Posts Tagged ‘history’

A Note on Routes

June 20th, 2010 by hughillustration

A route map from 2006!

Note: There will be a pre-Mass ride to route scout on Monday, the 21st, at 7:00pm. Meet at Dolores Park, across from the Dolores Park Cafe. And bring your bike!

Last month, someone I know threw a route together on his own initiative and sent it to me, and I posted it here. The month before, I and others suggested we visit the Palace of Fine Arts as our final destination.

In each case, I heard from a few people that they felt the use of a route or destination was uncharacteristic of Critical Mass. As on person said on our Facebook page, “I thought the whole idea of doing CM was that the route is not fixed. IMHO, wIth a fixed route there is no fun doing CM.” Another said “the Mass is supposed to be democratic and spur of the moment, at least how I have experienced it for the last 10 years.”

It’s true that we haven’t had many route maps in the past 10 years (the last I recall was in 2006, on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and that was a rarity), but in the early days of Critical Mass we did them all the time. Each month we would visit a different location — the Presidio, Ocean Beach, Twin Peaks, even Sausalito were destinations. We didn’t always stick to the script, but we definitely mixed it up.

As the commentators noted, this isn’t the most democratic way of deciding where the ride will go. But I would argue that neither is having the handful at the front of the ride make the decisions for everyone behind them. In my experience, the people at the front are universally loud, aggressive and male (and I include myself in this description). What about people who may not be so loud and opinionated? What about the folks in back?

Another disadvantage of spontaneity is that we seem to visit the same locations each month. For the last 5 years, we have been through the Broadway Tunnel and Union Square almost every time, as well as several other familiar locations. We rarely get out to the avenues or other neighborhoods — and that’s too bad, since we want the people of San Francisco to see us!

One solution is to try doing what the San Jose Bike Party does, which is regular bike rides to route scout beforehand. This way we have a route, but many people who are interested can contribute to the conversation. Also, we can use the Facebook and Twitter feeds, and the comments on this blog, to throw around ideas. And, if the route is unworkable, it can always be switched up by the riders. Nothing is ever set in stone, and all routes are just suggestions. (And we don’t need to have a route every month!)

So, as I noted above, there’s a pre-Mass ride scheduled for Monday the 21st at Dolores Park at 7:00. In the future, we’ll try to make these semi-regular, but you can get updates via Facebook & Twitter.

If you and your friends have thoughts about what direction Critical Mass should take, I am eager to get your voice out there. Post something in the comments, send me ideas to me here, or post to Facebook or Twitter and I will try to help circulate your feedback. We can use social networking, blogs, and face-to-face meetings to make Critical Mass as democratic and decentralized as possible.

Is Critical Mass Bad — or Good — for Biking? Veteran Bike Activists Chime In

May 25th, 2010 by hughillustration

Critical Mass sticker 2007

Art by Hugh D'Andrade


Has Critical Mass helped or hurt the bicycle cause in San Francisco? I asked some veteran bike activists for their view from the front lines. Dave Snyder, Mary Brown and Joel Pomerantz were key figures in the rise of bicycle advocacy in San Francisco. They each took the time to give their 2 cents.

As I noted last month, San Francisco has benefited over the last decade and a half from a resurgence of bicycling as a mainstream traffic option. Since 1992, when Critical Mass began, we have seen the following positive changes:

    • More bikes on the road, increasing every year
    • Massive and unprecedented increases in the membership of bike advocacy groups
    • More funding for bike infrastructure
    • Increasing respect from motorized traffic

Was Critical Mass a help or a hindrance to this positive change? To many, it is obvious that Critical Mass is hurtful, pointing to the anger it often inspires in motorists. Others, myself included, claim a net positive influence from this monthly ride, which after all was a major meeting place for the city’s bike-nerd intelligentsia — and in many cases inspired the very same individuals who were instrumental in making these changes a reality.

Many commentators wrote to remind me that my view lacks evidence (“correlation is not causation,” etc). And I respond by pointing out that the other side is equally lacking in evidence: the common view that Critical Mass has hurt the cause simply has no proof to back it up. None. There is no empirical evidence, that I know of, on either side of this argument.

Well, if empirical evidence is not available, we can find plenty of anecdotal evidence. I interviewed some of the bicycle activists that were involved in both mainstream bike advocacy and in Critical Mass. As you’ll see, some of what they say resonates with my argument, some of what they say negates it. You be the judge!

Did SFBC encourage Critical Mass? Was there much overlap in the two groups?

Dave Snyder, head of SFBC from 1991 to 2002, regular participant in Critical Mass since ride 1:
I think we were most helpful simply in not vilifying, criticizing, or opposing the ride. We tacitly approved of it, and listed it in our newsletter every month. We probably helped turnout a little bit, which might have been important but I think most of the outreach was more direct than through our newsletter, and we probably helped by just telling the mainstream bike crowd “this is OK.”

Do you think SFCM contributed to a boom in SFBC membership?

Dave Snyder: Slightly in the beginning. We would occasionally go to the events and sign people up. Then, with the crackdown [in 1997], our membership jumped about 50%. Huge! I personally thanked Willie Brown for our increase in membership.

Mary Brown, SFBC activist from 1996 to 2003 and regular Critical Mass participant:
Not directly. Early on (c.1996) Joel Pomerantz bought 100 or 500 subsidized memberships to SFBC and handed them out at Critical Mass. I remember that the renewal rates for those memberships were dismal. The real boom in membership only occurred in the last five years or so, and honestly I can’t figure out what precipitated such a tremendous increase in paid memberships. Likely the cumulative impact of many factors that’d been building for years.

Joel Pomerantz, founding newsletter editor for SFBC and co-founder of Critical Mass:
No impact. I handed out 20 to 40 memberships (Mary’s memory inflated it) and my memory is that it was hard to find people who really wanted them, and harder than I expected to find people who live in SF coming to Mass, at that time.

Do you think SFCM contributed to particular negotiations or bike projects?

Dave Snyder: In one instance, absolutely. It was during the huge explosion in CM and the crackdown in 1997. We asked for the city to “implement the bike network” which we agreed for the time being meant 8 key bike lane projects linking the city (2nd, 5th, Howard, Townsend, Polk, Arguello, Cesar Chavez, and 7th Avenue). The Mayor agreed to hearings on all 8, setting up a dynamic where we had to get something or else it would look really bad. We were careful to choose 8 projects which were not the easiest ones to implement. We eventually got bike lanes on 3-4 of the 8, hardly a resounding victory but more than we’d have gotten without CM, for sure, and setting us up for bigger success in the future. (As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that more than a decade later we’re still missing bike lanes on 2nd, 5th, and Cesar Chavez.)

Mary Brown: I doubt that CM currently has much of an impact on negotiations, but back in the day it was a large beast that loomed over various proposals for bike projects. It very clearly alerted decision-makers as to the existence of a large, unruly, and pissed constituency. Didn’t push any projects over the edge, but the general awareness of a large constituency was very helpful.

Joel Pomerantz: I’m sure policy-makers think about the looming monster of CM when they think of bikes, and the scary part is probably that they can’t fit it into their category system. It’s not a holiday, nor a parade, nor a demonstration, nor a sport. What is it? It’s not an organization or particular group of any kind. The police similarly have no easy way to fit it into their command and control system, but they probably understand the nature of it more than policy-makers who have never seen it’s many dimensions.

Was the net impact of SFCM on cycling issues helpful or a hindrance during your tenure?

Dave Snyder: Absolutely helpful. Not perfectly helpful, but, you asked about the net impact and undeniably it was great.

Mary Brown: Net impact? Helpful, absolutely. But it’s important to note that the people doing the actual nitty-gritty organizing around specific bike lanes/proposals, (i.e., presenting at neighborhood meetings, lobbying the BoS, building support from seniors, pedestrians, etc.) often had the hassle and image of CM thrown back at them. There is and always have been a fluctuating backlash against CM.

Joel Pomerantz: I’d say, if Critical Mass is good for bicycling, it’s mostly because it helps define a culture, which imparts strength to that culture. But that’s not empirical. If it’s bad for bicycling, then there must be a lot of other things hiding in the alleys that are really great for bicycling, because something is making cycling pick up incredible popularity. I guess that’s part of your metrics argument, eh? That’s not empirical, either. More excellent evidence that Mass has helped is that it spreads, keeps changing, and has never been overtaken by aggression — at least not when compared to car driving, which seems to turn calm folks into raging lunatics.

Any thoughts on SFCM at present? Has it outlived its usefulness?

Dave Snyder: Hell no it hasn’t outlived its usefulness. For me, it’s not that fun any more for a variety of reasons, and I think that it needs a bit of a reinvention or rejuvenation to achieve a better role in city life, but it’s still a chance for people to bike in a crowd feeling safe the way they don’t or can’t on the streets typically. And it still gives a glimpse of what the street could be like. But it’s worth pointing out that there are other events like that now that didn’t exist when we started Critical Mass, like Sunday Streets (or Open Streets as folks around the country are trying to rename it). I don’t think it’s that useful to mainstream bicycle advocacy as it was in the mid-90s, but that was never its main reason for existence anyway.

Mary Brown: CM used to be at the center of my social calendar, but for me personally, it got boring. I was having the same experience over and over — a fun, oft-exhilarating experience, but the sameness got to me. And I got sick of the confrontations. When I do go to CM (usually just on Halloween) I’m thrilled to see how many new riders have claimed it as their own. Riders that were in junior high during what I think of as the golden age of Critical Mass. It’s honestly also weird to barely know anyone at Critical Mass, whereas, in the 1990s I knew or recognized a large percentage of riders. Despite its professed lack of organization, back in the day, it was organized by a loose confederation of CMers. A great deal of thought and care went into creating a positive, corked ride with thoughtful missives. Not sure where that’s at today.

If you have evidence, empirical, anecdotal — or chemical for that matter — that argues one way or another on this point, I would love to hear it. Please share your thoughts! Thanks!

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%!

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?