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.

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