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).

Bike Party! (Almost Critical Mass in San Jose, Calif.)

January 16th, 2010 by Joel Pomerantz

When Hugh invited me to yesterday’s San Jose Bike Party, I was pretty busy launching DOtheWIGGLE.org (shameless plug!) but I agreed to head there for the ride. I didn’t have time to look at the “very organized” Web site the ride has. Ironic. I’ll look at your Web site if you look at mine!

I’ve only been to SJ a couple times, and think of it as one big suburb. In other words, conventional American car culture. When we got down there, I had some surprises, along with confirmation of my cynical judgments.

As we rode the many miles from the train station to the ride start (at a mall, um, of course), we ran into a small pack of other cyclists. They, too, were riding many miles to the start, in the dark of winter, in a scary leaf-pile-and-debris-strewn bike lane along a multi-lane mallway street (called Tully) designed for fast-moving cars.

I had been riding all day in SF, getting these Wiggle shirts printed, and my aging knees were already tired. After about five miles beside freeways both literal and figurative, we arrived at the mall, half hour ahead of ride time. The crowd was already big (hundreds), and flashy. Folks were clustered in a couple dozen small groups of cyclists, some speaking Spanish, some English, a few Asians among them and even a scattering of folks my age.

It felt like home to me. There I was happily among celebratory and unpredictable crowds, preparing for a thronging of the streets, it seemed. There were lighted trailers, music boxes, a number of weird costumes, wafts of wacky weed and testosterone brigaders bellowing “Bike Party!”

There were also people unloading from their cars, selling ride shirts, and announcing departure times from bullhorns—all things that rarely, if ever, are part of Critical Mass as San Francisco knows it.

This was not a Critical Mass. Or was it?

Yes, when we started out, it was in a dense pack. We definitely had mass. Near a thousand easily, perhaps as many as 1500. But because of a combination of the strict policy that all bikes must stop at red lights (which can be many minutes long), and the very long stretches between, the ride thinned out quickly.

I lost no time in connecting with the locals. “Excuse me! How do I know which way to go for the ‘mellow’ ride?” (There was also a slightly steeper option.)

When a cop car blazed by, sirens waling: “Sorry, but can you tell me: How much have you seen police monitoring these rides?”

Each person I asked for information gave me some version of, “Oh, just follow along and you’ll be fine,” as a reply. (Was that friendly, or insidious sheep mentality? Maybe both.)

It was a pretty fast ride already when I finally found someone who could tell me how the ride’s organized. The first thing she said was “Oh don’t worry. It’ll open up and get faster.” She wasn’t sarcastic. She thought we were sad to ride so “slowly” (about eight to ten mph) because Nellie was mentioning how slow the SF Critical Mass rides can get.

Jackie says she’s been riding monthly since July 2009. The rides have been going for a couple years. Jackie told me that in addition to the monthly ride, there are rides two or three times between, to plan the fifteen to twenty-something mile route. These planning rides are attended by ten to fifty, anyone welcome. But the final say rests with one person who has taken on this volunteer role. Scott is the name she gave. “John M used to do it, but it’s a lot of work and he retired. A couple other guys help Scott make the final route, but it’s really on him. If you want to volunteer to help, that’s what it’s all about.”

She told me that the people who guide the ride are called ‘birdies’. I saw only two, at important junctures. They tried, also, to keep us out of opposing traffic with their hollers and bullhorning, but often people went where they wanted to, with no resistance from car drivers.

When we were most spread out, in the low hills of the east parts of town, it was most chaotic, with bikes cutting off cars at lights, and spreading out across all lanes. Of course not one person ever stopped for a stop sign. How could they? The pressure to keep up was enormous, or so I thought until I saw crowds resting in 7-Eleven parking lots along the downhill stretch.

As it turned out, there were way-points, three of them on the advance published map that some people (including Hugh) carried. At these stops the entire crowd regrouped for twenty minutes or more. When restless, they headed out again in packs. At these rests, vans and tents were again present, selling shirts and putting out waste bins for the crowd. One guy selling shirts said they sometimes can drive to the next way-point before the bikes, but often have to leapfrog ahead to the way-point-after-next.

Our little San Francisco contingent split for home after the first way-point, since we still had many miles to go back to the train and then home from the Caltrain in SF. Overall, this month’s ride route was 21 miles, of which we did about eight, plus ten or more on our own in San Jose, using the Santa Clara VTA bike map I’d brought along.

I came away having great respect for the event. I spoke with a dozen people who don’t ride other than this monthly party—and a few who do, but only for recreation. I found four who ride for transportation, all of whom said this Bike Party ride had started them on that path. I would love to know how many people rode the whole length. It seemed excessive to me. Twenty-one miles!?

Now I can add San Jose to my list of places I’ve ridden Critical Mass. Heck, yeah! It was enough like a Critical Mass, I think, to warrant that. SF, NYC, Budapest, Rochester, Chapel Hill, Rome and San Jose, baby. Yes I’m bragging. But I’m sure others have ridden more. Fess up!

Idaho Rules! Nifty Animation of the Rolling Stop

January 10th, 2010 by hughillustration

I just came across this nifty animation demonstrating the famed “Idaho Stop” for bicyclists, in which the law allows cyclists to conserve momentum by treating stop signs as Yield signs. It was created during the failed push to have the Idaho rules applied in Oregon. It’s great!

Bicycles, Rolling Stops, and the Idaho Stop from Spencer Boomhower on Vimeo.

This interesting piece on Slate from last October talks about the problem of how the law might be adapted to reflect the rising number of cyclists. Should we pass new laws that reflect the fact that almost all existing traffic laws were developed to apply to motorized traffic? Or should we hope cops will be more like Major “Bunny” Colvin on The Wire, and adopt “the brown paper bag” model of dealing with inevitable law-breaking?

What to do? Today’s cycling activists generally split into two groups: “vehicularists” and “facilitators.” Proponents of “vehicular cycling” believe bikes should act as cars: occupy full lanes, stop at red lights, use a hand signal at least 100 feet ahead of a turn. That’s the best way to make cars—and policymakers—aware of bicycles and to respect them as equals on the road. When it comes to making roads safe for bikes, vehicularists tend to favor training, education (most cities offer bike safety classes), and enforcement. Cyclists should not grouse about moving violations, the vehicularists argue. It is a sign that they’re being treated as equals.

Facilitators, meanwhile, say we should change the laws and the environment to recognize the innate differences between bikes and cars. That means special facilities like bike lanes, bike paths (elevated trails separate from the road), and even Copenhagen-style traffic lights for bikes. It would also mean changing car-centric laws that don’t make sense for bikes, like the rule that says you need to come to a complete stop at a stop sign.

I know where I stand in that debate. How about you?

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Video: Toronto Critical Mass

January 3rd, 2010 by hughillustration

I enjoyed this time-lapse video of the Toronto Critical Mass, from a few years back. Has anyone done one of these at a San Francisco ride?

June Critical Mass from young elephant on Vimeo.

Chron Story Confirms: Critical Mass Changes Lives

January 2nd, 2010 by hughillustration

Today’s Chronicle has a story about Adam Greenfield, a local filmmaker and blogger that decided to try a year of car-free living and who documented the whole thing on his blog.

My first reaction to the story was irritation. As my friend A.S. put it, “I’m sick of ‘my year of’ projects that get turned into blogs and then mediocre books.” It’s annoying to have one person singled out for doing what so many have decided to do with less fanfare.

But I appreciate that there a thousands (alright, dozens) of Chronicle readers in the Bay Area, and many may have never encountered anyone with a story like Adam’s. Those folks can always use a little education.

And I also loved this bit:

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.

Critical Mass is constantly denounced by those who say it hurts the cause more than it helps by inspiring so much rage in the hearts of angry motorists. But this anecdote tends to confirm a point I have making for quite a while now to anyone who will listen: the anger Critical Mass creates is outweighed by the positive vision it inspires in the hearts of its many thousands of regular participants — a vision of how life could be better, and a demonstration of how many of us there are that want to make real change.

Critical Mass has already been successful in changing the world. We can see and feel those changes in our lives as cyclists, every day. The city streets are safer and more bike-friendly now than they were 18 years ago, and that’s no accident. Those of us who ride in Critical Mass can’t take full credit, but we know we’ve been a big part of the inspiration.