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 28th, 2018, 5:30pm, at Justin Herman Plaza (foot of Market Street).

Argument #4 Against Critical Mass: Delaying Others Is Rude!

April 27th, 2010 by hughillustration

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Photo by Tyrell Voight Kampf

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: “Delaying Others is Rude!” Thanks for reading and commenting!

4. You are causing people to be delayed. This is rude and uncalled for.

It is true that people are delayed by Critical Mass. Mostly the delay is only a few minutes, and is on par with the traffic problems every other day of the month. But on occasion, especially in the warmer months when our ride gets larger, the delays can be longer.

This is unfortunate, and it is not the intention of most people on Critical Mass to cause anyone unnecessary inconvenience.

But if I can re-frame this problem for a moment, let me just remind you of the sort of delays and inconveniences that bicyclists experience every day of the month.

First, we are delayed by the fact that we ride in the “door zone”, the space between moving cars and parked cars. By riding in the door zone, we will arrive at our destination much later than otherwise, as we are slowed each and every time a car pulls in or out of a parking space, each and every time a driver exits, each and every time a delivery truck double parks.

By riding in the door zone, we are also choosing to accept a risk that a door will open on us, causing a serious wreck that can be deadly. Many motorists don’t know this, but bicyclists are not required by law to ride in the door zone. We are entitled to take the full lane when safety requires it, but we rarely do.

Here’s another example: taking a left turn. As bicyclists, we are entitled by law to merge with traffic in order to turn left on a two-way street. However, this is often too dangerous. So we often wait through one light, cross the road, and then turn to wait with the cross traffic to head the other way. That’s two lights instead of one, all so that you can get where you’re going and so that we won’t risk injury.

Put another way: We risk our lives and accept constant delays as a matter of course in our daily commute, all so that you — the dominant form of traffic — can get where you are going quicker.

One day a month, for only a few hours, we reverse those rules. Thousands of us ride together to see what the city would be like if bikes, rather than cars, were the dominant form of transportation. We do this once a month, and we like what we see. During Critical Mass, we can feel how much better life is, how much better our city is, on these new terms. Suddenly, rather than scurrying around town, afraid for our lives, we can take a leisurely stroll while exploring our city. Suddenly, the air is filled with laughter, conversation and music rather than car horns and exhaust fumes. The daily commute becomes a celebration of life, rather than a deadly and dangerous gamble.

Is this tit-for-tat? Not at all. We know it’s not your fault that our cities are poorly organized. We are not trying to delay motorists as payback for the delays we suffer. We are simply asserting ourselves! We are saying that we are traffic too! And we’re trying to demonstrate, for ourselves and for you, that our form of traffic is actually better — more efficient, more social, more fun, and less dangerous. We’re trying to make our city great.

We know we create delays, and for that we would like to say We’re Sorry! But again, let’s remember that it is only for a few hours each month, always on the last Friday of the month. Why not leave your car at home? Wouldn’t it be great if one day, it became a tradition in our city that most people walk, take public transport, or bike on the last Friday of each month?

We invite you to join us every month to 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!

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Argument #5 Against Critical Mass: You’ll Spark a Backlash!

April 26th, 2010 by hughillustration

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Photo by Tyrell Voit Kampf

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: “You’ll spark a backlash!” Thanks for reading and commenting!

2. Critical Mass is counterproductive. It angers motorists and the general public, who will then be less likely to support bicyclists and bike issues. There will be a backlash.

I first heard this argument from the head of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition — in 1993. He told me that if we continued, the public and city planners would turn against cyclists, and the bicyclist cause would be set back by a generation. Critical Mass will create a backlash!

That is not what happened.

What did happen is that, in the years since Critical Mass began, bicycling has moved from the margins of society to the center. Each year has brought an increase in cyclists in San Francisco, each year has brought more investment in bike lanes and infrastructure generally. The SF Bike Coalition, which in 1992 had only a handful of members and met in the back of a Chinese restaurant, now has over 10,000 members and enjoys real clout with politicians and the city bureaucracy.

More importantly, motorists now largely respect bicyclists as legitimate traffic, which was far from the case when we began our ride in 1992. Back then, the prevailing attitude was that the streets were the province of motorized traffic, and that everyone else was simply borrowing access. And if you were on a bike, you felt this attitude quite clearly. Motorists would honk, yell at you to get off the road or get a car, and they often failed to even acknowledge your presence or your right to the road. (You may experience some of this now, but if you weren’t cycling in the early ’90s, take my word for it: it was much worse.)

So the predicted backlash against cycling issues has never materialized. It appears that, despite Critical Mass, more people are biking, more people support bike-friendly initiatives, more city and state money is being spent on bike infrastructure, and more motorists accept bicyclists as legitimate traffic. So far, there is no evidence — zero — that our monthly ride has had a negative or dampening effect on the rise of bicycling as a mainstream traffic choice.

What is more likely is that our ride made a meaningful contribution to this ongoing shift in our culture and our traffic priorities. But I’ll try to address that in an upcoming post.

Next up: You are causing people to be delayed. This is rude and uncalled for.

Previously: Argument 6: Critical Mass does not stop for red lights.

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Argument #6 Against Critical Mass: Running Red Lights

April 25th, 2010 by hughillustration

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In talking to commenters on this blog, and to people critical of Critical Mass for many years, I have begun to hear the same arguments over and over. I find myself saying and writing the same things in response, making the same points over and over.

So this week I am taking what I consider the 6 best and most common arguments against Critical Mass, and try to give them each a fair answer — one answer per day. (In Dave Letterman style, we’re counting backwards, starting with #6.)

First up: Running red lights! Thanks for reading and commenting!

Argument #6: Critical Mass does not stop for red lights. This is not just illegal, it is also immoral.

This is by far the most common criticism of Critical Mass. We hear this from passers by, from the police, from blogs and newspapers. Everyone, it seems, agrees that we should stop for red lights.

Critical Mass does not run red lights just because we can. Actually, the front of the ride generally stops for red lights (allowing the rest of the ride to re-group). However, when a light changes in the middle of the ride, the cyclists generally continue through, and this is done for one reason: Safety.

By staying together in one group, by remaining a dense mass of bicyclists, we can avoid accidents. When we do stop for lights, we find cars and motorcycles get caught up in the middle of our ride, and this is when accidents can happen. By displacing cars completely for a few blocks, we are able to enjoy a safe ride through San Francisco.

You might also be interested to know that Critical Mass has, on at least one occasion, ridden “to rule,” stopping for every light and taking only one lane of traffic (in response to a police crackdown in August of 1997). Surprisingly, the result of this tactic was a Critical Mass that was longer and slower than ever, and this ended up creating even more disruption to motorized traffic than usual. The police backed off as they realized that the best way to minimize the impact of Critical Mass was to allow it to pass quickly.

Is this legal? Probably not. However, we are not the only scofflaws on the road. Most motorists break the law every day, several times a day, when they drive 5-10 miles over the speed limit on most roads. If you believe the law must be obeyed by everyone, at all times, then perhaps you should start by examining your own behavior.*

Is it moral? If keeping people safe is a prime moral goal, our running of red lights is more than justified. We have not had a serious accident on Critical Mass for over 17 years (knock on wood), and this is in part thanks to our habit of staying together through red lights. Meanwhile, thousands of people die each year because motorists are driving over the speed limit. If the police want to enforce the law in order to maintain public safety, it is clear where they should start.

Next up, Argument #5:Critical Mass is counterproductive. It angers motorists and the general public, who will then be less likely to support bicyclists and bike issues.

* Am I saying that scofflaw behavior from one group makes it OK from another? No. What I am saying is that motorists who self righteously declare that bicyclists need to start obeying the law in order to have their concerns heard are being hypocritical. Your failure to drive the speed limit is far more common, and sadly far more deadly, than our failure to stop for red lights.

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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Bad Press for Everyone!

March 30th, 2010 by hughillustration

Commenter Peter Smith posted a link to an item on Cyclelicious concerning the awesome San Jose Bike Party. It seems that even if you stop for red lights, eject anyone who acts like a jerk, don’t drink in public, and in all respects carry on like a model minority, you will still be blamed for the traffic woes of your city. From the San Jose Merc:

The bike ride through town snarled traffic, so police rerouted drivers away from N. Santa Cruz Avenue.

“It was terrible,” former Los Gatos resident Emerald Hathaway said. “I couldn’t even get onto N. Santa Cruz. They were riding around all the cars. It was quite a sight.”

Los Gatos Weekly-Times columnist Mary Ann Cook also got stuck in the melee, saying it took a long time to get out of downtown.

Notice that the sight of bicyclists riding easily through motorized gridlock is described as “terrible.” Really? I wonder what word they use to describe traffic the other 30 days of the week?

And then there’s that unpleasant word “snarl.” Journalists always use that one, as if they imagine traffic to be smiling until a nasty gang of cyclists rides by, causing traffic’s upper lip to curl defensively. Well, everyone knows traffic is predictably “snarled” every day as a result of poor city planning that has favored the private automobile for decades now. And we see the results.

Of course, the San Francisco Critical Mass gets this sort of press every month. I’m not bringing it up to disparage the excellent efforts of the San Jose ride. But the point is that you can’t change the rules of the road — even momentarily, even one day a month, even while stopping for red lights — without people blaming you for the very problem you are trying to solve.

Might as well accept the fact that we’re going to be unpopular, and get on with the task of building a genuine public culture, public discussion, public space for everyone!