Critical Mass at 20 - Page 4

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.

I first encountered Critical Mass in 2001 when I was the news editor for the Sacramento News & Review, and Berkeley resident Jason Meggs brought the movement into automobile-centric Sacramento. My reporters and I covered those early rides, which were met with a harsh crackdown by police, who often cited every minor traffic violation.

But Meggs was committed to the concept, as he wrote in his Shift Happens! essay entitled, "The Johnny Appleseed of Critical Mass," a role he has played over the last 19 years. "Critical Mass made me a video activist and filmmaker; it sent me to jail and then to law school, and again to graduate school for healthy cities. It provided us the space to build a vibrant bicycle culture, and to feel free and alive in cities that otherwise felt hostile, caustic, and alien," he wrote.

Meggs calculates that he's been arrested more than 20 times and received more than 100 traffic tickets during Critical Mass events, beginning with the Berkeley Critical Mass that he started in March of 1993, in part to protest plans to widen I-80.

"Those early rides were legendary — moment to moment ecstatic joy and street theater," he remembered. "The combination of bike activists and freeway fighters with anarcho-environmentalists on wheels was a combination that couldn't be beat. Like a newscaster once said of Critical Mass, back then we were drunk with power."

Yet in almost city where it's sprouted, Critical Mass has had to battle through crackdowns by police, which are often met with greater determination by the cycling community. San Francisco fought through a showdown with Mayor Willie Brown in 1997, when his threats to shut Critical Mass down turned out thousands of cyclists for the next ride.

In 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle sensationalized a conflict between a motorist and Critical Mass, beginning a media campaign that led Mayor Gavin Newsom to order a heavy police presence on subsequent rides — a show of force, but one without any apparent plan or directive — again increasing number of cyclists.

Each time, San Francisco city officials were forced to accept the inevitability of Critical Mass, opting to avoid the route of the harsh, sustained, and costly crackdowns employed in New York City, whose police and city officials essentially went to war with Critical Mass in 2004 and have all-but destroyed it. Portland has also had a tumultuous relationship with its Critical Mass, with police there essentially shutting it down.

Yet Carlsson noted in his Shift Happens essay that the bicycle activism that formed along with those rides still prevailed: "Both cities — not coincidentally I think — have implemented extensive and intensive street-level redesigns to accommodate the enormous increase in daily cycling that followed the rapid growth and ultimate repression of their Critical Mass rides."

San Francisco has seen an even greater explosion in the number of cyclists on the roadways, so many that spontaneous "mini-Masses" of cyclists form up during the daily commutes on Market Street and elsewhere. But despite the near-universal City Hall support for cycling here, and the SFBC's status as one of the city's largest grassroots political advocacy organizations, Carlsson said San Francisco's cyclists still lack the infrastructure and policies needed to safely get around the city.

That's one reason why the challenge of Critical Mass is still relevant, he said, and one reason why we were determined to ride our bikes into San Francisco on the Bay Bridge.

 

ANOTHER DAY

The cops left a little before 6pm, so we massed up and headed for the Bay Bridge, pedaling single-file up a long hill. Soon, the long western span of the bridge came into view, stretching to the downtown destination that we all hoped to reach without incident or arrest, as we passed a sign reading "Pedestrians and Bicycles Prohibited."

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