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."

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