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

That ol’ Culture War…

February 10th, 2010 by ccarlsson

This is an excerpt from a longer piece over at sf.streetsblog.org:

Police repression, when it comes, is part of a larger culture war between those who think the American Way of Life is fundamentally about cars, business, and private property (almost always a strong bias of individual police) and the growing movement to shift into a new way of organizing our lives, based on ecological principles, reduced resource use, and a more convivial, publicly-oriented cityscape. Most of us riding in Critical Mass are not out to break the law or antagonize anyone, but we do feel strongly that we have to demonstrate firmly and directly a different way of life. To those of us committed to a life with a greater sense of conviviality and a commitment to a public sphere, the childish and antagonistic behavior that a few cyclists bring to the ride has been dismaying.

Unfortunately, the old xerocracy mostly died out (with the notable exception of the 10th anniversary ride in 2002–four different beautiful posters were made and put all around town, dozens of stickers and flyers were distributed at the ride, a book was published). Once or twice a year someone shows up with a flyer addressing the culture of the ride, or prepares a suggested route, but in general, cultural production, once so essential to the experience, went into hibernation. After more than a decade the transmission of the culture from oldtimers to newbies has broken down. People riding in Critical Mass these days might have been infants when we started it 18 years ago!

Sadly, some people show up because they believe all the media lies about this big anarchistic confrontational experience, though they are tiny in number. Still, when they behave badly they get an inordinate amount of attention, not just in the media when it deigns to address this ongoing cultural phenomenon, but weirdly, from other cyclists. There’s a mentality that has been shaped by our profit-driven media: when it bleeds, it leads. I’m afraid all too many people on all sides of Critical Mass tend to fall into this same mental trap, focusing their attention on the tiny few who behave like jerks, rather than the overwhelming thousands (and not just here, but across the planet in over 300 cities worldwide) who manage things well, extend courtesy and kindness to bystanders, have joyful interchanges with people briefly stuck in buses and cars, and are greeted exuberantly from neighbors in their windows as we roll through central city neighborhoods.

Is the SFPD Planning a Crackdown on Critical Mass?

January 30th, 2010 by hughillustration

The January Critical Mass was an intimate affair, with only 100-150 riders.

Tail end turns on Powell from Geary as the traditional loop around Union Square commences. San Francisco, Critical Mass, January 29, 2010.

Tail end turns on Powell from Geary as the traditional loop around Union Square commences. San Francisco, Critical Mass, January 29, 2010.

That’s pretty tiny, but luckily a crew from KPIX was there to make us feel important.

Turns out, KPIX joined us to report on the news (brought to you by Honda!) (they repeat their absurd claims first reported last summer) that SFPD Chief George Gascon is reviewing department policy on Critical Mass, as part of his commitment to cut crime by 20%. Here’s the video:

Of course the police view our monthly ride as a nuisance and an expense — that comes as no surprise. But this report raises the question: if Chief Gascon were somehow able to stop the ride, what percentage would he claim he had reduced crime? I can hear him now… “Red light running by cyclists is down by exactly 4%!”

If the cops think they have better things to do with their time, we agree! (Let’s not begin to discuss their spending priorities, and how using phalanxes of cops on overtime to stop a 2-3 hour, once-a-month bike ride is a remarkably dumb use of public resources!) We’d love to see the police escort disappear (though we acknowledge that they have been helpful in calming dangerous motorists). But the idea that our monthly ride should be anywhere near the top of the list of law enforcement priorities for a city with real violent crime issues is laughable!

As Justin points out in the video clip, the police tried and failed to stop Critical Mass once before. In 1997, Mayor Willie Brown sent the cops out to ticket, harass and arrest dozens of cyclists each month, with absolutely no effect. In fact, the rides just got larger and larger, ballooning into rides of 5000 or more each month. In the end, the mayor backpedaled, the cops backed off, and we’ve had a sort of truce ever since.

If the police try again to prevent our popular movement, the same thing is guaranteed to happen. More people will show up, and we’ll just invent new tactics — a welcome opportunity, since our ride has been entirely predictable for years now. Hey, maybe we could try skipping Pee Wee Herman Plaza in favor of meeting in 4 or 5 separate locations. With ubiquitous cellphones and twitter messaging, organizing that sort of decentralized response ought to be even easier than it was 13 years ago!

We’ll stop short of asking Gascon to “bring it on,” but only because we’re not macho idiots, and we know he has more important work to do. Gotta get a jump on that 20%!

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Positive Energy Flyer OK!

January 28th, 2010 by hughillustration

Critical Mass confrontation

Everyone complains about bad behavior on Critical Mass. The truth is, it’s only a small minority that are behaving this way.

You can confront any behavior you don’t like. But I have found flyers really work to establish norms that are positive and friendly. So I’ve made a flyer you can print out, read, and if you agree with it’s sentiments, make copies and share them with others before the ride! If you can print a bunch and pass them out yourself, please do!

Click here or the pic below to download the PDF. It’s designed to be printed double-sided and cut in half. Works like a charm!

CM_positive_2010-b

And here’s the text of the flyer:

Have you been attending Critical Mass in order to harass,
intimidate and disrupt other forms of traffic?

Have you been picking fights with motorists? Blocking traffic for no reason? Giving people the finger? Generally behaving like a self-righteous weenie?

You’re in the wrong place! There is a special ride for you:

The Hypocritical Mass!

The Hypocritical Mass takes place on the 6th Friday of every month at 2:30 a.m. Everyone on that ride believes they are better than others, and they really enjoy “sticking it to the Man” by “gumming up the works”. Take your bike and join them! You’ll be much happier.

Critical Mass, on the last Friday of every month, is different. We’re not out to ruin anyone’s night. We are a positive celebration of bikes, bike culture, and public space. While we assert our right to the road, we do not deny anyone else their right to get where they are going. We’re here to enjoy ourselves, change the world, and make this city great.

We are asking our friends in cars to wait while our party passes — the same way we wait and defer to motorized traffic every other day of the month.

Here’s what we say to motorists and members of the Hypocritical Mass: Join us! Bring your bike, your good energy, a friendly attitude towards people you don’t know, and help us build a city worth living in — a city with clean air, friendly streets, and public demonstrations of pure joy. OK!

How to Help:
The front of the Mass must stop for every red light! This allows the back of the ride to catch up and keeps the ride dense, preventing accidents. When Critical Mass spreads out, problems occur: motorists creep in, things get dangerous, and bad vibes result. The front of the ride has a responsibility to keep it cool for the rest of us!

If you see a fight or confrontation:
Keep moving! Keep positive! Don’t stop and don’t get dragged into some boring argument. If a motorist shouts or honks at you, try this response: “Have a nice night!” Then pedal on. Works every time!

Don’t block traffic unnecessarily!
We’re here to show that we are traffic, not to block traffic! Circling at intersections, riding into oncoming traffic and purposefully trying to inconvenience other is bad tactics, bad politics, and bad karma.

Respect Pedestrians!
The only thing more dangerous than biking in San Francisco is walking. Pedestrians are our friends and allies, and they could use some respect. Let pedestrians pass where possible, and invite them to join us next month!

Who is behind this flyer?
We are concerned riders of Critical Mass. We aren’t the only voice. Make your own voice heard by making a flyer or website and sharing your ideas!

Join us online:
www.sfcriticalmass.org • www.facebook.com/sfcriticalmass
www.twitter.com/sfcriticalmass

PS: Check out this flyer that someone else made! The author is unknown to me, it’s a few months old but it hits the mark — and it’s way less verbose than mine!

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Can SF Learn from the San Jose Bike Party? Yes!

January 16th, 2010 by hughillustration

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Our San Francisco Critical Mass delegation at the San Jose Bike Party

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Some San Jose locals before the ride

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!

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