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).

KGO Radio on Critical Mass

March 6th, 2010 by hughillustration


Photo by Lara Schneider

KGO Radio did an hour on the subject of Critical Mass, and the reports that the SFPD is reviewing its policy concerning the ride (whatever that means). Host Gil Gross let me talk for 10 minutes or so, then opened the phone lines. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the comments from listeners. While several callers disliked Critical Mass, they were all pretty even-handed and they made some good points. And about half the calls were pro-Critical Mass, including great calls from friends Adam & Joel. So that was nice.

Here’s a recording in case you’re curious:

I should say that I’m really ambivalent about doing this type of media work. For one thing, I don’t feel I have the authority to speak for the ride, which is an unorganized, leaderless phenomenon. And I also find that most media don’t have much time to spend on important social questions — gotta get to that commercial break! — so you can’t say much interesting. And then there’s the fact that I often freeze up under pressure.

But in this case, I was inclined to talk to the media for a few reasons. One was that the KGO folks agreed to describe me as simply “a participant,” not an organizer or spokesperson. Another was that they were offering a full 10 minutes to lay out my case, rather than a 2 second soundbite. But the real reason I wanted to do this was to counter the narrative that presents Critical Mass as a conflict between ordinary folks in their cars being attacked by angry anarchists on bikes. With the police reconsidering their polices (whatever that means) and the media trying to whip up a storm against us, it’s more important than ever that we do so.

As I said in the interview, the truth is that Critical Mass is NOT universally hated. What we see when we’re out on the roads is a lot of positive energy and enjoyment of our ride, coming from pedestrians, motorists, tourists, children, bus passengers — all sorts of people cheer us on, honk in support, and even get out of their cars to dance with the music we bring into the streets. I don’t mean to sugar coat things, and it’s true that people are annoyed and delayed by our ride. But we also bring some joy to what is for most people a dull and dreary commute.

I’d be curious to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the pros and cons of speaking to the media! Leave a comment!

Why the Cops Will Not Shut Down Critical Mass

March 2nd, 2010 by hughillustration

Written up for, of all things, no front headlight.

Photo by Rock The Bike

Last Friday’s Critical Mass was like de ja vu all over again. Just like last month, we had rain that cleared up at the last minute. As in January, we had a nice, small, intimate ride. And we also had the pleasure of media presence down at Pee Wee Herman Plaza, though as usual we couldn’t get a journalist to ride with us. (Mainstream journalists, I find, live in fear of getting bicycle grease on their lapels.)

KTVU did get a couple of good soundbites from Critical Massers:

So, the media seem to be quite interested in this question of whether the police might want to stop Critical Mass, to the point that they are wasting air time on hypothetical affirmative answers to hypothetical questions. Well, they’ll have to keep doing hypothetical journalism, because it ain’t going to happen.

The first, most obvious reason is that, as I mentioned previously, they tried it before and it didn’t work. Mayor Willie Brown famously tried to stop the ride in 1997 and ended up blowing Critical Mass up to 5000-7000 riders, rather than the usual 1 or 2000. He backpedaled on that one pretty quick.

But there’s another reason, and it has to with elementary math. Here’s how it works:

The cops like to detain and arrest people in situations where they enjoy overwhelming advantage. Every time you see an arrest happening, you see one guy detained surrounded by what appears to be dozens of guys in blue. That’s just how the SFPD rolls — they like to outnumber their opponents, and who can blame them? I’d probably want the same security in numbers if I had their job.

So let’s say they want to do this thing with Critical Mass. Probably they could cut back and limit themselves to a 5-1 ratio. 5 cops detaining, ticketing, maybe arresting 1 biker. It’s tight, but they could do it.

Well, there are at a minimum 200 people at Critical Mass, and on a warmer evening, easily over 1000. You can see right there that the department just can’t afford the time, the manpower, the expense to even put a dent in a group our size. Add to that the mobility and agility of Critical Mass, and you can see it’s a headache no cop — or no cop interested in stopping real crime — wants to bother with.

The SFPD may be a lot of things, but dumb they are not. They know that Critical Mass has become part of the colorful (and sometimes disruptive) fabric of San Francisco’s social life, and it would take a major initiative to uproot it. Without major funding and major pressure from on high, they won’t bother.

That’s why they’ve tolerated us for so long, and why they’ll likely continue to do so.

Judge Rules Against NYC Critical Mass

February 16th, 2010 by hughillustration

Critical Mass, NYC

The NYC Critical Mass has been besieged for years by a police crackdown, well documented in the film Still We Ride. In response to the massive ride that took place during the 2004 Republican Convention, the cops tried to impose a rule that required groups of 50 or more cyclists to acquire a parade permit. That rule was challenged in court in 2007, and today the judge in that case delivered his decision:

A federal judge in Manhattan on Tuesday ruled that the City of New York did not violate the constitutional rights of cyclists by requiring them to file for parade permits when they rode in groups of 50 or more. The ruling is a blow to organizers of the Critical Mass bike protests in Manhattan.

The judge, Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York, said that he was sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ concerns and acknowledged their inconvenience. However, Judge Kaplan said the parade regulations and their enforcement by the New York Police Department did not violate the Constitution.

As an example of how stupid this ruling is, imagine trying to enforce a 50 rider limit in Amsterdam — or anywhere in China and most of Asia, for that matter. It would be impossible, since there are thousands of cyclists on the road at any given time. Or how about Bike to Work day? Will the cops enforce a 50 rider limit that day as well?

What’s happening on the last Friday of the month around the world is not a really a parade — it’s the eruption of Amsterdam-like traffic patterns onto streets that were once the exclusive domain of motorized traffic. The angry motorists, the police crackdowns, the faulty judicial rulings — these are all just birth pangs of a new kind of city, coming into existence right before our very eyes.

One day a judge will rule that motorists need a parade permit to block traffic with their disruptive “traffic jams.” Until then, there will continue to be popular movements that challenge the illogic of city planning in our time — and those movements will continue to be leaderless, permitless, spontaneous, celebratory and uncontainable. Welcome to the future!

Bike Video: All You Haters

February 11th, 2010 by hughillustration

I found this on the awesome Girl On Bike blog. Not sure I get the satire, but here goes: