Critical Mass at 20 - Page 3

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.

"It is a sad commentary on the nature of our government that the only way the state transit agency will take bicycling seriously as everyday transportation is when pressured by demonstrations and organized public demands," Carlsson wrote on the flyer. "Why don't they take the lead in opening space for cycling instead of doing everything to obstruct, deny, and prevent cycling?"

Even getting to Treasure Island for a bike ride isn't easy for the car-free. Muni only allows two bikes at a time on its 108 bus, so Carlsson borrowed a van to shuttle almost 20 of us out there in multiple trips. Among the crew were the group that rode up from Mexico City, a Peruvian, and many regular local Critical Mass riders, including Bike Cavalry founder Paul Jordan and LisaRuth Elliott, a 10-year Critical Mass rider who helped edit Shift Happens and coordinate volunteers for the anniversary week, along with a couple of its very early adherents: Hugh D'Andrade and Glenn Bachmann.

"Nobody knew what we were doing," Bachmann said of that first ride. "We didn't know what was going to happen. But displacing cars left us this intense euphoria.

Elliott said she was drawn to Critical Mass shortly after she got into urban cycling, attracted by the sense of community that had developed around her transportation choice. She was later inspired to visit Paris and Marseille and other cities that adopted Critical Mass rides.

"They have taken charge and are leading their movements to better bicyclable cities. It's an adaptable idea," she told me as we prepared to load our bikes on the van bound for Treasure Island.

Once we were out there, we gathered for a picnic on the beach in Cooper Cove, where we got some sobering news from David Wedding Dress, who talked us through the ride and was going to be trailing our crew in his Mercedes as a safety measure.

"Prepare to be in jail until Monday morning," he told us. There were also the high winds and dangerous gaps to contend with, offering a bleak prognosis.

A veteran radical activist and bicyclist, Dress has ridden the bridge before and been arrested most times, and he didn't share Carlsson's view that we were most likely to get away with it. When Carlsson arrived, he tried to shore up our spirits, saying we'd probably be okay if we maintained the element of surprise.

"We have a right to do this and make that point," Carlsson said.

Elliott, who was already a wobbler going in, decided not to ride, but 16 of us decided to do it anyway, feeling nervous but excited. When a CHP patrol pulled over a car near our spot and it turned into an hour-long arrest and towing ordeal, which we were forced to wait out, we had plenty of time to think about what we were doing.

As D'Andrade told me as we waited to ride up to the bridge entrance, "What feels to me like the early days of Critical Mass is how scary this is."

 

THE EARLY DAYS

In the beginning, the Critical Mass activists say their battle for space was a safety issue infused with a political message, delivered with a smile derived from the joyous new discovery that riding with friends made it much easier. San Francisco streets were designed for automobiles, and to a lesser extent public transit, with cycling relegated to the bike messengers and a few renegades seen by most as simply refusing to grow up.

Even the nascent San Francisco Bicycle Coalition of that era — which grew in numbers and power on a similar trajectory as Critical Mass, despite its policy of maintaining a defensible distance from that outlaw event — was initially dominated by the philosophy that urban cyclists should ride quickly with car traffic and didn't need separate lanes.

"That's what I like to remind people is how scary bicycling was in San Francisco in the early '90s," D'Andrade said.