Is Sunday Streets the Next Critical Mass?

sunday_streets.jpgFlickr photo: Michael Bolger

Though it occurred for just four hours on two miles of streets in the Mission, this week’s Sunday Streets event has transformed the livable streets movement in some of the same ways that Critical Mass transformed San Francisco’s bicycle rights movement in the early 1990s.

“Even better than Critical Mass,” was the answer I got when I separately asked three men who had been riders on the first Critical Mass rides in 1992 how they compare Sunday Streets to Critical Mass.

“It’s more true to the original intent of most of the early Critical Mass participants–taking public  space and transforming it from an inhospitable and deadly river of steel into a convivial place where friends meet, talk, play and celebrate their community,” said Jon Winston, who was there Sunday with his family and there 17 years ago on the early Critical Mass rides. This event does what Critical Mass did, Winston said, but it lasts longer and invites a wider variety of people. "Friends meet and tarry in the street to catch up on gossip but also, lines of class and race are crossed as people mix freely and the street is returned to what it had always been for thousands of years before the automobile– a commons."

As one of the participants in the early Critical Mass rides, I saw thrilling parallels between these two events that take over the streets for just a few hours but seem to have impacts far beyond the event itself.

I remembered the palpable joy of being in an unprecedented social space, a reclaiming of a violent and privatized street for public interaction.

If it’s true that people learn by doing, then Critical Mass enabled thousands of people to imagine a different world for bicycling — a world where safety and conviviality dominated instead of traffic law and motor vehicles — by experiencing that world for a couple hours at a time.

Sunday Streets does the same thing, no bicycle needed. It’s not like a street fair where the streets are closed for a temporary shopping mall or familiar entertainment arena. It’s more like the streets are opened for your regular activity, just without the cars. Thousands of people experienced car-free streets space for the first time; who knows what they will do with that knowledge, but it will probably be good!

IMG_4878.jpgPhoto: Myleen Holero

"It’s fixed space, which allows for fundamentally different kinds of conversations than you can have at Critical Mass," pointed out Chris Carlsson, also a participant in the first Masses.

Even the professionals at the Congress for New Urbanism are getting in on the act; a panel on promoting new urbanist principles included a presentation on the ability of Sunday Streets-type events to illustrate those principles best, i.e., experientially.

There are more parallels, but they are not infinite. Critical Mass has the unofficial sanction of the police; Sunday Streets has official sanction. Critical Mass started here and spread around the world; Sunday Streets owes its origins to the Ciclovía started in Bogotá, Colombia.

The appeal of the event is truly global, as the events in the United States have held true to the original intent that goes beyond bicycling to public health, the creation of open space, and the promotion of social interaction.

What has changed is the name.

Miami has had “Bike Miami Days,” seven of them, more than any other city, since November of 2008. (San Francisco will earn that distinction with its eighth event September 6.) Portland has “Sunday Parkways” and New York has “Summer Streets.” El Paso changed the name of its event from “ciclovia” to Scenic Sundays.

Nobody I talked to was thrilled with the name, with the most common complaint, “why restrict it to Sunday?”

The Miami organizers, according to the event’s coordinator Kathryn Moore, are trying to come up with a new name that better reflects the event’s appeal to all Miamians, not just bike riders.

Thinking of the experiential learning people enjoy on Critical Mass and Sunday Streets, as we call it, points, perhaps, to the Chicagoans’ choice of name for their event: Open Streets. Chicago’s first Open Streets event, including eight miles of carfree streets, takes place on August 1.

  • Critical Mass jumped the shark a long time ago. What was once revolutionary is now done by rote, predictable, and sanctioned by the city. Heck, CM doesn’t even have to get a permit or pay the police, unlike the hapless Lindy Hoppers in the Park who had the cops bust ’em up. It’s more like a Civil War re-enactment than something truly “revolutionary.”

    If the point of CM was to “raise awareness” or whatever, well maybe it did, but I’d say Sunday Streets is a way more enjoyable and accessible way for all of us, whether we ride a bike or not, to find ways to make our city more enjoyable to live in.

    If Critical Mass really wanted to be out there, and in front, they’d stop doing it at the Ferry Building in Liberal San Francisco, and instead try it in the ‘burbs. Can you imagine a bazillion bikes on El Camino, riding from Daly City to San Mateo? Can you imagine CM bikers having the courage to even TRY that?

    Imagining the former is rather intriguing. Imagining the latter, not likely.

  • Bob

    If Critical Mass can be seen as a protest, Sunday Streets is more of a celebration.

    Big difference.

    It’s an evolution of the same movement, but much more family-friendly and welcoming. It’s also good for business.

    I would hope that eventually, when SF become a truly transit, bike, and ped-friendly city, Critical Mass will no longer be needed and will go the way of bell-bottom pants.

  • jwb

    It’s up to the people in Daly City to retake their own streets. CM isn’t a traveling circus.

  • Aaron B.

    Greg, I don’t think Critical Mass is just a “re-enactment”. It is still revolutionary because riders are taking back space from cars, which dominate practically everywhere all the time, even if it’s just a moving space over a few hours for once a month. It is symbolic of the growing number of people’s will to say that they don’t want to concede the streets to cars. If it really was so meaningless as to be a “re-enactment”, it would stop, and there would be no one sending the message that car-dominated streets NOT ok.

    Well, I take it back – not completely – because now we have Sunday Streets to back up that message.

  • jason

    I’ve attended three of these so far and I love the concept. I would like to point out however that this concept is probably not as original or radical as it’s being portrayed here. I went to college in Austin and the notion of blocking off a major section of the city from car traffic for ~4 hours is something that we experienced every Friday and Saturday night on 6th Street. New Orleans does the same thing on Bourbon Street. Granted, these “venues” tend toward adult activities (e.g. bars, live music, etc.) but they aren’t just one-off festivals…

    It does make me wonder, how hard would this be to pull off at a more micro-level? I would love to see individual neighborhoods get into the act. (24th Street in Noe? Haight? Chestnut and/or Union? Polk?) Somehow we failed to follow the lead of Europe where seemingly every neighborhood has a piazza for strolling and eating ice cream cones… Closing down just a few blocks in the merchant districts could give us our piazzas. Seems like it would be logistically simpler to do on a small scale, and could be easy to replicate all over the City.

  • ZA

    My two cents:

    CM and Sunday Streets – There are plenty of parallels, but it remains to be seen whether Sunday Streets will achieve sustained mass appeal for continuous public provision of the event. Love it or hate it, the CM has achieved sustained participatory appeal.

    It also remains to be seen whether any of these events is doing/will do enough to increase participation among the city’s minority communities at greatest risk from ill health and isolation. Remember that this was a stated objective of the first Sunday Streets via “Shape Up SF.”

    So far, I think the Sunday Streets events have been very successful in connecting neighborhoods that would otherwise rarely have cross-pollination, but I also saw terribly few resident minorities joining the walks and rides of the Bayview Sunday Streets. That’s a shame, since Bayview has some incredible treasures, and I hope future events engage resident communities more effectively.

    Generally speaking, more people with more kids, and fewer aggro-types is a good thing. In that Sunday Streets has been more successful than CM.

  • Yes, so many great comments!! I live in San Mateo, and dream of this happening in my neck of the woods. I don’t like the notion of having to drive up to the city or berkeley to *experience* these things – not sustainable.

    Greg- there were a coupl’a bike rides from Dolores Park to the Maker Faire in San Mateo in May.

    Bob – what a difference a celebratory atmosphere makes. Even the apathetic are hoodwinked! into a subtle but fun! political action – the best kind!

    jwb – yes ‘burbanites have to want it and do it themselves, but it wouldn’t hurt to have company and solidarity from the city folk!

    Jason – not radical but oh so familiar. we know that this is good for us. we feel it in our bones and sinew. i’m so proud of this community/local government convergence tho. as far as urban planning goes, to date there has been an abyss between abstraction and reality. Sunday Streets is an opportunity for people to “taste” old/new urbanist principles without the commitment (yet).
    we’ve got to feel these things in the skin to really appreciate them, and experential feeling reminds us what is good all over again.

    ZA – just as there are gulfs that should be bridged between the abstract and reality, so to are there cultural gulfs between populations in the city. but we have to keep working on commonalities, mutual respect and solidarity. historically marginalized people will often be aloof (even to these types of events), not because they don’t want to participate, but as a matter of protection. why participate in something good, if it may be taken away from you later on as has happened so often before?

    All in all, i hope this spreads like a California wildfire!

  • CBrinkman

    I ride CM a few times a year, and I like it but am always a little on edge waiting for the kerfuffle to occur, and leave early to avoid kerfuffles. I enjoy the social time at Pee Wee Herman Plaza the most. One of the things we tell neighborhood and merchant groups is that Sunday Streets is a family friendly event, and we have not had a single incident of anti-social behavior (peeing in the street or fighting).

    As for the name, yes, it could be better, but trust me…it could be much worse. And, nothing is carved in stone.

  • Nick

    The City should do one extra Sunday Streets this year: Market Street from Van Ness to the Emarcadero, while allowing tranist through.

    We can do study after study, or we can try it for a day and see if the neighborhood decides it something they might want to advocate for themselves.

  • Sunday streets on Market street? My theory is that’ll happen next year… just in time for it to be a super duper success so that Gavin will have one more thing to point at and claim credit for in his bid for governor.

  • We are working to spread the love to the East Bay and make “Sunday Streets” happen in Oakland sometime this fall or next spring – so if any of y’all are Oaklanders please check out, join our Livable Streets Community, and/or come to our next monthly meeting on July 28 at 6:30pm at BAWT, 2301 Broadway in Oakland. We need lots of help to make it possible – even with advice and emotional support from SF folks it’s going to take a lot of energized O-towners to make it a reality. Adelante! -ST

  • ZA

    @ Shannon T – One suggestion: chalk. Kids, parents, passersby … people just can’t get enough chalk. They’ll go to town on the pavement.

    Also: worth talking with the neighbors about sweeping the area clear of sharps. I noticed one right in the middle of it all on 15th St last Sunday, and I threw it in the bin.

  • stefan

    a major and amazing difference between Critical Mass and Uncritical Mass (Sunday Streets) is that while the former was organized by marginal citizen activists, the latter is organized by government activists.

    And to be honest: the government activists have done a phenomenal job at bridging barriers of age and class and even race (to some extent) – something CM has not pulled off in SF. I think Sunday Streets owes a lot to CM – but I also think it shows what government, at its best, is capable of.

  • Wow- Statements like these mean more coming from Dave Snyder.
    I definitely believe that Critical Mass is still crucial to the movement. One exciting part of ciclovia is seeing how many kids -future CMers- are out getting to play in the street and learning how to ride. Ciclovias are about so much more than bicycles and traffic.
    Bike Miami Days is about community, livable streets, active living, safer cycling and so much more. But it’s the result of action by a small group of active cyclists in Miami and it can happen anywhere.

    My question is – why isn’t this happening everywhere?

    Funding is certainly why we have it on hold here. Our Bike Miami Rides – community rides lead by volunteers (local CM organizers, actually) and police – are meant to promote commuting and vehicular cycling. We’ve only had two so far, but the 80 or so participants are telling us they had no idea that rights they had. It’s a beautiful thing and another shift in bicycle advocacy.

  • CBrinkman

    Market Street would be tough because of the streetcar tracks – newbie bike riders and streetcar tracks are an awful mix. It takes so much more work to deal with streetcar tracks – remember Illinois Street? No matter what is done people crash on the tracks.

    Market Street should be Car Lite every day and that would help a lot more people then a Car Free Market Street once or twice. As Enrique Penalosa said, a convenient and safe walking and biking network can improve your life more then a doubling of income.

  • marcos

    Are the waning moments of Critical Mass any more kerfuffle-prone than negotiating city streets in San Francisco under normal auto-centric conditions?

    And I agree with Greg, in that when resistance is ritualized, it loses its immediacy. Like the Woody Allen line from Annie Hall:

    “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark. ”

    The system we are trying to change is a dynamic organism that has an immune system designed to identify and neutralize attacks from agents of change by evolution in the same way that HIV adapts to neutralize attacks from the human immune system.

    Invariably, continually diminishing returns get dwarfed by the advances of our opponents as they adapt and we do not. Yet there are those who remain wed to the old ways, due to either sentimental or financial ties, and continue to ride into the ground that hobby horse which no longer serves.

    One challange of Market Street is that it is a transportation street, not a socializing street. When there is no Muni service topside, like during “Mikes on Bikes” during Pride, and folks are bicycling slowly, the tracks do not provide much danger.

    Sometimes, when you’re down so low, even a curb appears insurmountably high. The disconnect between San Francisco’s stated goals and policies and citywide electeds political willingness is enormous. Until there is punctuated equilibrium and their “hechos” snap into conformance with their “dichos,” many are going to continue to believe that the crumbs they throw us are a banquet and celebrate the insult.

    Advocates have figured out how to claw temporary confections from the City but have made little progress on the staples, and as such, we are nutritionally deficient to the point that we are seeing cognitive dysfunction carry the day. Compare this to the East Bay where folks are organizing and suing for equity and justice.


  • Susan King

    Wow, great conversation here, thanks, Streetsblog, for the thread. Here’s my .02 and a few corrections 🙂

    As someone who has done both CM and Sun Sts (I have a fairly central role in the latter), I think there are vast differences. David Baker said it best when he pointed out that the success of Sun Sts was that the folks attending were not the types you would ever see at CM. Sun Sts has mainstreamed car-free space. In contrast- sadly- CM has diverted public good will towards cyclists in particular, making our job of moving alt transportation advocacy forward much more difficult.

    Also, Sun Sts, while strongly supported by our mayor (this is something he has gotten right and deserves credit for his leadership) and city depts (esp. the SF MTA), Sunday Streets is a project of Livable City, a small non-profit that shares a back office in the SFBC. There are just two of us on staff, neither Tom Radulovich (BART Director, LC Ex. Director) or I work for the government. Cheryl B. is Pres. of LC Board, by the way, and a big part of organizing.

    In closing, we look forward to continuing Sun Sts- finances are a big challenge- which is one main reason why there are not more events, longer, more miles, etc. Thank you for all the support.

    Susan King
    Sunday Streets 2009

  • bm

    @Susan, I think SS is awesome! Thanks for your work. One thing though,

    “In contrast- sadly- CM has diverted public good will towards cyclists in particular, making our job of moving alt transportation advocacy forward much more difficult.”

    This is far from being a fact. It could also be argued that CM contributed to the rise of the number of bikers, and to a certain (I would argue important) mindset that more and more bikers have. We don’t ask for handouts of “public goodwill”. That is a nice thing, but what we are asking what is rightfully ours: the ability to use our streets for our choice of transportation mode.

    Indeed the big difference between SS and CM to me is that SS is about excluding traffic from the streets, while CM is about making the point that “we are traffic, we are here to stay, deal with us”.

    Of course, activism and politics is much more complicated than that. But from a personal standpoint and while I haven’t ridden CM for a great while, the experience of attending and of taking over the streets with a large number of fellow cyclists was important, intoxicating and eye-opening. I experienced it as a revolutionary atmosphere, sort of a “bike power” march, as opposed to the festive SS. And I saw *plenty* of people in cars and on the sidewalks, who cheered for us and supported what we were doing.

  • bm

    Sorry, I mangled some sentences there but you get my point.

  • Jym

    =v= Wow, these blanket sweeping remarks about Critical Mass are as thoroughly accurate as blanket sweeping remarks tend to be. With nearly 500 CM locations in the world, you might want to do a little research first.

    (Critical Masses have indeed taken place in ‘burbs, San Mateo included.)


    Yes, the Sunday Street events are great. But they are for 4 freaking hours! At every single Sunday Streets event I’ve attended, the police and organizers have had to clear the streets, ala Halloween in the Castro. When the events are clearly so popular and keep many of their participants outside and active during much of the sessions, why aren’t they longer?

    They aren’t longer because despite the streets being a commons, CORPORATE SPONSORSHIP IS REQUIRED to pay for permits and police. There is no need to get corporate sponsorship to clog the street entrances to the Bay Bridge during each rush hour commute session. So, rhetorically, I’ll ask, why should we need permits and sponsorship money to make use of the PUBLIC space?

    Automobile drivers, by and large, still believe they own the road. Sorry, it’s still a very common response to any driver I interact with on the road while cycling that cyclists don’t belong on the road. CVC and complaints about sidewalk riding be damned, “get out of the road” rings in my ears on a daily basis while pedaling in the city. If it stopped at that it would be merely insulting and unpleasant. Unfortunately that sentiment is frequently accompanied by the automobile or truck intentionally threatening me with deadly harm. Compare the authorities’ response of someone rev’ing their engine and swerving at me with their car to someone pulling out a loaded gun and firing it in my direction. No guessing necessary to know that taking a photo and phoning in the former gets you nothing, while recording the latter will spark headlines in the media for a solid week.

    Give me a break about CM harming the alt transportaion movement. CM provides a consistent monthly outlet for cyclists to assert their right to ride safely on the road. One evening, one day per month it’s easier and safer to ride a bike in San Francisco. Cry me a river if you are occasionally forced to wait a minute or two for CM instead of just some douche alone in an SUV that’s decided to block the intersection trying to squeeze through a red light.

    Do you really honestly think that we’d have any bike lanes at all in the city without CM? What motivated city officials to negotiate with cycling advocacy groups and finally begin providing even laughably meager infrastructure accommodations like sharrows to cyclists? The main failure of today’s CM movement is that it hasn’t expanded beyond once per month.

    CM is defined and pursued by individuals. The naming rights for Critical Mass are not up for sale. There is no Executive Producer bought and paid for by PG&E. It’s grassroots and still thriving years after its inception. We’ll see how long Sunday Streets lasts when its corporate patrons tire of the green washing fad. My hope is that by then the general populace will have embraced walking and cycling and enjoying the public commons to the extent that Sunday Streets finally has its own critical mass.

  • ZA

    At least one important lesson to draw from both CM and Sunday Streets – they both are at their best when they are public, unprogrammed/lightly programmed, and all mercantile interests are hyper-local (e.g. the guy selling stickers at a CM, or the cafe opening a stall on the street on Sunday Streets). Few things will kill or warp these events faster than a permit or a contracted bidder process.


Ruminations of an Accidental Diplomat: Critical Mass at 20

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 […]

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 […]

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

A 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 […]

CBS 5’s Joe Vazquez Has a Critical Math Problem

Critical 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 […]