Optimism is Hard Work: An Ex-Masser Speaks Out

November 18th, 2009 by hughillustration

This post was sent to me by a friend who no longer rides on Critical Mass:

Critical Mass is at its best an expression of optimism. It’s exuberant. It’s inclusive to riders and non-riders. It’s fun, it’s raucous, it’s irrepressible, it’s uplifting. We aren’t waiting for later, we are making the world we want to live in, right there in front of everyone, snd all kinds of people want to live in that world with us.

But optimism, like rational thought, diversity, real food, relationships, and everything else worth cultivating, takes work. Few people have done the work of Critical Mass over the last few years. No one wants to do the work anymore, and I think the sheer numbers of new Massers have made it a daunting, if not near-impossible task.

I started going to Critical Mass in 1992. I stopped going a few years ago, for a couple of reasons. I’ve always enjoyed the political marketplace of Justin Herman Plaza before the ride and drinking beer in the park after the ride more than the ride itself. Eventually the ride itself became so unenjoyable – never stopping, repeating routes, unnecessarily clogging intersections, and so on – that I stopped going altogether.

In the 1990’s, I usually made a flyer to pass out each month. I spent a good deal of effort explaining the concept of breaking large rides into more easily managed mini-masses, exhorting us to wait at stoplights, to keep our groups together. I advocated meeting up at a destination to hang out afterwards rather than trying to keep a large group together all night.

I noticed that only when dedicated people flyered and spoke to riders consistently for several months did our efforts make any difference. Passing out a flyer alone is not enough, talking to people alone is not enough. Distracted people stick your flyer in their pocket and read only the next morning. New massers need to know that everyone is responsible for the ride, and talking face to face is the way to demonstrate this.

I often argued in the past that the destination was more important than the route, and I still believe this. If the ride is big enough, it’s much better to break up into small groups and just know that you’ll find your friends at the park afterwards (and yes, this worked perfectly without cell phones). Destinations can be far, like Sausalito, though I’ve always preferred the close-in ones, like the Palace of Fine Arts and Dolores or Precita Parks.

And finally, a word about technology. Yep. It’s an anti-fixie screed. Trying to mass up with a herd of fixie riders in the front is impossible, because fixie riders don’t want to lose their momentum. I do feel that the popularity of fixies degraded the quality of Critical Mass. We now have never-ending masses that are strung out to all ends of the City, because there is a group of relatively fast, constantly moving cyclists at the front of the ride.

There is no question Critical Massers should work to change the ride again. We need to help reduce conflict, reduce disruptions to MUNI, create destinations, increase the awareness of new riders about ways to ride enjoyably. We need to bring back the exuberance, and share it with pedestrians, MUNI riders, and motorists. Interestingly, awareness and public support for cyclists is probably higher than it’s ever been in the history of Critical Mass, and it seems to me that people are finally understanding why we ride together – and that us riding together for years
and years has indeed resulted in a number of positive changes. It would be a pity to waste real public goodwill with testosterone-poisoned conflict and tired, repetitive, confrontative rides.

It certainly will take several, perhaps tens or hundreds, of dedicated people working over several months to bring a change in the mass. Is it possible? Is Critical Mass is irretrievable?

– A.S.

3 Responses to “Optimism is Hard Work: An Ex-Masser Speaks Out”

  1. The fact that there’s no consensus about what the ride is for makes it so there will never be a Mass that runs happily ever after–just like the world at large. Instead, if we succeed at some of the changes being asked for by A.S. above, it’ll run better by the standards of one group (enjoyers of harmony) and not another (enjoyers of bravado, self-aggrandizement, righteousness), for a bit, and then shift and need effort again. Like life, it’s a permanent and ongoing effort that we have to relish as a process, not a goal.

  2. dan says:

    just a month ago i started talking to a number of people about starting a new additional ride – modeled after sjbikeparty. i’d rather just let CM continue and start a new ride at a different time. surely this town is big enough for two rides? the sjbikeparty people have a lot of good info about how to keep the ride a fun party and not an aggro political statement. email me if you want to coordinate.

  3. [...] list of “do’s and don’t’s”, and a rumination from a long-time former Masser on the hard work it takes to keep a space like Critical Mass open and inviting and pleasurable, as well as a look at [...]

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