Critical Mass at 20 - Page 2

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

Chris Carlsson helped spread Critical Mass around the world

But he often feels like we're the "hole in the donut" of this international urban cycling movement, unable to retain the same intention and energy that it had when Carlsson, Jim Swanson, and a group of their bike messenger and anarchist cyclist friends conceived of the idea (originally called Commute Clot) in the Market Street office of a zine called Processed World.

Carlsson still hears the stories from people whose lives were changed by Critical Mass. But it was only in the last year or so, as the 20th anniversary approached, that he started regularly riding Critical Mass again, with a new generation of participants often drawn by confrontational yahooism, riding well-trod routes and rejecting efforts to suggest destinations as counter to its leaderless ethos.

"It's extremely predictable now and I'm sick of it," Carlsson admitted to me, a less diplomatic version of what he wrote in the introduction to the newly released book of essays he edited, Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20, writing that the "euphoria of cooperative, joyful reinhabitation of urban space is hard to sustain after a awhile."

Yet that powerful central idea is still there, and it remains as relevant as ever in cities dominated by fast-moving cars. People working together to create "an organized coincidence" can still change the rules of the road, opening up all kinds of new possibilities.

"It is an unpredictable space and you never know what's going to happen," Carlsson told me. That's true of the history of Critical Mass around the world — with its storied clashes with cops and motorists, and its glorious convergences and joyful infectiousness — and it was true of our quest to take the Bay Bridge the next day.




We weren't just being daredevils. The idea of fighting for a freeway lane against six lanes of fast-moving cars, drivers distracted by that epic view of San Francisco, was conceived by Carlsson as a political statement protesting current plans to rebuild the Bay Bridge with a bike lane going only from Oakland to Treasure Island, leaving out that final 2.5-mile stretch into The City.

And for years, the Bay Bridge had been out there as a symbol of where bikes couldn't go — and in dozens of demonstrations, riders have sought to make it up those ramps, particularly during the Bikes Not Bombs rides protesting the US invasion of Iraq, only to be blocked by police.

Carlsson handed out flyers headlined "A Bay Bridge for Everyone," harking back to the early pre-Internet "xerocracy" that used flyers to promote Critical Mass ideas or suggest routes. A local historian, Carlsson included photos and descriptions of the Bay Bridge with three lanes of cars in each direction on the top deck, back when the lower deck had trains.

Why couldn't we have one lane back for bikes? Well, it's actually under consideration — sort of.

The idea of creating a bicycle/pedestrian lane on the western span is the subject of an ongoing $1.6 million study by Caltrans and the Bay Area Toll Authority, which are looking at attaching paths to the sides of the bridge. That would likely require replacing the decks on the bridge with a lighter new surface to compensate for the added weight, all at a cost of up to $1 billion.

Carlsson thinks that's ridiculous overkill, and probably intended to scuttle the idea (or else put the blame on bicyclists for the cost of resurfacing the bridge). "For five grand, in three hours it could be done," he said, arguing that all cyclists need is a lane, a protective barrier, perhaps a lowering of the speed limit — oh, and the political will to recognize that we have as much right to this roadway as motorists.