Critical Mass at 20

The movement changed the rules in cities all over the world — and almost, almost, took the Bay Bridge

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Chris Carlsson helped spread Critical Mass around the world
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MIKE KOOZMIN/SF NEWSPAPER CO.

steve@sfbg.com

I was in Zeitgeist on a Friday summer evening, at a planning meeting for the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass, when I first heard about the idea of kicking off the celebration week with a renegade bicycle ride over the Bay Bridge.

The people who first shook up the city's commute two decades ago were going to take the idea of seizing space from cars a step further — and fulfill a longtime cyclist fantasy. They were going to take the bridge.

Chris Carlsson, the author/activist who helped found Critical Mass and has evangelized the concept around the world, reminded me of this super-secret ride last Wednesday when I finally got around to starting my reporting for this story. I was surprised that I'd forgotten about it — but yes, I told him, I still wanted to be there.

>>JOIN IN ON THE FESTIVITIES WITH OUR GUIDE TO THIS WEEK'S CRITICAL MASS EVENTS

"This will galvanize our sense of the week," Carlsson told me, explaining that Critical Mass has always been about "opening up a space for a conversation," whether it's about how urban space is used or who gets to make that decision.

"There is a real necessity to have a place for people to start thinking creatively. That's Critical Mass's enduring contribution, 20 years ago and today."

What started in September 1992 with 48 cyclists pedaling together through San Francisco has become an enduring worldwide phenomenon. On the last Friday of every month, without leaders or direction, this group bike ride simply meanders through the streets, riders smiling and waving at motorists often perplexed at the temporary alteration of traffic laws by a crowd too big to stop or ignore. While views of Critical Mass may differ, the conversation about urban cycling that it started has had an undeniable impact on how people see cities and their power to shape them, placing it high on the list of San Francisco's proudest cultural exports.

Last Friday evening — a week before thousands of people are expected to show up for the 20th anniversary ride Sept. 28 — I rode over to a meeting in the back of the art gallery at 518 Valencia, the welcome center for the week. The first international arrivals were there: four Europeans who flew to Mexico City, where most of them built tall bikes to cycle up to San Francisco for the anniversary ride, arriving last week after a four-month trek.

They were veterans of Critical Mass events all over Europe, which borrowed the concept from the Bay Area, and they were happy to be going back to its core.

Andrea Maccarone is a 31-year-old Italian who lives in Paris when he isn't bike touring, which he does quite a bit, last year riding to consecutive Critical Mass events in Paris, Toulouse, Rome, and Madrid. "It began here and spread everywhere," he said. "A lot of my lifestyle — I've been a bike messenger and worked in bike kitchens — is based on what started here."

His French girlfriend, Marie Huijbregts, described a cultural happening that began when she was 8 years old. "It's a political movement of cyclists to release the streets from the cars," the 28-year-old told me. "It's environmental, do-it-yourself, and a great way to meet people."

She said she wanted to be here "because it's supposed to be the biggest one and all the world was invited. It's symbolic and I wanted to be a part of it."

Carlsson has watched the event he helped popularize spread to hundreds of cities around the world, from the Biciletada in Sao Paulo to the Cyklojizda in Prague. He loves to see young people who have been energized by Critical Mass and the larger renegade cyclist movement that grew up around it — from DIY bicycle kitchens and art bikes to creative political actions that seize public spaces — "who dream of San Francisco with stars in their eyes."

Comments

as a response to the first gulf war.

During the first gulf war messengers would ride down Market on Fridays blowing whistles and yelling opposed to the war. As time wore on it was co-opted by catch all bonged out Hippies like Steve Jones.

SF has such a high turn over of bongists that these points are lost.

Posted by _ on Sep. 25, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

Thanks for the story, Steve. Critical Mass changed my life, it's changed this city, and it's changed the world . . . and all for the better! Happy Birthday Critical Mass!

Posted by Andy Blue on Sep. 25, 2012 @ 9:54 pm

Critical Mass has ridden together every month for 20 years. In that time, thousands of people have taken part. Many of those people were inspired by their experience on Critical Mass to change their lives, and to change San Francisco and the world.

What happens is that people ride with us, and they see their personal transportation choice has a political, social dimension. They realize they are part of a wider movement towards human-powered transport, towards a healthier, more social way of life, towards cities that are human scaled. They see that San Francisco could be more like Amsterdam, more like Copenhagen. And many of them decide to fight for it.

This is why this idea has spread to so many cities around the world, and continues to contribute to bike culture in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur... It's a good idea, and it started here.

Is it perfect? You'll have many, many comments here explaining why Critical Mass is not perfect. But people are flawed, democracy is messy, and changing the world is not for the weak at heart.

This is how you change things: bring people together and give them a chance to express their hope for a better world, and to put their politics into action. And don't do it just once. Do it regularly. How about once a month? How about regularly every month for 20 years? That's a start.

Posted by Hugh D'Andrade on Sep. 25, 2012 @ 8:39 pm

adults are required to understand that the antics of children are to be judged on that level.

"Critical mass" went from an anti-gulf war protest,to a catch all entitlement for spoiled middle class whiners with entitlement issues. When I was still a messenger in the 90's we would all laugh at the A-holes who would come to town to "protest" whatever it was they were protesting.

I remember sitting in the offices of Silver Bullet in Bryant on Friday's with some of the actual people who started the Friday rides that became "Critical Mass" and laughing about what lemons you all are.

The actual people who started the Friday rides that Steve now attributes to someone else all lost interest by the time it became tragicomic.

Riding a bike, which I do every day, just something I do, likely longer than you have been a bonged out entitled SF hippy. like Steve Jones.

It is interesting, riding a bike is about being a born again?

Posted by - on Sep. 25, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

So, when a bunch of bike messengers protested the gulf war, that was all good. But when non-bike messengers or out-of-towners protest, they are "whiners" "A-holes" and "lemons" who are throwing tantrums?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 10:28 am

for sure.

Posted by admin on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 10:49 am

Great article Steve!

CM has so much wrong with it that it is easy to lose sight of its essential rightness: making a few hours of rolling, passive resistance to the carbon-spewing, sprawl-inducing, road-rage world we have made for ourselves.

i <3 CM for all the good times and all the necessary statements it has made even as I recognize all the problems that some of its participants cause.

Big thanks to Chris Carlsson & Hugh D'Andrade for all they have done & continue to do for all of us!

'deep

.ps Have you ever noticed that Critical Mass, like Burning Man, has so much greatness going for it, as well as so much downside.

Posted by 'Deep on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 2:00 am

"Andrea Maccarone is a 31-year-old Italian who lives in Paris when he isn't bike touring, which he does quite a bit, last year riding to consecutive Critical Mass events in Paris, Toulouse, Rome, and Madrid. "

Posted by marcos on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 7:48 am

The Italian is a super nice guy. Why do you have to hate on everything?

Posted by UGH on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

Did I comment on whether he was a nice guy or not? I bike every day all the time because it is sustainable and keeps me healthy. For most of us, there is nothing sustainable about moving between European capitals and traveling the world to tour by bike. Most of us are just struggling to get by under long-term deteriorating economic conditions. I'm not saying don't fly, just don't fly and say that you're promoting sustainable transportation because it is not. That is like being proud that you're cleaning up, quitting smoking, but not dropping that minor heroin habit.

When the economically privileged occupy our neighborhoods, the SFBG rightly raises concerns. Does being economically privileged get you a pass when you fly to bike tours? I mean, the relative production of atmospheric carbon from one air trip to bike tours dwarfs that of the longest daily commutes in the Bay Area by orders of magnitude.

One reason why I've only done Critical Mass once, that would have been ten years ago today, is because I put my life on the line every day to ride every day and my idea of a good time is not intentionally irritating motorists and riding through stopped traffic belching fumes. I get enough of that cycling every day, thanks.

But I am glad that CM is there. I'd ride today if I was in town. I'd ride the NYC CM if it was not raining here today and did not have family commitments. Biking, like driving in Manhattan, is really like a adrenaline fueled roller coaster ride.

Oh, yeah, that and my partner and I are getting fucking married (again) this weekend, this time legally and for keeps! We got the license yesterday and will celebrate with our families this weekend. That, and the Harry Hay conference will celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth at The Stonewall Inn tomorrow nite. Good times!

Posted by marcos on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 5:08 am

Critical Mass may have started as a way to get commuters out of cars, but it's turned into a bicycle-bigotry fest. As a pedestrian, I've been nearly run down by bicycles numerous times. As a user of mass transit (Muni), I've also seen Critical Mass bicyclists taunting and even stopping buses.

Feet before wheels, even if the wheels are on bikes.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 11:33 am

they do nothing but annoy people trying top get to their homes after work!! they are nopthing but self centered imbeciles! Cetainly NOT to be "celebrated".

Posted by Guest on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

I;m a bike commuter and detest critical mass for many reasons, but tried to overcome my dislike by riding with them. While waiting for the ride to begin, I observed a prosperous-looking gentleman unpack his expensive racing bike from his big new suv, put on a fancy helmet and presto! Instant fire-breathing anarchist! After the ride began. I observed this shmuck and several of his friends cursing and threatening motorists who were just trying to get home on a Friday night. After three blocks, I'd had enough. If I were king of the forest, there would be no critical mass, no bike lanes, no pretentious bike events,and especially no well-healed creeps causing unnecessary problems for the rest of us.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 10:29 am

pretentious bike events in forests! raaaaage!

Posted by marke on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 10:52 am

Have a ball, fatso. And don't forget to bring your Hummer so you can get out of the forest.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 11:30 am

I never roll out of bed without it.

Posted by marke on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

I don't like the Blue Angels, so I leave town. I'm not into parades, I know where they are, I avoid them. Most last Fridays I want nothing to do with Critical Mass so I stay home. San Francisco doesn't revolve around me or you. Whether you hate Mass, love it, or neutral, it exists, just like crowds on game night or noisy low-flying jets. Plan accordingly. It's simple.

Posted by lemur on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

every time. Hard to avoid it if you don't know where it is going to be.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 7:37 pm

Somehow I have survived 68 years. I have lived in SF for 40 of them. I have never owned a car. A bicycle has been my only mode of transportation, along with Muni and the occasional cab when I'm feeling flush. Work or play I pedal away. During the years I was a home visit Hospice Nurse I would bike all over the city to see my patients. The highlight was when Muni added bike racks and I no longer had to pant and push up the hills of North Beach, Pac Heights etc. I salute the Bicycle Coalition for the excellent work they continue doing, despite the opposition of one particular person who shall remain nameless.
VOTE YES ON PROPOSITION 37.
VOTE NO ON PROPOSITION 32.
GO GIANTS.

Posted by Patrick Monk.RN. on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 9:15 am

What self-important bozos there are, folks who claim moral superiority based solely on their chosen mode of transportation. A monthly celebration of mob rule, sanctioned and protected by the SF Police....
Mandatory Bike helmet laws - NOW!

Posted by Richmondman on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 3:05 pm