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Chris Carlsson

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.

xbudapest_21.jpgCritical Mass, Budapest, Hungary. (Photographer unknown)

When Critical Mass began in late 1992, over two dozen individuals spent a lot of time thinking and talking about this new experience, and the culture that was emerging with it. Part of those discussions involved how to spread the idea to other cyclists, and eventually to other cities. That led to a publication in those pre-World Wide Web days that was called “How to Make a Critical Mass", which went far and wide and probably had a bigger effect than we ever dreamed.

june_1996_howard_street_west.jpgJune 1996, Critical Mass heads west on Howard Street at 4th. (photo: Chris C.)

During a bit longer than the first two years, some of us published a monthly newsletter called “Critical Mass Missives,” but after April 1995 we ceased and more or less stopped being a “secret cabal” behind the tone and etiquette of the ride in San Francisco. Critical Mass was growing very large by then, reaching well over 1,000 riders, and by mid-summer 1996 the ride was drawing several thousand riders. Already in 1995 several of us early instigators had grown bored with the ride, feeling that it had lost some of its early vibrancy. The political space we had so jealously fought for and guarded seemed to wither away all by itself as hundreds and thousands of new riders joined in.

During late 1995-early 1996 one guy tried pretty hard to “take over” Critical Mass, doggedly printing hundreds of posters, promoting long rides that stretched out to the far western edges of the city, even inaugurating what became for a few years an “annual ride to Sausalito.” His preference for elaborate routes that went to hills and ridges all over the city, and required endurance and sometimes speed to keep up, seemed to many of us regulars to be an unwelcome departure from the convivial purposes of Critical Mass. It wasn’t meant to be a road race, an endurance test, or a contest to see who could ride the furthest or climb the most hills. It was supposed to be a place where we met once a month on bikes and “road home together,” enjoying a leisurely pace through town conducive to conversation, political and philosophical discussion, and meeting new people, usually ending in a park or a bar.

Happily, a newer group of riders coalesced with the purpose of overthrowing this lone nut’s temporary reign over Critical Mass route planning. Alternative routes began to appear. A concerted effort was made to steer the ride back to a friendlier and more celebratory experience, and redirect the emphasis towards the social and away from the athletic. This effort was largely successful and a series of rides with a rediscovered joie de vivre took place over the 1996-97 months, leading to the infamous confrontation engineered by then-Mayor Willie Brown in July 1997. (See Ted White’s documentary “We Are Traffic!" for a good account of it.) The following month saw thousands returning to ride in the “Good Soldier Schweik” ride, where we “rode to rule,” following as many traffic rules as we could, which predictably made downtown traffic MUCH worse. 

After that, the police mostly backed off, realizing that leaving us to conduct ourselves through the streets was a better crowd control strategy than confronting us and harassing us. Tickets were occasionally written, but in general, over the years that followed, a tacit truce has prevailed. In the decade since, the ride has percolated along, often quite euphoric and fun, but in the past two years or so, taking on a distinctively repetitive quality.

june_1999_potrero_hill.jpgAugust 1999, Critical Mass huffs and puffs up Potrero Hill. (Photo: Chris C.)

Most months the ride leaves straight up Market Street, unnecessarily blocking and delaying most of the city’s primary public transit lines. Every month the ride seems to be drawn inexorably towards the Broadway and Stockton Tunnels, and at least two or three times it turns back towards downtown in a regressive loop. By the time we get to midtown, someone usually has the bright idea to “circle up” in the Market/Van Ness intersection, or an equivalently central locale. Along the way, the drunken guy is cursing at passersby and bellowing like a stuck pig. Young riders prove themselves as “really radical” by cutting across into oncoming traffic and stopping cars for no particular reason other than that they can. Failure to stick together in a tight mass (always a problem, even in the early days) leads to cars finding themselves trapped among throngs of cyclists. The calm driver usually inches over and stops until we’ve passed, but some are confused and frightened. Taunting and name-calling from self-righteous cyclists is all too common, and when a motorist is provoked they are blamed for causing the problem. (This is not to say that all confrontations are caused by cyclists… historically, and in the present, many more problems are caused by motorists trying to force their way through the cyclists.)

xaug_07_stockton7116.jpgAugust 2007, Stockton Street. (Photo: Chris C.)

Most of these dynamics can be altered by simple courtesy and smart behavior. Treat motorists with respect, thank them for waiting! They are people like us, and they might want to join us in the future if they are invited. Cars that get stuck in the Mass should be helped out to the right if possible. If Mass is fragmented and dispersed, organize a stop at a red light and regroup. People in the front are hugely responsible for stopping regularly, far more than feels comfortable, but it’s the only way to keep the Mass together. Don’t “cork” intersections where the Mass is broken and only a few bikes are trickling through. Better to stop the bikes on the red light and regroup. These are simple lessons we learned years ago to make for a better Critical Mass experience for everyone.

xhalloween_08_CM_broadway_party_Eduardo_2992935075_4365f429c6_o.jpgHalloween 2008, Broadway in North Beach, a party pause! (Photo: Eduardo Green)

You may not care if you’re winning hearts and minds, but overall, the point of Critical Mass is not a fraudulent “class war” between cars and bikes. We started Critical Mass to be a new kind of public space, and to help promote a different way of being together in city streets. Rolling along on bikes, tinkling bells, chatting and discussing, smelling an exhaust-free atmosphere, listening to humans instead of motors, and feeling the city’s geography in a wholly new way, is exhilarating and liberating—not just for us riding, but for the thousands of people we pass by. Our pleasure is infinitely more inspiring AND subversive than any amount of angry posturing, self-righteous taunting, or childish tantrums. Critical Mass is for adults of all ages, and encourages the brave young radicals who want to FSU to take it to the other side of town during Critical Mass, and don’t use us to hide behind as you work out your unresolved anger with your parents!

xadam_a_aug08_marinadist_2813241088_0dcb7f7f01_o_d.jpgAugust 2008 in the Marina District. (Photo: Adam Aufdencamp)

Meanwhile, Critical Mass rides on. It's still a magical experience that will surprise and endear you. Countless San Franciscans have ridden in Critical Mass only to realize that daily cycling is within their reach, and obviously a preferable alternative to being stuck in a car, or waiting for MUNI... Join us next month, and in the coming year... it's been going for over 17 years and ain't stopping any time soon... Last Friday of every month, 5:30 in Justin "Pee Wee" Herman Plaza, foot of Market Street. Bring your best selves!

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