A Critical Mass Blog? In San Francisco?

October 27th, 2009 by ccarlsson

Welcome to a new website about Critical Mass in San Francisco. We’ve been around since the beginning and after some early years of publishing Critical Mass Missives and many other flyers, posters, and stickers, we are back to open this online space. Here you will find  a place to discuss what’s happening in Critical Mass, as well as an historical archive and a quick informational site where well-known tactics are easily accessible (and well-known problems have helpful answers). We’d like to host a forum to communicate about Critical Mass as well as the larger dynamics of bicycling in San Francisco

It’s a bit ironic in the home of the dotcom boom a decade ago, and at the epicenter of the Critical Mass bicycling phenomenon, no one has put together a decent website for our town. We decided it was overdue. One reason is because the culture of Critical Mass hasn’t been well transmitted from old-timers to newbies, and we hope to remedy that a bit here. Critical Mass started about 17 years ago, and it’s wonderful and mysterious that it has been such an ongoing event, never missing a month all these years. And of course it has spread to over 400 cities around the world.

Since the conflicts with the City and police in 1997, a tacit truce has dominated the formerly fractious relationship. In the past decade no one has taken a lot of responsibility for orchestrating routes, producing flyers or stickers, or being super involved in corking or leading the ride. Instead, a remarkable spontaneity that has often benefitted from serendipity and good luck, has kept the ride mostly fun and interesting. Nevertheless, a noticeable repetition in the past two years has become a bit tedious.

Do we really need to ride through the Broadway and/or Stockton tunnels EVERY month? Are there really still bicyclists showing up who think it’s cool, or radical, or important, to block oncoming traffic on the opposite side of two way streets? And how boring is it to “circle up” in intersections, pointlessly blocking traffic in every direction? Why is there so little xerocracy now? Essays, arguments, news, etc. have long been absent from the ride… politics? What politics?

We have some simple “Critical Mass Do’s and Don’t’s” that we think are helpful lessons learned from many years of doing this. And we will be hosting a moderated discussion on our blog, where everything is welcome, but we will reserve the right to delete extraneous and hateful material. (If you don’t like our edits, please exercise your 1st amendment right to start your own damn blog.)

We’re committed to a flourishing of intelligent debate and dialogue, and a public process of advancing whatever “success” we can claim for the Critical Mass phenomenon to other, deeper issues too.

Join in!
–Chris Carlsson and Hugh D’Andrade, August, 2009

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14 Responses to “A Critical Mass Blog? In San Francisco?”

  1. tb says:

    Well, it’s about fucking time.

  2. John says:

    I would just like to let you know that Critical Mass lost a supporter today. As someone who regularly bikes to work, I totally agree with the need to preserve bicyclists’ safety, and make the city more bike-friendly. However, Critical Mass is completely counterproductive, and only serves to alienate the biking community from the rest of the city by making us seem like a fringe group bent on disrupting motorists’ commutes. After what I witnessed tonight, I would venture to bet that the majority of San Franciscans have a negative opinion of the ride, and possibly of bikers as a whole.

    While I prefer biking to work, sometimes I take the bus. Tonight, I was stuck on the 38L with at least 50 disgruntled passengers, as Critical Mass interrupted our route twice (once at Market and Geary, and again at Geary and Van Ness). The bus was filled with people who would probably agree with the goals of easing congestion and having a city less reliant on cars, while providing more space for bikes and public transit. In other words, they were allies. Notice the use of the word *were*. Once we got to Van Ness, and waited for probably 10 traffic light cycles, the general feeling on the bus was one of anger and frustration, and there were quite a few shouts of “I hate bikes”. I guarantee there was not a single person who thought to themselves, “if only there were more bike lanes in the city.”

    I would hope that the energy put into Critical Mass could be used for something more productive, like lobbying City Hall for more bike lanes, or at least for something less destructive to the image of bikers. But, alas, I am sure that is a pipe dream, and the ride will continue for the foreseeable future. However, when I get on my bike tomorrow, I know I will feel less safe, as I fear motorists will have no regard for my rights and no respect for my space. Thanks Critical Mass for making the city more dangerous for bikers!

  3. […] There’s an interesting comment from a bus rider who doesn’t like what he saw […]

  4. Hi John,

    Sorry you were delayed, and it’s unfortunate the experience turned you against our ride. Thanks for posting a thoughtful message! I hope you’ll reconsider.

    On the question of an anti-bike backlash: Critical Mass has been going for over 17 years, and during that time bicycles have gone from the fringe to the mainstream. I think this shift is due in large part to Critical Mass, and the wave of bike activism that was inspired by it, starting in 1992. If the backlash exists, it is far outweighed by the benefit that comes from bringing people out into the streets to demonstrate their vision for a radically different way of organizing transportation.

    I do think we should allow buses to pass where possible, and on many occasions this does happen. But it’s a fact that people are sometimes delayed by Critical Mass. Here’s a flyer we did in the first year that speaks to the issue of people being delayed:


    We’re sorry you are stuck in your car in a traffic jam. Gridlock is more and more common these days… it’ll probably go on getting worse, unless we do something.

    We’re sorry if we’ve contributed to your delay, but please recognize that we bicyclists are ignored, obstructed and physically threatened ALL THE TIME, EVERY DAY. This “Critical Mass” ride home is an organized coincidence that happens once a month, giving bicyclists of all persuasions the chance to see that we are not alone, and that we, too, have a right to the road.

    We’re sorry that absurd and mean-spirited decisions about how we live are made behind the closed doors of the corporate and government elite, leading to a suicidal dependence on the automobile and the oil industry, a cancer epidemic and general ecological catastrophe. We know there are better alternatives, and our monthly ride demonstrates one of them.

    We’re sorry that we all go on reproducing this silly and self-degrading way of life, instead of throwing it over and making a life worth living. Why should we do jobs which make our lives worse due to toxic waste or pollution? Why are our best intentions always corrupted by the need to “make a living”? These questions have complex and difficult answers, answers worth looking into. But for now…

    We’re sorry you’re not already out here on your bicycle riding with us! But we heartily invite you to join us next time. Remember, every day is a good bicycling day! Meet at the foot of Market Street on the last working Friday of the each month at 5:30 p.m.

    Thanks again for your comment, John!


  5. Teko says:

    I saw how rude some young 20 something on bicycles were today on Mission by Division… some were deliberately hindering cars from getting through, cussing and threatening them.
    It’s nothing more than spoiled (too lazy to be yuppies-drop-outs, but just as annoying) on bicycles instead of beemers. So, what’s the big deal? Some people have started to ride bicycles when it became trendy. And they fancy themselves as some elite beings. I’ve been riding for over 10years. And trust me, riding a 2 wheeler doesn’t grant anyone an excuse to be assholes. It’s just a way to get around, and it smart so what. There’s plenty more smart thing to learn in this life time.

    For me Critical Mass is pointless if people can be behave in a fun way. Yes, being nice! I don’t have any need to fight for bicycling. Just bicycling itself is MY statement. I can get around efficiently, most often faster than cars, buses, etc. I stay fit. Yeah, it’s great but I don’t need to prove anything or be an ass about it.

  6. jymdyer says:

    =v= Personally I prefer to avoid transit routes, but I don’t lead the ride (nobody does). Bystanders on Market Street were totally flipping out with love for us, and I expect that’s what attracted riders back there again and again. I helped shepherd a 14-Mission bus through at one point.

    There was a guy dressed as a Bay Bridge Inspector, but even so the police wouldn’t let us up on the bridge where we wouldn’t be troubling anybody.

  7. Breakaway says:

    Let’s face it, Critical Mass is not what it used to be. It’s been taken over by a bunch of yahoos (or should I say fuck-yous) who mainly do the ride because, with hundreds of people behind or around them, they can do whatever anti-social asinine thing they want, and hardly anyone will say anything about it. From old fashioned barging past pedestrians to the new-fangled exploding M-80s in a tunnel as riders go past. We used to chant “two wheels good, four wheels bad” ironically, but some of these fools actually believe in such simplistic doctrines. The ride has also become uncreative. People used to bring route maps, now everyone just follows the young men in the front, who are constantly yelling at each other, and practicing their authoritative tone by barking commands at everyone else. (Of course there are leaders jymdyer – there are certainly a lot of followers!) And these guys always want to do the same thing: Broadway tunnel anyone? Yawn! One guy yesterday, when we got back on Market after a really nice tour through SOMA, said “finally we’re back on track, what the hell were we doing out by the ballpark – there was nobody out there!” Well what I was doing was enjoying the ride. I don’t need to feel like I’m fucking with auto traffic in order to do that. Then, on Van Ness, a driver hit a biker’s rear wheel after trying to gun his car around a corner in order to beat the mass. The girl fell but was fine, though her wheel was destroyed. The guy offered her a new wheel or money to replace her wheel. But instead, the bikers, wanting to make a legal issue out of it, called the cops! Probably the guy was at fault, but the fact that these bicyclists really just wanted to punish this guy was just over the top. Last I checked, SFPD wasn’t too sympathetic to CM, but then maybe times have changed, since the whole bike craze probably brings its own brand of tourists to our hyper-tourism-conscious city. I dunno, whatever happened to the corkers with “Thank You” signs? What happened to “Ride Slow, Say Hello?” They’ll probably be people here who respond by saying, “hey man, why don’t YOU do something about it?” Well, I do, but it’s hard to feel like a lone voice in a wilderness of aggressive arrogance mixed with pouty passivity. I’m not going to stop riding, but I think the change in CM’s character has to do with larger social forces – maybe people feel less accountable for their actions these days? Or maybe CM has always just been about in-your-face wildness and bite-sized (bike-sized?) rebellions…if that’s true then so be it, but then it would be nice if the pro-bike people stopped trying to politicize this by saying we’re setting some sort of example, or exhorting bullshit like “we are traffic” when no other forms of “traffic” get to behave this way.

  8. Breakaway —

    I agree with a lot of your sentiments, and I think people like us who enjoy Critical Mass and want to take it in a more fun, less angry (and stupid) direction have to step up. That’s one of the reasons we started this blog, and one of the reasons why I and others have circulated flyers for years telling people not to pick fights with motorists and to promote a friendly attitude on the ride.

    Why not bring back those “thanks for waiting” signs? They’re easy to make! Bring them out next month!


  9. Jeff says:

    I’m glad to see a Critical Mass blog so that the real issues can be addressed.

    I wholeheartedly agree with John’s post– Critical Mass is counter-productive.

    Hugh’s reply ignore his points entirely, in addition to being condescending and erroneously claiming to have inspired “bike activism.”

    The ride is overrun with people just having fun or just being aggressive jerks– it is not a protest, and I think it’s time to stop.

  10. Peter says:

    Frankly, Critical Mass loses far more supporters than it gains. While waiting through fifteen or so light cycles at Harrison & 3rd on Halloween, I saw Critical Mass riders force a fire truck with its siren on to a complete stop, and terrorize three middle aged women trying to cross 3rd when they had the green light. The only thing CM proves to me is that the drivers in San Francisco have more respect for the bicyclists than the bicyclists do for anyone else.

    One of the leading causes of bicycle accidents is the pervasive and totally incorrect belief among bicyclists that the traffic laws don’t apply to them. CM just reinforces that belief when it makes a practice of running red lights, failing to yield to pedestrians, and illegally obstructing traffic. It obscures the fact that most cyclists are not arrogant spoiled brats who feel that the roads were paved just for them.

  11. creekdog says:

    On Friday at 2nd and Folsom, I saw Critical Massers surround a car that attempted to go through the intersection. This was an intersection that had been corked and had been blocked by Critical Mass for almost 30 minutes and when the number of cyclists would wane, through the use of radios I think, some cyclists would coordinate to keep the intersection blocked. All the motorists (including buses) waited except for that one. Anyway, they surrounded her vehicle and kept her surrounded for probably 10-15 minutes. So, I walked over there and asked the Critical Massers if they were making a citizen’s arrest of the driver and passengers, to which they said “no”. I said “then you cannot detain them and block them”. I asked if they needed me to call the police. They said they had a right to hold to block the vehicle on all sides. I thought it was intimidating behavior to surround a vehicle with bikes and do it very, very closely. Eventually, I think one of them had a radio of some sort and said to the cyclists blocking the vehicle that they should go and the police were there shortly afterwards.

    I should mention that I had one previous interaction with Critical Mass and that was as a pedestrian trying to cross Market St. and board BART. I waited and waited for CM to fully pass but there didn’t seem to be an end, so upon a green/walk signal at New Montgomery, I attempted to cross the street. I was almost hit several times, I was glared at and circled, I should mention that I have 1 leg and I walk like I have 1 leg. The reason I crossed Market to get to BART (BART has entrances on both sides of the street) is because there are down escalators and elevators only on that one side of the street, on the side I was on initially, all there is was a very long stairway down which is a challenge for me.

    I guess my question to Critical Mass is why is your movement and your activity more important than my right to safely and without harassment, cross the street in order to board BART?

    These moments have basically formed my impression of Critical Mass, which I previously thought was basically harmless and fun, but upon seeing it up close, it’s just plain ugly and arrogant.

    Truth is I hate the way a lot of drivers endanger pedestrians, cyclists and each other, but I don’t see Critical Mass as doing anything positive about that and what I see them doing to impede pedestrians and mass transit bothers me.

    I should mention that on Friday I asked a Critical Masser if they stop for pedestrians and he said, “you can cross, but it will be like Frogger”. To which I said, “then the answer is no”.

    If you participate in this, then this is something you are a part of.

  12. Jesse says:

    Dear Hugh:

    This comment should somehow be translated/ edited. These are notes that Jason typed up after a really interesting meeting on sunday, November 1 to discuss the problems at the east bay critical mass ride. This seems to be similar to some of the comments here. I think the theme is “critical mass wants to (try to) transform itself and focus on what it does well, while being more organized about avoiding what it does poorly.

    Jason has approved me sending these notes for posting.

    I’ll send you something I wrote up later. take care, jesse

    Tonight’s dinner, films and discussion about the future of our ride
    went very well. About 3 times as many people attended than came to the
    last ride, which says something! (20-30+ people throughout the 3+

    A more complete summary will be posted soon.

    Key points from tonight’s meeting:

    A) It’s clear that the group wants the ride to grow and be inclusive.
    A straw poll showed more people prioritized BIGGER RIDE over POLITICAL

    B) General agreement that the ride is implicitly political, but that
    explicit political statements alienate and turn away many people and
    harm the power, effectiveness and fun of the ride. General agreement
    that the ride is NOT A POLITICAL PLATFORM and that such behavior is

    C) Large numbers of people do not come to the ride anymore because of
    toxic burning. Strong agreement that there should be NO BURNING,
    especially as burning petroleum products violates our essential
    healthy clean air, and violates the ride’s purity by emitting carbon,
    particularly when burning fossil fuels.

    D) General awe at the report back from Sandy about the San Jose Bike
    Party, which in 2+ years quickly grew to thousands of people each
    month. Discussion of how a big ride like that, where people even
    bring their kids, has much broader effect and public benefit than an
    aggressively radical and risky/unsafe/narrowly represented ride.
    Large rides allow inexperienced riders to build skills, confidence,
    and grow into community, while giving everyone a fun and out time.

    E) An attempt was made at a preliminary code of conduct. A long list
    of situations/behaviors which result in exclusion of whole segments of
    the population was drafted. At the very least, the same code that
    goes for ANY PEACE MARCH was generally agreed to hold. The list will
    be sent in a future more complete summary.

    F) The need for political statements was very much appreciated and
    validated. Those statements can and do happen at SEPARATE EVENTS, for
    those so interested; agreement that inclusive rides should be kept
    separate from those protest events.

    G) A need for consistent sound system influence was identified. Sound
    system needs to keep a steady pace and be conscious of not splitting
    up the ride. Music can and should be collaborative. Also that there
    need to be QUIET SPACES as well as music spaces, so people can have a
    choice. If sound systems head up the ride, and perhaps bring up the
    rear, then the middle can be a comfortable talking zone and the ride
    announces its entrance and exit more effectively.

    and at least semi-regular MEETINGS so the events are more FUNCTIONAL

    I) Ideas for new rides and/or changing existing Berkeley Mass to be
    more inclusive, to grow, included taking the ride on more small
    streets so more residents get a taste of the mass in their town.

    J) It has come to the group’s attention that MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW

    There’s more…and there was a fun process to it all.

    Action items for the immediate future:

    I) We identified someone to pull the sound system and someone who
    wants to make a soundtrack (John and Sandy)

    II) A group will gather to collectively communicate that it is not
    okay to burn things or be aggressive on our ride

    III) A new person wants to give up her car and get involved but needs
    a bike. We are referring her to Cycles of Change unless someone writes
    me with a better idea. She’s roughly medium height. Email me if you
    have a loaner/cheapo/suggestion.

    IV) Should you choose to accept..



    Visions repeatedly included the idea of changing themes, and of the
    ongoing changes of themes and destinations getting so popular that
    people begin competing for such positions as who would pull the sound
    system, who would make the sound track, who would do the sign-up list,
    who would post flyers, who would organize each theme ride…theme ride
    ideas included

    a. 1920’s ride (possibly ending at a Great Depression party with
    skyscrapers to jump onto trampolines from)
    c. Superhero ride
    d. Bike-in movie with blankets and lawn chairs
    e. Fond remembrances of times there was a really good party after the ride
    f. etc.! Make one up, we wanna hear your ideas!

    More than once it was suggested that as part of this process we
    develop community-based plans for transforming Berkeley and the East
    Bay into a Copenhagen (a bike city). Someone even suggested we all
    learn Danish.

    Phew, shoulda met sooner and more often! Who said this was some kinda
    anarchist event? Yah right!

    YO! THAT’S THE WORD! The unofficial preliminary summary from your
    NON-LEADER Mista Muggsy! Have at it!



    p.s. Sound system still needs a corner of someone’s garage, where it
    can recharge and do an easy roll-out into action. New sound systems
    are in the works.

  13. NorthBayBill says:

    The tension of so many bike riders in a small area mingling with drivers getting off work for the weekend and eager to go home is not surprising. As a newbie, I’ve enjoyed Critical Mass the times I’ve ridden, but have seen overzealous behavior on both sides. Is it only a matter of time before fistfights and gunshots erupt? Hope not. The vast majority of bicyclists seem to recognize this as a sort of aerobic social gathering and proceed peacefully and happily. And the vast majority of drivers caught up in it seem to understand that it is wise to be patient as the procession will pass soon enough. Maybe the more CM gets publicized, the smarter the general driving public will become. I mean, if I was trying my damndest to drive out of or around SF on that last Friday and knew about the mass, I would do everything I could to avoid it. True, there is no planned route, but the locals must know generally where it’s concentrated, right? I’d steer my ass clear of the Embarcadero, Union Square, Market Street, SOMA, etc. for a couple of hours. I mean, they aren’t going to ride bikes all the way to 19th and Irving, for example.

    In conclusion, the key word for both drivers and bicyclists is ‘CHILLAX’.

    Profound, huh?

  14. w says:

    thanks for putting this site together and starting a conversation about critical mass. i rode in CM for many years but recently stopped. I found a lot of the rides monotonous — they would go over the same route, and it was boring to never leave downtown, soma or do a dozen loops down valencia street.

    of particular concern to me has been a few people out front who are continuously directing the mass — sometimes it’s the fixie crowd, other times an individual or two with a megaphone or amplified sound. don’t get me wrong, i really like having music along for the ride but think some variation in leadership would be nice — why not take the ride out to golden gate park or the presidio for once?

    i see what you’re saying about meeting up afterwards, but i really prefer the mass in large groups — i think it adds to the excitement and unpredictability. why not end up at a space that can accommodate us and is largely free of traffic at that hour — there are certainly many, golden gate park, ocean beach, lake merced, mclaren park among others… bicycle beach bonfire?