Archive for January, 2010

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%!

Positive Energy Flyer OK!

January 28th, 2010 by hughillustration

Critical Mass confrontation

Everyone complains about bad behavior on Critical Mass. The truth is, it’s only a small minority that are behaving this way.

You can confront any behavior you don’t like. But I have found flyers really work to establish norms that are positive and friendly. So I’ve made a flyer you can print out, read, and if you agree with it’s sentiments, make copies and share them with others before the ride! If you can print a bunch and pass them out yourself, please do!

Click here or the pic below to download the PDF. It’s designed to be printed double-sided and cut in half. Works like a charm!


And here’s the text of the flyer:

Have you been attending Critical Mass in order to harass,
intimidate and disrupt other forms of traffic?

Have you been picking fights with motorists? Blocking traffic for no reason? Giving people the finger? Generally behaving like a self-righteous weenie?

You’re in the wrong place! There is a special ride for you:

The Hypocritical Mass!

The Hypocritical Mass takes place on the 6th Friday of every month at 2:30 a.m. Everyone on that ride believes they are better than others, and they really enjoy “sticking it to the Man” by “gumming up the works”. Take your bike and join them! You’ll be much happier.

Critical Mass, on the last Friday of every month, is different. We’re not out to ruin anyone’s night. We are a positive celebration of bikes, bike culture, and public space. While we assert our right to the road, we do not deny anyone else their right to get where they are going. We’re here to enjoy ourselves, change the world, and make this city great.

We are asking our friends in cars to wait while our party passes — the same way we wait and defer to motorized traffic every other day of the month.

Here’s what we say to motorists and members of the Hypocritical Mass: Join us! Bring your bike, your good energy, a friendly attitude towards people you don’t know, and help us build a city worth living in — a city with clean air, friendly streets, and public demonstrations of pure joy. OK!

How to Help:
The front of the Mass must stop for every red light! This allows the back of the ride to catch up and keeps the ride dense, preventing accidents. When Critical Mass spreads out, problems occur: motorists creep in, things get dangerous, and bad vibes result. The front of the ride has a responsibility to keep it cool for the rest of us!

If you see a fight or confrontation:
Keep moving! Keep positive! Don’t stop and don’t get dragged into some boring argument. If a motorist shouts or honks at you, try this response: “Have a nice night!” Then pedal on. Works every time!

Don’t block traffic unnecessarily!
We’re here to show that we are traffic, not to block traffic! Circling at intersections, riding into oncoming traffic and purposefully trying to inconvenience other is bad tactics, bad politics, and bad karma.

Respect Pedestrians!
The only thing more dangerous than biking in San Francisco is walking. Pedestrians are our friends and allies, and they could use some respect. Let pedestrians pass where possible, and invite them to join us next month!

Who is behind this flyer?
We are concerned riders of Critical Mass. We aren’t the only voice. Make your own voice heard by making a flyer or website and sharing your ideas!

Join us online: •

PS: Check out this flyer that someone else made! The author is unknown to me, it’s a few months old but it hits the mark — and it’s way less verbose than mine!

Can SF Learn from the San Jose Bike Party? Yes!

January 16th, 2010 by hughillustration

Our San Francisco Critical Mass delegation at the San Jose Bike Party

Some San Jose locals before the ride

A few months back, when we first started this blog, we got several comments from readers repeating the common criticism that Critical Mass does not stop for red lights. “The San Jose Bike Party stops for lights,” they said — and they noted that San Jose also tries to minimize inconvenience for motorists by not taking all lanes where possible. If San Jose can do this, why can’t SF?

This piqued my curiosity. I have always argued that a ride of this size can’t stop for red lights without creating even more disruption to other traffic, and that by staying together as a mass, our ride was moving quicker and safer than otherwise. Had the San Jose folks found a solution to this problem?

Checking out their very professional website, I learned that San Jose is no small ride — they claim 3 thousand riders — and that they are amazingly organized: they have pre-planned routes, regular meetings, and dozens of volunteers.

Last night, I took the CalTrain down there with Joel, Keeeth, Nellie and Nio to do a little investigation. Our report back: It was awesome! I came away with a real respect for the love and care and serious work these folks put into their event. The vibe from riders and motorists was overwhelmingly positive. (Joel has some longer notes you should read if you’re curious.)

But while San Francisco’s ride could really use some of that positive, celebratory energy (especially lately), there really is no way the San Jose model could apply. Why? Because San Jose is a totally different city! Their streets are wider, so that the ride can often allow cars to take a lane. Their blocks are longer (way longer), allowing the entire ride to wait together for a red light. And the traffic is so light that there is way less pressure and anger from delayed motorists.

There was one element of the ride that I found disturbing, and that is that each nice person I met in San Jose was under the impression that Critical Mass is an “angry protest,” bent on making life miserable for motorists and “sticking it to the drivers.” They said that their ride was different because it was a “celebration!”

That is really depressing for me, learning what a bad image problem Critical Mass has. For the record, as someone who has ridden on Critical Mass since the beginning and has been making flyers and helping out that entire time: Critical Mass is a celebration, not a protest. We are not out to ruin anybody’s night, not deliberately trying to delay anyone, and we are not out to punish motorists! We have almost two decades worth of flyers that have said that over and over again.

Anyone curious about this question ought to take a good look at the fantastic film Critical Mass: We Are Traffic by Ted White (you can watch the whole thing online). Or pick up a copy of Chris Carlsson’s edited collection, Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration. Both will give you a good picture of what we’re really all about.

In any case, if you enjoy Critical Mass, I guarantee you will dig the San Jose Bike Party. It takes place on the 3rd Friday of every month. You should go down there and check it out for yourself!

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 (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!