What is Critical Mass?

Critical Mass is a mass bicycle ride that takes place on the last Friday of each month in cities around the world. Everyone is invited! No one is in charge! Bring your bike!

Next San Francisco Critical Mass: December 29th, 2017, 5:30pm, at Justin Herman Plaza (foot of Market Street).

Argument #1 Against Critical Mass: It Doesn’t Change Anything!

April 30th, 2010 by hughillustration
Art by Mona Caron

Art by Mona Caron

This week I have taken what I consider the 6 best and most common arguments against Critical Mass, and given them each a fair answer — one per day. This is the last in the series!

Thanks for reading and commenting!

1. Critical Mass is just a rolling party. It is apolitical, and doesn’t create meaningful social change (or the change it creates is negative.)

An argument I have heard from left and right, from motorists and bicyclists and pedestrians, is that Critical Mass doesn’t create meaningful change. I touched on this a bit with my first post in this series, in which I recounted a conversation I had 17 years ago with a prominent bike activist who warned me that Critical Mass would spark a backlash.

As I said before, that backlash never materialized. Instead, we have seen the following awesome changes since the early ’90s, when Critical Mass began:

    • More bikes on the road, increasing every year
    • Massive and unprecedented increases in the membership of bike advocacy groups
    • More funding for bike infrastructure
    • Increasing respect from motorized traffic

Did Critical Mass play a significant role in propelling these changes? As a participant and observer of the changes in this city over the last two decades, I can tell you that it certainly did. Many, many of the people who became involved in various forms of bike activism, from rejuvenating SFBC to organizing bike messengers to bike cultural events like Cyclecide and dozens of other initiatives were all riding in Critical Mass. Often, the very thing that inspired individuals to get involved in bike activism was their experience on Critical Mass. People came to our monthly bike ride and got a taste of what was possible, and that propelled them into a life of activism and social change around human-powered transit.

Take the case of local blogger and filmmaker Adam Greenfield, who recently decided to try a year of car-free living which he documented on his blog. What was it that inspired Adam to make this change?

In 2004, Greenfield came to San Francisco to get his master’s degree and discovered Critical Mass. He had never imagined a peloton of like-minded political cyclists, reclaiming the city streets in a show of force.

“That first Critical Mass ride, I saw the bike as a vision of the future,” he said.

That is only one person’s relatively recent account, but it is hardly unusual. Over the years that Critical Mass has been riding, hundreds if not thousands of people have been inspired in just the same way that Adam was. What I have seen happen again and again is that people ride with us and their view of the world is changed, their view of what is possible is expanded. They see change that they themselves are making in the world, and they like what they see. They are inspired by the vision of a different kind of city that they can create — even if only for a few hours, one day a month. And that draws them in.

People are drawn into friendship circles of others who ride. People are drawn into advocacy groups like the SFBC and Livable Cities and Walk Oakland Bike Oakland. People are drawn into a street culture that values sociability and public space, and they find their social networks and political ideas expanding. People are drawn into a new understanding of the city, and how easy it is the change the city with enough people and enough enthusiasm.

We have brought people out to flood the streets with bikes every month for over 17 years, and our model has spread to over 300 cities around the world. We have already changed the world, even if that change is subtle, difficult to document, and remains controversial. Give it time. Over the coming years and decades, San Francisco will continue to become a more bike-friendly town. One day it may even rival Copenhagen and Amsterdam as a capital of forward-thinking planning around human-powered transport. When and if that happens, the people of the future will look back at Critical Mass, and they’ll know that what we did helped shift the balance in the right direction.

Why don’t you join us on your bike, and see for yourself? Who knows, you might end up getting inspired to change your life and change your city!

Here’s the rest of the series:
Argument 6: You Don’t Stop for Red Lights
Argument 5: You’ll Spark a Backlash!
Argument 4: Delaying Others is Rude!
Argument 3: You’re Angry!
Argument 2: I Saw An Incident!
Argument 1: Critical Mass Doesn’t Change Anything!

Argument 2 Against Critical Mass: I Saw An Incident!

April 29th, 2010 by hughillustration

Critical Mass confrontation

2. I saw an incident on Critical Mass in which cyclists were rude/abusive/violent. This event delegitimates the entire ride in my eyes.

Let me just start this way: this type of behavior is uncalled for, and it should be roundly condemned by everyone. No one should be mistreated or have their property damaged just because they happened to be in a car on the last Friday of the month. Full stop. No excuses.

From my perspective as a long-time participant in Critical Mass, these moments are rare. If you ride on Critical Mass, or simply watch from the sidelines as it goes by, you will see that the vast majority of interactions between the riders and the public are positive. We often see people get out of their cars to cheer us on and dance with the music we have blasting. People lean out of their office and apartment windows to shout encouragement. Tourists and shoppers seem to enjoy the spectacle and are curious about what it’s about. Negative incidents account for a very small percentage of what happens on Critical Mass.

However, it is true that while these problems are rare, they do occur. Tempers are hot in the crowded streets of this dense, diverse city. Even on a normal day in San Francisco, there is a lot of competition for right-of-way on our narrow, congested streets.

On Critical Mass, there have been conflicts. On a few occasions in our 17+ years of existence, bicycles have been crushed by vehicles, and on at least one occasion a car window was smashed. Some of these conflicts were initiated by motorists, some by bicyclists.

Does this mean that everyone on Critical Mass is guilty of being abusive? Clearly not.

As the organizers of sports events well know, any large gathering includes a few anti-social individuals. The larger the group, the more likely that you will have problems with jerks who were not treated well as children and who do not know how to behave in public. Uncivil behavior exists as a small percentage of all groups. (In fact, we bicyclists often notice anti-social — and downright murderous — behavior emanating from people in cars on a regular basis.)

If you want to dismiss Critical Mass for the small number of negative events that have happened in our history, there isn’t much I or anyone else can say to convince you otherwise. But to be consistent, you should distance yourself from sports events, political rallies, Bay to Breakers, Chinese New Year, and every other large scale public event you can imagine.

Alternatively, we might want to think constructively about this problem, since it affects everyone and is apparently endemic to city living.

Critical Mass participants should practice self-management, and that means calling out bad behavior when we see it. Every time I have done so, I have seen the misbehaving person shrink away. As is often noted, bullies are cowards that fear confrontation. I would like to make this point especially to those who may have stopped riding on Critical Mass because they have witnessed things they don’t approve of. Why not stick up for your beliefs and confront behavior you don’t like? Democratic self-governance calls for it!

So, to answer this criticism, I say the following: these problems are A) rare and unrepresentative of the ride as whole, B) blown out of proportion by news media and others, C) inevitable given the size of the event, and D) easily confronted and minimized.

Here’s the rest of the series:
Argument 6: You Don’t Stop for Red Lights
Argument 5: You’ll Spark a Backlash!
Argument 4: Delaying Others is Rude!
Argument 3: You’re Angry!
Argument 2: I Saw An Incident!
Argument 1: Critical Mass Doesn’t Change Anything!

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Budapest Critical Mass — It’s Huge!

April 28th, 2010 by hughillustration

Here’s an amazing video, beautifully shot by Daniel Fiantok and set to a Gnarls Barkley song, of the Budapest Critical Mass Earth Day ride on April 24. The Budapest ride is the largest on the planet, with tens of thousands of riders. Why is their ride so huge? Funny you should ask. Joel wrote a great piece a while back about this very subject.

Tilt & Shift Critical Mass from daniel fiantok on Vimeo.

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Argument #3 Against Critical Mass: You’re Angry!

April 28th, 2010 by hughillustration

Ride Daily Poster by Beth Verdekal

Poster design by Beth Verdekal


This week I am taking what I consider the 6 best and most common arguments against Critical Mass, and giving them each a fair answer — one per day.

Today’s argument: “Critical Mass is Angry!” Thanks for reading and commenting!

3. Critical Mass is not a celebration of bikes or bike culture. It is an angry, confrontational event designed to purposefully delay and anger motorists, to punish drivers for the crime of being in a car on a Friday night.

This observation is usually based on anecdotal evidence, or on news reports that presented our ride in a bad light. Therefore, I would like to reply with an anecdote of my own.

I have been riding on Critical Mass since it began, and I know hundreds of people who take part in the ride, some regularly and some sporadically. Over the years I have had conversations with thousands of Critical Mass participants. In all that time, out of all those people, I have rarely encountered anyone whose purpose or intent was to delay or anger motorists.

Most people you encounter on Critical Mass are out to enjoy a safe and social ride through San Francisco, one of the greatest cities in the world. They ride to meet people, to explore the city they love, and to demonstrate to others and to themselves how much better the city would be if more people got around on bikes. Most of them are serious cyclists that ride their bikes to their jobs or to school. And — just like most people in this society organized around motorized traffic — Critical Mass participants are at least occasional motorists. All of us have friends and family who drive.

You may still believe that the real purpose of Critical Mass is to confront and antagonize others. If that is true, then where is the evidence? Where are the online discussions and websites promoting this supposedly dominant value of Critical Mass? Where are the flyers circulated to instill this value in participants?

I challenge you to bring me evidence backing up your belief. Meanwhile, I can show you dozens of flyers and online discussions saying the exact opposite — texts with the specific purpose of reminding Critical Mass participants that motorists are not the enemy and that blaming them is counterproductive and stupid.

Typically, people that have a low opinion of Critical Mass change their minds after they have ridden with us. When you bring your bike down to Justin Herman Plaza and meet people, talk to them while you ride through the streets together (in complete safety, for once!), you may find that you have a different perspective. You may see that we aren’t perfect, and we may have strange ideas about how to change the world, but we aren’t monsters. For the most part we want what you want: a city that is safe, open to everyone, and fun to explore. Why not join us and see for yourself?

Here’s the rest of the series:
Argument 6: You Don’t Stop for Red Lights
Argument 5: You’ll Spark a Backlash!
Argument 4: Delaying Others is Rude!
Argument 3: You’re Angry!
Argument 2: I Saw An Incident!
Argument 1: Critical Mass Doesn’t Change Anything!