when you DO protest the blatant disregard for your safety slams on its brakes, drags their bike over to the sidewalk and points out a sticker on their bike that says “one less pedestrian” while insinuating that they’d like a fight.

    Like it or not, from an outsider’s perspective CM has been hijacked by that side of the community.

  • “I’d be more impressed if CM tried this somewhere outside the liberal bubble where it might make more impact now. Like maybe the Peninsula, or Marin County, or anywhere where you can’t count on a liberal establishment to give the OK.”

    Included – Dublin, Walnut Creek, San Jose, Sacramento, Petaluma

  • J

    Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter if 950 out of 1000 people in CM are riding calmly and in a generally organized fashion when there are 50 of them behaving like jerks(**). The 950 “good” riders in the group are off riding calmly and not getting in peoples face while the 50 jerks are actively getting in just about everyone’s face they pass. The 950 might even be having a glorious communal share-fest of kindred spirits uplifting each other – but onlookers are seeing a different set of riders.

    The 50 jerks effectively come across as the public relations representatives of the ride and for all appearances the rest of the group of 950 might as well have actively hired them (since no one is reigning them in.)

    Look at it another way. Ten people are walking down the sidewalk together. You can tell they’re together because they wear t-shirts proclaiming “Lorem ipsum.” One of them is running in front of the group and blocking intersections until the rest get there, and is also yelling at people, kicking bikers and cars trying to squeeze through before the group arrives, pounding on hoods, chest-pushing peds out of the way, and generally being a jackass. The other 9 continue almost as if that one wasn’t there and wasn’t behaving like an infant. This happens once a month. The Lorem Ipsum group, whomever they are and whatever they stand for, if anything, are presenting themselves as a group who tolerate and encourage infantile and abusive behavior. And the percentage of those who see their march whom they actually encourage to learn more about the Lorem Ipsem’s issue and care about it is probably in the negative.

    I’m well aware that car drivers are often self-entitled jerks themselves – anybody who uses the streets for anything knows that; but that’s not a good justification for bad behavior of some CM riders. If CM is just about pursuing “an eye for an eye” then it has fallen to dismal depths and will achieve nothing beyond of gratifying that 5% who show up to it for a fight. I would venture to say that most CM riders, personally, don’t advocate this sort of eye and eye approach, but since they generally don’t seem to do anything to curtail that sort of behavior from others that their “just riding home with” then they’re passively letting the jerks run a (deeply negative) PR campaign on their behalf.

    ** – self-entitled F-you-no-matter-who-you-are,-what-you-do,-where-you’re-going-or-why,-if-you’re-not-on-a-bike-then-you’re-to-blame-for-all-my-problems jerks who are so eager to be part of an angry confrontation that they’ll create one if one doesn’t present itself.

  • Aaron B.

    Chris –

    While I agree with the general gist of what your argument’s trying to get at, it’s got some pretty fallacious support.

    “We happen to all show up to ride home together once a month.”
    – What are you talking about? In my experience, people (including me) show up just for the ride, not because it’s on the way home. And then it weaves all throughout downtown and the city, wherever the “leaders” feel like – I have trouble believing this is the route some 1,000 people are taking home. Were it true, wouldn’t bike commutes every day be at the numbers of a Critical Mass? (Though, I don’t know those numbers.)

    “I haven’t heard any plans to charge motorists who clog the streets EVERY DAY for a permit to fill the streets with their cars!”
    – First of all, congestion pricing has been discussed by the city.
    – Second, as much as I agree on raising taxes & fees for motorists, mattymatt pointed out the costs which bicyclists do not have to pay (as you must know, one of the main benefits of cycling).
    – Third, it’s not accurate to equivalate CM with regulated automobile traffic which is following the (albeit car-dominated) traffic rules. Again, as much as I am with you on the anti-car agenda and agree that CM shouldn’t be charged, this is just inaccurate.

    “I assume the $500 for “required portable bathrooms” would go to the private company that sells that service?”
    – I’m not familiar with these porta-potties, but if the private company does (undoubtedly) indeed charge the city, and it is a service used by CM riders (I’d imagine probably in the plaza), then does this really support your argument rather than hurt it?

    “We’re NOT protected by the police! We’re being POLICED by the police!”
    “As far as I can tell, after riding in well over 100 Critical Mass rides since 1992, the police LOVE this duty.”
    – While I agree they may be unnecessary, are we not being protected by the police when they enforce traffic blocking to ensure safety? I see them do it. And what does whether or not they enjoy it have to do with them being assigned and paid with taxpayer money?

    J –

    While those 5% of obnoxious riders may stick out, the other 95% are not without responsibility. By not saying or doing anything to discourage this behavior, all the other riders are reinforcing its acceptability as normal. There isn’t a “neutrality” to hide behind – as a group, everyone’s behavior is as representative as anyone else’s. So when the outsider sees the “isolated” 5% harassing and the 95% allowing it, it gives a different picture. Given that the idea of Critical Mass is based in social change, this concept is pretty important regarding how CM members behave and how they are perceived.

  • sf truth jihad

    I just plan to be on my motorcycle on any last Friday of the month. I find I have no problems crossing the ride when I do encounter it, or riding along with it for a block or two if need be. I get the feeling that the friendly 95% recognizes the kinship (two wheels good, four wheels bad.) The jackass 5% are, deep down inside and on the surface, cowardly children living out a constant, slow motion tantrum and won’t fuck with someone who can move as easily and more quickly than they can.

    As the Dead Kennedys said: “Trash a bank if you’ve got REAL balls.”

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