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

Risky Cycling: Not the Problem

December 28th, 2009 by hughillustration

Ghost Bicycle @ 20th/R & Ct. Ave. NW in Memory of Alice Swanson

When there’s an accident involving a car and a bike, many people make the common-sense assumption that risky behavior by the cyclist is probably to blame. Everyone knows that bicyclists all ride without helmets, don’t have the proper lighting, and are running red lights and stop signs with increasing frequency. If there’s an accident, it must be the cyclist’s fault, right?

That assumption is almost entirely false, a new UK study has found:

The study, carried out for the Department for Transport, found that in 2% of cases where cyclists were seriously injured in collisions with other road users police said that the rider disobeying a stop sign or traffic light was a likely contributing factor. Wearing dark clothing at night was seen as a potential cause in about 2.5% of cases, and failure to use lights was mentioned 2% of the time.

Those are some pretty tiny percentages — hardly the type of numbers that would justify a strong police bias towards the assumption of bicyclist guilt in everyday accidents. Meanwhile, the study reports that more than 25% of accidents occur when the motorist strikes the bicyclist from behind — and that figure rises to 40% for collisions that take place away from intersections.

With adult cyclists, police found the driver solely responsible in about 60%-75% of all cases, and riders solely at fault 17%-25% of the time.

This is a study of accidents in the UK, and these numbers would likely shift around some if this same study were done in California. But it’s a pretty good indication that the key to preventing bike accidents and reducing the loss of life on city streets is not to freak bicyclists out about the dangers of biking — insisting they wear hideous florescent outfits and dorky helmets, for example — but to educate motorists about the need to share the road, and build infrastructure that alerts motorists to the presence of people on bikes. Lives depend upon it!

[photo by dbking, CC attribution license — thanks!]

Tags: ,

Streetsblog comments

December 22nd, 2009 by hughillustration

We read the comments section so that you don’t have to.

I loved this comment on Chris’s recent streetsblog piece, so I am posting it here in its entirety. I suspect that this welcome attitude from a motorist is more common than not:

taomom: A few years ago, before I started bicycling in the city, I was blocked by a Critical Mass making its way down Valencia Street. Once I realized what it was and that I was not likely to cross Valencia for a while, I sat there watching the parade pass by. It was somewhat annoying to be delayed five minutes, but it was also mildly entertaining. No one was rude to me or cast any aspersions on my car.

A decade ago, I also had my way blocked for ten minutes by a biker (motorcycle, this time) funeral proceeding down Dolores Street. Again, once I realized I really wasn’t going to get across Dolores, no way, no how, I sat back and watched more ZZ Top beards pass me by than I knew existed on the planet. I chalked it up to an “only in San Francisco” experience, just like I chalk up a posse of roller bladers wearing full body purple speeding skating suits and wings on their backs making their way down the middle of Castro Street.

This is San Francisco. From time to time I am inconvenienced by parades, peace marches, demonstrations, marathons and other road runs, by neighborhood block parties, by monster rock concerts in the GG Park, and by every ethnic/cultural festival anyone can think to put on. (Once I got delayed twenty minutes by stupidly going near Japantown during Cherry Blossom festival.) I am massively inconvenienced twice a year by the street fairs in the Castro because these fairs totally screw up traffic flow and bottle up my neighborhood. But I don’t get upset because I also get a lot of benefits by living near the Castro. It’s part of the deal. (Halloween in the Castro was especially a nightmare for my neighborhood and has thankfully calmed down.) Bay to Breakers is an event so massive and disruptive, everyone in the entire city either participates or goes out of their way to steer clear. Even though I haven’t participated in Bay to Breakers in twenty years, I still find value in it and don’t begrudge the runners their use of the city.

All these events are disruptive, annoying if they delay you, but to me are part of what makes this place a creative, interesting place to live. In addition, San Francisco’s development of a bicycle culture is part of what will enable the continued economic viability of the city in the decade to come. If/when bicycles become so ordinary and mainstream that people use them like they use their vacuum cleaner (to use the Copenhagenize comparison) there will be no more Critical Masses. (Though there may still be a few bicycle parades. . .)

I concur with the suggestions for Critical Mass to take more coherent routes through the city and to sometimes take routes that aren’t so disruptive to car traffic. I also can’t deny that it would be helpful if Critical Mass participants went out of their way to be civil and courteous, because really, that is the way people should behave in general. (People also shouldn’t litter! They shouldn’t drive while talking on their cell phones! And they should pick up after their dogs!!!) But I don’t expect young people in their twenties to be entirely without impromptu, anarchistic impulses. I am very conscious that San Francisco gets a lot of benefit out of that energy.

This note from a supporter of Chicago’s Critical Mass claims that city’s ride has also led to a rise in bike activism:

Eric: As someone who helped bring Critical Mass to a major American city I am eternally grateful to the SF folks who got his, ahem, rolling. I know there is debate about whether or not SFCM has been good for bike advocacy and culture in SF and I’m not from here so I won’t speak to that. In Chicago, the results of CM are undeniable. Chicago now has a couple generations of young urban planners and traffic engineers who grew up in the CM-inspired bike culture of Chicago and the City is radically different and better as a result. Ultimately that merely is a happy side effect. The real value of CM is in the enjoyment and experience of riding a bicycle on your city’s streets without feeling your life is constantly in jeapordy, for however brief a period of time, once a month. To the naysayers, I am sorry but that is an experience that transit riders, motorists and most of the time pedestrians are granted on a daily basis. Bicycles are the only users of the public right of way who frequently use streets not designed for them. But perhaps more importantly Critical Mass has a message for people that goes beyond civil rights or transportation advocacy. It’s a message of surprise, intrigue, uncertainty, negotiation of public space and unexpected celebration. I am deeply grateful for the monthly reminder Critical Mass provides: that public space is not for the profiteering of oil and car companies but rather for public use and ENJOYMENT. I’m glad that message doesn’t fit in someone’s narrow definition of “appropriate”! Isn’t life dull enough already without turning the joyful movement from place to place into yet another rote exercise in rule obeying?

Tags: , ,

Bad Tactic: Stalling Buses & Traffic for No Reason

December 21st, 2009 by hughillustration

For some unexplained reason, Critical Mass will from time to time come to a complete halt in an intersection, and the ride will just stand around for a while in the street, blocking cars, busses, pedestrians — really doing nothing but taking the space because we can. Of all the bad tactics we’ve seen over the years, this must be the stupidest. What is the point of this tactic? No one knows. It just happens!

If you’d like a taste of how it feels to be on the other side of this sort of tactic, here’s a video made by a bus rider while he and the other passengers wait for Critical Mass to get off it’s ass and move. (It was posted in the comments to Chris’s recent streetsblog piece.)

Boring, isn’t it?

It’s true that Critical Mass causes delays for motorists and busses and other forms of transportation. But the idea behind Critical Mass is not to delay people for no reason, out of some misguided need to assert our power. The point is that we’re moving, like any other kind of traffic, using public streets to get around like everyone else — except we’re doing it together. As the slogan we’ve been using for years goes, “We’re not blocking traffic, we ARE traffic!”

Well, anyone delayed by in this manner, we’re sorry for the hassle. The sad truth is we have folks on Critical Mass who haven’t thought that hard about the issues.

Tags: , ,

What Critical Mass Got Right & Wrong

December 21st, 2009 by hughillustration

Chris has a great piece up on streetsblog that encapsulates a lot of the conversations many of us long-time Critical Mass participants have been having. It’s a long-ish, thoughtful discussion of where the ride came from, where it’s been and where it’s going. I’m excerpting a quote here, but if you’re interested in Critical Mass, you should definitely take the time to read the entire piece:

Averaging between 750 and 3000 riders on any given month, the birthplace of Critical Mass keeps going strong, in spite of the total lack of promotion or organizing during this past decade. But many of us long-time riders have been dismayed to see the persistence of silly, aggressive, and counter-productive behavior that makes the Critical Mass experience worse for our natural allies on buses, on foot, and even folks in cars who might join us in the future. Not to mention that it makes it worse for us cyclists too, to the point that many former regulars have stopped riding. Part of the frustration for us long-time riders is that we went through all these issues quite intensively back in the early-to-mid 1990s, and to see them cropping up again is a harsh reminder that we’ve done a piss-poor job of transmitting the culture, the lessons learned, from one generation to the next. Plenty of current Critical Massers were under 5 years old when we started it, and the ride’s culture has been more loudly and consistently transmitted by distorted representations in the mass media than it has by those of us who put our hearts and souls into it for years.

Chris makes a nice plug for our blog, but the truth is that it’s going to take more than internet chat and blog posts to change the culture of Critical Mass. It takes face-to-face communication, and hopefully that’s where all this discussion ends up: in conversations between real people in real space in the public streets of the city, talking about how we can change life for the better.

Link: Streetsblog San Francisco: A Lost Decade for Critical Mass?

Tags: ,