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).

Interview with Danish Bike Activist Mikael Colville-Andersen

December 17th, 2009 by hughillustration

Our own Chris Carlsson has a fascinating interview on sf.streetsblog.org in which he interviews the Danish bike activist Mikael Colville-Andersen. The whole interview is great, but here’s a highlight of some Mikael’s comments on Critical Mass:

I know, riding around, there’s families, you have kids, it’s quite cool, it’s big at Critical Mass, so I think that helped a lot. And then you turn the corner and there’s this lady getting out of her car saying “Stay the fuck away from me… get away from meeee!” and people honking, and I think “aw, this is bad, this is bad,” but then all of a sudden you’re sucked into the good again, the whole spirit of it. There were conflicting emotions to be honest…

I compared it directly to the Budapest Critical Mass that I was in last month, or in September. 20,000 people, completely peaceful, everyone stops at red lights, completely different mood and much more of a festive atmosphere. But I think San Francisco is a different case compared to other North American cities. It started there, and it’s just so relaxed. The whole bicycle culture is relaxed, it’s not all the sports geeks, it’s just regular people.

I appreciate a great deal of what Mikael has to say about avoiding the identification of bicycling with subculture, allowing bikes to be mainstream and “normal,” rather than something exclusively identified as radical chic or some hipster fringe phenomenon. He goes into that a bit in this piece he wrote on Critical Mass on his awesome Copenhagenize blog. But I’d take strong exception to this part of his argument:

We figure that the point of Critical Mass is to profile the need for bike culture and all the enviromental plusses inherent in it. A good thing. Therefore one of the primary goals is to get more people to ride their bikes. For whatever reason: sustainability, oil-dependence reduction, better health for fellow citizens.

If so, does Critical Mass work? We don’t know. 15 years on and are there any cities that have made massive gains towards a bike culture similar to many European cities?

We do know that we see a simple alternative. An easier route. What if all those massers merely rode their bikes every day? In normal clothes, like normal people? Like the millions of citizens of Northern Europe.

What might happen?

What we’ve seen in San Francisco is that after 17 years of Critical Mass there has, in fact, been a dramatic increase in bicycling ridership, an increase in bicycle infrastructure, the normalization of bicycling as a means of transportation and the rise of bicycle advocacy as a force for change with real clout in city politics. It’s true that we are nowhere near Copenhagen or Amsterdam in terms of bike-friendly policies, but that may be setting the bar a bit too high.

We have to remember where we started, which is at absolute zero. In the early ’90s, riding your bike in San Francisco was something that only very hardy individuals would do, simply because it was downright dangerous. Motorists did not respect people on bikes, and there was little or no infrastructure in the form of bike lanes that reflect a societal interest in protecting cyclists and promoting the safety of cyclists.

I also appreciate this item that Chris mentions in this same interview concerning the SFBC in the years before Critical Mass:

The Bike Coalition, I don’t know if they told you this, but it was practically nonexistent when we started Critical Mass. They had no paid members and no paid staff back then, they were meeting once a month in the back of a Chinese restaurant. Now it has 11,000 dues-paying members, a paid staff and a big budget and a penthouse office!

As for the question of whether we would be better off if people simply rode bikes as part of their day-to-day life rather than in Critical Mass, I think the clear answer is that they do. Speaking from personal experience (since we don’t have any data to examine), I can testify that every single person that I know that takes part in Critical Mass is also a daily bike commuter. Moreover, I have known many people who have been inspired by Critical Mass to become daily commuters, and to make bikes more central to their lives and transportation.

San Francisco has been dramatically changed for the better, in part as a result of what we’ve done with Critical Mass — bringing people into the streets month after to month to provide a collective vision of how life could be different. We’re not European yet, but we are heading in that direction.

Physically Separated Bike Lanes — Duh!

December 16th, 2009 by hughillustration

Thanks to streetfilms.org for producing this great short film on the importance of physically separated bike lanes. The info presented here is pretty NYC-centered, but it applies just as well to San Francisco!


SF Cops Refuse to Pursue Hit-And-Run Case

December 16th, 2009 by hughillustration


A couple months ago, blogger JWZ witnessed a hit-and-run:

Monday around 6pm, netik and I were biking West on Harrison on the right side when a car passed me on the left, within a few inches. I had enough time to think, “Hey, that was close”, look forward, and yell “Look out!” before the car’s mirror hit netik’s handle bar from behind and sent him tumbling. The guy kept driving. I chased after the car, pulled up to his window and said, “Hey! You just hit that guy!” He look at me and said, in a calm deadpan, “Really? That’s just terrible.” And then he drove off.

JWZ collected witness testimony, grabbed a photo of the driver’s license plate, and filed a complaint with the police. Standard operating procedure which should have led to, as JWZ noted, loss of “driver’s license, loss of insurance, $1,000 to $10,000 fine, and possible jail time.”

Well, JWZ has now heard back from the SFPD, and it ain’t pretty:

John called SFPD, went down to the police station in person and filed a report (case 091-062-114), and after several followup phone calls over the next few weeks was told:

“No action has been taken on your case, but you can call the DMV and get the person’s plate if you want to file a civil suit.”

The fact that the SFPD can’t muster the energy to go after a well-documented case of a hit-and-run comes as no surprise to anyone who has experienced the disdain that many SF cops have for bicyclists and bicycling generally. In my experience, the view of many police is that motorized vehicles are the real legitimate traffic on city streets, and that pedestrians and bicyclists are simply interlopers temporarily borrowing access to a scarce resource. Check out this recent post on Streetsblog for further testimony of a police bias against cyclists.

Do Helmet Laws Make Biking Less Safe?

December 13th, 2009 by hughillustration

With more and more bicyclists hitting the streets every day, we should probably pass some sort of law requiring helmets, right? An article in Next American City Magazine questions this logic, pointing out that helmet laws decrease bike ridership — either because it leads people to think cycling is dangerous or, more likely, because fashion conscious cyclists won’t be seen dead in one — and this decrease in ridership makes things increasingly less safe for bikers.

But the results [of a helmet law in Western Australia] were disastrous. According to the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation, immediately after the law went into effect, the state of Victoria, where cycling rates had been increasing dramatically over the previous 15 years, saw a 36 percent decrease in ridership. For every one teenager who began to wear a helmet, more than 10 others abandoned their bicycles. While 80 percent of Western Australian children walked or biked to school in 1977, that rate has plummeted to a measly 5 percent in 2009.

What’s more, when the Victoria helmet law took such a hefty chunk out of cycling rates, it ended up paradoxically decreasing cyclist safety. This is because one of the biggest determining factors of bicycle safety is not protective wear, but the number of other cyclists out on the road. In 2003 health consultant Peter Jacobsen published a widely read report that tracked this trend across such disparate locales as California, Denmark and the U.K. Even when cities within the same country or state were compared, the results bore out this fact.

One of the primary reasons helmet laws depress ridership is that they seem to imply that cycling is a dangerous activity. But this is not the case. According to a study published in 2006 by the British Medical Journal, cycling is not significantly more dangerous than either walking or driving. The study estimates that on average it takes 8,000 years of normal cycling to produce a serious head injury, and it takes 22,000 years to produce one death.

I definitely see why people wear helmets, though. Imagine if you had to transport a hard-drive full of your entire life’s files and memories — the only copies of all your artwork and photos and music and finances. Wouldn’t you put it in a protective case before bicycling across town? In any case, the argument here is not against helmets per se, but against helmet laws.

I remember reading about the Jacobsen study mentioned here years ago when it came out, which made the incredibly sane argument that the more people walk or bike, the more safe it is to walk or bike. Here’s a link to the abstract of the study, and you can get the PDF version of the whole thing there if you’re interested.

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