A few months back, when we first started this blog, we got several comments from readers repeating the common criticism that Critical Mass does not stop for red lights. “The San Jose Bike Party stops for lights,” they said — and they noted that San Jose also tries to minimize inconvenience for motorists by not taking all lanes where possible. If San Jose can do this, why can’t SF?
This piqued my curiosity. I have always argued that a ride of this size can’t stop for red lights without creating even more disruption to other traffic, and that by staying together as a mass, our ride was moving quicker and safer than otherwise. Had the San Jose folks found a solution to this problem?
Checking out their very professional website, I learned that San Jose is no small ride — they claim 3 thousand riders — and that they are amazingly organized: they have pre-planned routes, regular meetings, and dozens of volunteers.
Last night, I took the CalTrain down there with Joel, Keeeth, Nellie and Nio to do a little investigation. Our report back: It was awesome! I came away with a real respect for the love and care and serious work these folks put into their event. The vibe from riders and motorists was overwhelmingly positive. (Joel has some longer notes you should read if you’re curious.)
But while San Francisco’s ride could really use some of that positive, celebratory energy (especially lately), there really is no way the San Jose model could apply. Why? Because San Jose is a totally different city! Their streets are wider, so that the ride can often allow cars to take a lane. Their blocks are longer (way longer), allowing the entire ride to wait together for a red light. And the traffic is so light that there is way less pressure and anger from delayed motorists.
There was one element of the ride that I found disturbing, and that is that each nice person I met in San Jose was under the impression that Critical Mass is an “angry protest,” bent on making life miserable for motorists and “sticking it to the drivers.” They said that their ride was different because it was a “celebration!”
That is really depressing for me, learning what a bad image problem Critical Mass has. For the record, as someone who has ridden on Critical Mass since the beginning and has been making flyers and helping out that entire time: Critical Mass is a celebration, not a protest. We are not out to ruin anybody’s night, not deliberately trying to delay anyone, and we are not out to punish motorists! We have almost two decades worth of flyers that have said that over and over again.
Anyone curious about this question ought to take a good look at the fantastic film Critical Mass: We Are Traffic by Ted White (you can watch the whole thing online). Or pick up a copy of Chris Carlsson’s edited collection, Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration. Both will give you a good picture of what we’re really all about.
In any case, if you enjoy Critical Mass, I guarantee you will dig the San Jose Bike Party. It takes place on the 3rd Friday of every month. You should go down there and check it out for yourself!