Argument #1 Against Critical Mass: It Doesn’t Change Anything!

April 30th, 2010 by hughillustration
Art by Mona Caron

Art by Mona Caron

This week I have taken what I consider the 6 best and most common arguments against Critical Mass, and given them each a fair answer — one per day. This is the last in the series!

Thanks for reading and commenting!

1. Critical Mass is just a rolling party. It is apolitical, and doesn’t create meaningful social change (or the change it creates is negative.)

An argument I have heard from left and right, from motorists and bicyclists and pedestrians, is that Critical Mass doesn’t create meaningful change. I touched on this a bit with my first post in this series, in which I recounted a conversation I had 17 years ago with a prominent bike activist who warned me that Critical Mass would spark a backlash.

As I said before, that backlash never materialized. Instead, we have seen the following awesome changes since the early ’90s, when Critical Mass began:

    • 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

Did Critical Mass play a significant role in propelling these changes? As a participant and observer of the changes in this city over the last two decades, I can tell you that it certainly did. Many, many of the people who became involved in various forms of bike activism, from rejuvenating SFBC to organizing bike messengers to bike cultural events like Cyclecide and dozens of other initiatives were all riding in Critical Mass. Often, the very thing that inspired individuals to get involved in bike activism was their experience on Critical Mass. People came to our monthly bike ride and got a taste of what was possible, and that propelled them into a life of activism and social change around human-powered transit.

Take the case of local blogger and filmmaker Adam Greenfield, who recently decided to try a year of car-free living which he documented on his blog. What was it that inspired Adam to make this change?

In 2004, Greenfield came to San Francisco to get his master’s degree and discovered Critical Mass. He had never imagined a peloton of like-minded political cyclists, reclaiming the city streets in a show of force.

“That first Critical Mass ride, I saw the bike as a vision of the future,” he said.

That is only one person’s relatively recent account, but it is hardly unusual. Over the years that Critical Mass has been riding, hundreds if not thousands of people have been inspired in just the same way that Adam was. What I have seen happen again and again is that people ride with us and their view of the world is changed, their view of what is possible is expanded. They see change that they themselves are making in the world, and they like what they see. They are inspired by the vision of a different kind of city that they can create — even if only for a few hours, one day a month. And that draws them in.

People are drawn into friendship circles of others who ride. People are drawn into advocacy groups like the SFBC and Livable Cities and Walk Oakland Bike Oakland. People are drawn into a street culture that values sociability and public space, and they find their social networks and political ideas expanding. People are drawn into a new understanding of the city, and how easy it is the change the city with enough people and enough enthusiasm.

We have brought people out to flood the streets with bikes every month for over 17 years, and our model has spread to over 300 cities around the world. We have already changed the world, even if that change is subtle, difficult to document, and remains controversial. Give it time. Over the coming years and decades, San Francisco will continue to become a more bike-friendly town. One day it may even rival Copenhagen and Amsterdam as a capital of forward-thinking planning around human-powered transport. When and if that happens, the people of the future will look back at Critical Mass, and they’ll know that what we did helped shift the balance in the right direction.

Why don’t you join us on your bike, and see for yourself? Who knows, you might end up getting inspired to change your life and change your city!

Here’s the rest of the series:
Argument 6: You Don’t Stop for Red Lights
Argument 5: You’ll Spark a Backlash!
Argument 4: Delaying Others is Rude!
Argument 3: You’re Angry!
Argument 2: I Saw An Incident!
Argument 1: Critical Mass Doesn’t Change Anything!

16 Responses to “Argument #1 Against Critical Mass: It Doesn’t Change Anything!”

  1. Reality Knocks says:

    No backlash?

    Have you seen the fucking comments on SFGate?

    If you don’t see the backlash you’re blind.

  2. Nikola says:

    Thank you Hugh for this little series you wrote.
    I lived in San Francisco from 1994 until 2001 and used my bicycle extensively when I was there, due to the difficulties of parking my car downtown. The daily commute from my warehouse in China Basin to my school next to Chinatown was a rush of adrelanin when you cheated death several times a day, avoiding being doored, oblivious yuppies yakking in their cell phone while driving (I hope this is illegal now), Muni buses trying to crush you like a cockroach, trying not to get stuck in the rails on Market street etc etc.
    The only bike lanes were in Golden Gate park. I hope there are more now.
    I never participated in Critical Mass when I was there, though I remember accidentally stumbling into one of them, and was impressed by the amount of bicycles participating.
    And I am sure by now there have been many more changes, thanks to CM and like minded groups.
    I currently live in Barcelona, which is becoming more and more cycle friendly. There is a network of bicycle lanes throughout the city, bicycle parking is being installed everywhere, and there is a public bicycle system, Bicing, where you can ride bicycles from one station to another:,4022,621827370_725110941_2,00.html
    Other cities, Paris, Milan, Copenhagen, Montreal, Zaragoza are adopting similar public bicycle systems and are finding it a great solution to car congestion and air quality problems.
    I wish you and fellow cyclists in San Francisco a safe ride! 🙂

  3. Here here, SF Massive.

    I could hardly agree with you more. In NYC tonight I think we got a new taste of what is possible after 5+ years of harsh police repression. A fairly positive bit of media coverage came out of tonight’s ride (–critical-mass-rider-heads-back-out) but it hardly scratches the surface of what we did tonight. I don’t know if fewer people got tickets, but what we did tonight was take back our community by acting directly as individuals. We were not intimidated or afraid, we responded to harassment with joy and creativity, we shared ideas and laughter and safely enjoyed the streets. We acted together. NYPD pressure adds a whole new element to the movement here, but it does not change the facts that we can enjoy freedom in this context which is so rare elsewhere. It only forces us to realize how important this is, and the infinite possibilities of mass action.

    I remember in 2004, at the top of Lombard street hearing someone rise above the crowd to share that hundreds of cyclists had been arrested in NYC during the second coronation of W. Now I see a community that was smashed into so many pieces come back together to power the creative innovations that will make our lives better in the future. Stay tuned, cause it is going to be great…

    Ride Safer, Ride Massive!!!

  4. This has been an excellent series and has been very helpful! Our workplace boasts a 25-30% bike commute and we’re taking steps to encourage more – inside bike parking is the key. Thanks ever so much for these articles.

  5. @Reality Knocks: The comments on SFGate don’t have much to do with anything. All that vitriol, yet with no discernible effect on policy or politics.


  6. Donathan says:

    Correlation does not imply causation by any standard. Thus, even if critical mass started in the early 90’s, you cannot take credit for

    • 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

    It just doesn’t work that way. For all we know, these four points could have been eight points had it not been for critical mass. Until you can back up – with actual research – that critical mass has led to these changes, you’re merely speculating. It’s Statistics 101.

  7. Nio says:

    I kept a rough count of lovers + haters I saw yesterday.

    Lovers were in the hundreds. The vast majority of people who actively responded were smiling, laughing, and cheering the ride on, many taking photos. Many motorists enjoyed the show including four young women driving by the ballpark, laughing and flirting with a shirtless rider trying to get their attention. Particularly younger to middle aged people enjoy CM and those already celebrating at restaurants and clubs got right into the spirit. Across the city I saw many people on corners literally cheering the ride on, as the party it is.

    Some people just watch curiously. At the bridge several groups of tourists asked me about the ride and seemed intrigued.

    Haters were very few, in the dozens, a small minority. As usual they’re also rage fueled and the loudest. One middle aged woman on Lombard screamed “WE HAAAATE YOU!” presumably speaking for someone else not present, even tho she only saw the very front of the ride and wasn’t inconvenienced whatsoever. (Her makeup and dress were equally subtle.) A male motorist held his horn as the ride passed, getting happy cheers from the ride, but dirty looks from other motorists, who unlike the ride would be stuck there listening to his horn blaring. My personal favorite was a fellow biker who rode through Mass screaming “you f**king a**holes, OUT OF MY WAY!!” to much laughter and cheering as riders let him pass.

    That’s how I see SF Gate fora and other places people go to rant about CM. A very small and angry minority needing to vent.

  8. JoshK says:

    A thoughtful series–thank you. My argument, however, is that CM was very useful but has outlived its usefulness. A slew of bicyclists on Market, Valencia, or today, on San Jose Ave., does more to get the idea across that bicycles are traffic too, and are legitimate users of the heavily subsidized (for cars’ benefit, mainly) public space. Also, cruising past frustrated people at bus stops or when the N cluster-fraks right behind Safeway is another great advertisement for bicycling. I’ve suggest to SFBC to do those “You could be home by now” style posters at bus stops, but showing bikes instead of subdivisions 🙂

    Another point–how about all the people who are turned off of biking by CM? I love riding down the street with CM and feeling so safe and surrounded, but really, I think at this point it does more harm than good and preaches mainly to the converted. But again, thanks–I really do think you have some great points, and that CM has done much good, but I’m afraid that the real critical mass needs to be people who use bikes as everyday transportation, not a once-a-month hootenanny that pisses off more people than it sways.

  9. Donathan,
    Good for you for taking a skeptical approach! However, I hope that you apply this same skepticism to those who claim Critical Mass is bad for the bicycling cause. For all they know, without Critical Mass we would be stuck with bike lanes in Golden Gate Park and nowhere else. I will be posting a follow-up with some first hand accounts from bike advocates on how Critical Mass helped their cause.


  10. Josh,
    Please supply some evidence for your claim that Critical Mass does more harm than good.


  11. .o. says:

    OK, so Hugh chided me over email with “Your comment is totally boring.” and if it ever makes it past moderation, you’ll get to decide for yourself.

    My comment was actually very serious – I, and my wife, are in one of the target demographics of Critical Mass who, in theory, are meant to be empowered and encouraged by it. Instead, we are alienated and frustrated by it. We continue to encourage bike-friendly transit despite Critical Mass, certainly not because of it. We embarrassed by it. I am Josh’s (anecdotal and anonymous) evidence.

  12. Thanks for re-phrasing, and I’m happy to publish this! I think this sort of back & forth is really important, and one of the reasons we started this blog. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  13. Ricardo says:

    I am a bicyclist that can’t stand Critical Mass due to causing traffic jams, angering pedestrians, motorists, those on mass transit, and yes, other bicyclists. While riding on Friday, April 28, I got caught in a CM ride. Per a post from Nio, I am the one that was cursing while trying to pass. Contrary to what Nio wrote, CM DID NOT LET ME PASS until I lost my temper and started cursing. No one would make room for me to pass but I wasn’t interested in going 8 mph. Did my shout outs to please let me pass clear any open space for me? No, it did not. Let me be clear on this, the riders DID NOT LET ME PASS until I got angered. This incident occurred further within my ride (see below).

    I managed to get past a group and stopped at the light at King and 4th to turn left onto 4th from King. Then I was overrun by a bunch of CM riders running the light. The police held the light red as bicyclists swarmed. So here is some evidence that CM does more harm than good. Throngs of pedestrians were crossing to get to the baseball game. There were at least two incidents of cyclists mildly hitting pedestrians (luckily, nothing serious and apologies provided by cyclists). Bikes started piling up between the cars due to the amount of pedestrians crossing and bikers were angrily yelling, “why are we stopping?” Motorcycle cops split lanes to get to the intersection and started yelling at me – the one cyclist actually obeying the law – to move out of their way so they could do traffic control in the intersection. Motorists stuck at the light were yelling about “how does this help your cause” when they were forced into a traffic jam by bicyclists.

    Tired of sitting at a light for over five minutes while CM overran everything, I made my turn. Once again, CM would not allow me to clearly pass, even though I was asking to be let through. At that point, I lost my temper and started yelling and cursing that I was coming through. I had to kick at one cyclist who meandered into my lane. I got into a verbal confrontation with a young rider who took offense at my cursing, never mind that no one paid attention to letting me through until I started yelling and cursing.

    Most bicyclists don’t approve of causing traffic jams and forcing mass transit buses to idle in traffic as well. It’s completely antithetical to the message of bicycling. Now, is it clear to you that CM does more harm than good?

  14. Chris Carlsson says:

    @Ricardo: That’s a good example of a bad experience. They do happen, no doubt about it. I was about halfway or 2/3 back in this ride, and became deeply aggravated when those in front, completely unknown to me, chose to loop the ride back to the ballpark twice. Once is bad enough, but twice?? Clearly someone at the front had an agenda to FSU. I heard later that in fact there are a group of young men who see CM as a deliberate provocation and that to maximize its “effectiveness” they try to lead it to places that will lead to maximum congestion and potential conflict.

    There are solutions to this dynamic and we’ll be trying them next time, as we have dozens of times in the past. A published route, a destination that is a good place to hang out, and a spirit of trying to make for the best ride for the most people (including bystanders and folks like yourself who are just passing through), if supported in action by a majority of riders, will mitigate this kind of pointless antisocial behavior… thanks for sharing your story. It’s not typical at all, but it’s also not unheard of…

  15. Blau says:

    I am a newcomer to Critical Mass, with the April ride being my first. As a 63 year-old ex-banker, I had always thought of the group as being a bunch of weirdos but was pleasantly surprised. It was a fun ride and I hope to be on many more. But I have to agree with Chris Carlsson that making a circuit twice over the same route (past the ballpark and through the Broadway tunnel) is counter-productive. On the first circuit of the ball park the bystanders seemed to take it in good spirits, but the second circuit received a much more negative reaction as we were making people late to the game. I urge the group in future rides to only traverse a particular route once. The last thing we need to do is to provoke road rage.

  16. Marc says:

    This is the second link on the list you sent me and asked for a response after seeing my website

    I already posted a general comment on your “uncivility sucks” link, and also to the “Is Critical Mass Bad — or Good — for Biking? Veteran Bike Activists Chime In” link. I hope some of your viewers who have not seen those comments will take the time to look it over. Hey, you asked me to do this, remember?

    Many of my thoughts in my above post actually respond to this question as well. Does Critical Mass change anything? There is no real way to find out, just as Donathan so accurately pointed out and I discussed in more detail earlier.

    My point of view is this, however. Since you have no clear data or proof that it DOES help, why engage in behavior that is so disruptive to the city you live in? Clearly it does cause frustration and anger in people, so why do you feel that this is your right? Keep in mind, like I stated before, you are not disrupting some vague, general, evil “They” that embodies all that is wrong with American transportation – you are disrupting and frustrating “people”. Normal people who want to live their lives.

    By all means do what you like to help the cause of cycling, just don’t do it by messing with other people. This is the main stumbling block between those that are FOR CM and those that are AGAINST it. We see differently on how people should treat their fellow man. I dont know if we were raised different, or what the deal is. In all the blogs and websites all over the country that I have participated in on the subject, for those who do NOT like CM, there is one thing in common. They all cannot fathom how a person thinks it is okay to act like this to their neighbors and fellow citizens. It seems to be what angers and frustrates them the most (at least as far as I can tell – I certainly cannot speak for all of them).

    The response that we are often met with is simply “you need to change your attitude” or some equally aggravating quip like that. It’s as if to say “Well, you are just too closed minded to understand the brilliance of our actions, but once you are enlightened you will see it our way” or something like that – which is, of course, totally condescending. This was part of the fuel that sparked the fire of Im surprised people that engage in such disruptive and condescending behavior would be upset by a website that uses a rude and condescending tone back.

    I realize riding a bike once a month is easy and fun. Much easier than trying to get petitions signed, or discussing concerns with local, regional, or national policy makers. But just because its easy and fun, and others are doing it with you – so many others that you can get away with it – does not make it right.

    And as I stated on the “Is it Bad or Good..” Link. Even if we lived in the hypothetical world where you could provide 100% scientific proof that the net result is a positive one for cycling – I would STILL not approve, as I am not one who believes in “the end justifies the means”.

    Let me state yet again, that I appreciate and agree with your motivation. Well, that is IF the motivation is to increase cycling safety, access, etc. (im not really sure WHAT the actual motivations are which is yet another issue I have with CM, but we wont get into that here). Yes, I agree with that, I just strongly and in no uncertain terms, disagree with the methods you choose to bring about the changes you desire.

    If you are breaking the law and disrupting people to move your agenda forward, the first question for any member of a society should be…. Is there a DIFFERENT way to go about this? Yes it may be much harder, yes it may take time – but if you want to live in a civilized society that is the price you pay.