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!

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9 Responses to “Is Critical Mass Bad — or Good — for Biking? Veteran Bike Activists Chime In”

  1. To many, it is obvious that Critical Mass is hurtful, pointing to the anger it often inspires in motorists.

    “In motorists”? Pretty sure you’re pissing off the transit riders and pedestrians that get trapped in/by CM, too.

  2. jbtiv says:

    Critical Mass would be good for biking if motherfuckers really took it to the next level of the game and critically massed across the motherfuckin Bay Bridge and taught the Bay Area establishmentinati that they ain’t playin and we ain’t scared and we ARE here to “anger” motherfuckin “motorists” motherfucker. ‘Cause that’s where the mass needs to get critical. On the motherfuckin Bay Bridge. Why can’t a motherfucker ride his bike on that? I can navigate the fuck out of the motherfuckin S-Curve on TWO wheels without slowing down for an instant motherfucker. Feel me.

  3. Best comment ever.

  4. js says:

    Hugh –
    There actually has been academic publication on this topic. Professor (now emeritus I believe) Marty Wachs from UC Berekely published a paper in an academic journal back in late 1997 supporting the hypothesis that without CM and political agitation like it that politicians would not take notice and move on bike infrastructure projects. To quote him:

    “In a democracy there is simply no reason to adopt major changes in policy as a result of scholarly studies or technical findings. There is every reason, however, to adopt policies that respond to vocal and persistent interest groups that demonstrate they have staying power in the political arena. Whether or not cycling catches on in America will depend upon the success or failure of grassroots movements like the one that is now thriving and growing in the San Francisco Bay Area. ”

    I think it would be naive to think that we would be where we are today with cycling in SF without CM as a catalyst for change. Whether it still serves that role is debatable, but it certainly was the spark that got the fire going. Wachs dismisses John Pucher’s claim that good government technocrats are necessary for bike infrastructure to get built. It’s either. To get change like this you either need a committed an elightened government (e.g. Portland, Cophenhagen) OR a strong and visible grassroots political movement that can push the government (e.g. SF). Lots of places are a middling mix. I would say that today SF has a pretty strong mix of both of those things. Those cities that have neither (e.g. Boston) continue to have little improvement. There’s your empirical evidence.

  5. Thanks, great comment! I’m glad to see that there is an academic who has argued along these lines, but I’m disappointed that Wach’s discussion doesn’t include the type of facts and statistics needed to really make the case. It seems more like a brief aside rather than a real academic paper. Is there a longer, annotated version somewhere? (I also am uncomfortable with some of his description of Critical Mass, but so what.) Thanks!

  6. Rob Anderson says:

    Instead of asking bike people and supporters of Critical Mass what they think, why don’t you poll people who don’t have an investment in the issue, like Muni passengers and people who live in the neighborhoods?

  7. Mr. Pants says:

    I’ve lived in SF for about a year now, regularly bike to work (>90% of the time) from The Richmond to SoMA and have never participated in CM and have very little desire to change that. So, there’s some starting perspective for you.

    I feel CM is a ride with a message and that message is a fairly unanimous “f-off.” Maybe not from every participant but certainly in it’s design – route, timing, and complete disregard for applicable traffic laws. That said, I think probably helps the bicycling movement. Think of the freedom of speech – you might not like (porn or films about violence or music with swear words) but they absolutely push the boundaries of what’s comfortable and remind us of why the freedom of speech is important (and absolutely needs defending). I think our national dialogue is better for them all (24 hour news not withstanding). While free speech and bike friendliness may not be the best analogy, there are perceived “good” ways and “bad” ways to advance one’s cause and it’s ok that both are used. If it makes people think for half a second that they’d be better off to be on a bike more often, then that’s a very good thing.

    I just hope that everyone (in any mode of transportation) could all be a little more conscious, try not to be in such a hurry and realize those extra 60 seconds we get at our destination for being a complete jackass on the roads wasn’t worth it. (Even though this has been a hope for many since the dawn of time.)

  8. Marc says:

    Hello Hugh,
    This is the first link you sent me on the list of links you requested I respond to after you saw my website
    As you have already seen, I can get rather verbose, so I will try as best I can to keep this brief, as many of my points are already available on the website, which I hope you thoroughly reviewed.

    Your question is a simple one on the surface: Is Critical Mass bad or good for biking.
    However, I’m not sure what the terms “good” or “bad” actually means in this situation.
    Do you call it “good” if you see more people using bikes, but also more people angry at cyclists in general? No idea. But let’s just assume for the sake of argument, that “good” = a net positive effect, even though many people are put off by Critical Mass (because clearly they are). We’ll just keep it nice and easy and hypothetical.

    I do not have a concrete answer on whether it is good or bad for cycling, nor does anyone else if they are being honest. I do however have an opinion in relation to this and it will be my point 2, below, but first I must respond to the notion that anecdotal evidence on both sides is equal, as I offer the idea for consideration that it is not. I will discuss this in my Point 1 below.

    Point 1:
    You make the claim that both sides use anecdotal evidence. I believe you are implying that they then cancel each other out or that they have equal weight in the overall argument. I submit that this is not true in the present debate. IF the course of action that the evidence were arguing for or against were neutral, then yes, they would be the same – however Critical Mass is decidedly NOT a neutral event. It is an illegal and disruptive event, and the evidence offers to try to persuade someone AGAINST critical mass must be added to the fact that you are in the wrong to begin with.

    It’s like this.

    Me: Hey, you shouldn’t do that (insert illegal, disruptive activity here) !
    Respondent: “Why not?”
    Me: Besides being illegal and disruptive you mean? Well, if you actually NEED another reason, for one thing it MAY cause bad thing “X”.
    Respondent: Yeah, but it MIGHT NOT cause bad thing “X”, it MIGHT cause good thing “Y”. Therefore I will do this already bad thing (illegal and disruptive behavior) because it just MIGHT cause this good thing “Y”.

    When people use anecdotal evidence against CM, it must be taken into the true context of the debate and added to the consideration to not do the illegal, disruptive behavior that you are already engaging in.

    Example: I would never offer the argument that forcing cars to idle adds to the net pollution for the day as the SOLE reason to not participate in Critical Mass (even though it arguably does). But since CM is illegal and disruptive, I offer it as an ADDITIONAL CONSIDERATION for those who are weighing whether they should participate.

    Whether you agree with this line of thinking or not is a mute point though once we look at Point 2.

    Point 2:
    First, let’s be clear that there will NEVER be a way to tell if CM has a net benefit to cycling because even if you could study the past and take in all factors (negative and positive) and obtain results as to net effect for the present, you will never be able to go back in time and see what the world would be like WITHOUT CM’s existence — unless someone invents a time machine and somehow stops CM from ever existing and seeing how things play out. Having said that, I do not know empirically whether Critical Mass helps or hurts cycling.

    However, even if I were living in the hypothetical world where I was able to be presented with 100% scientific evidence that CM DOES help cycling, I would not approve. This would be a “the end justifies the means” argument – one that is rejected by most rational thinkers.

    If every person who broke the law and did something that negatively affected hundreds of fellow citizens then tried to pose a defense of their actions as “well it did some good,” then we would be in a really sad state indeed. But apparently the argument isn’t even that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you are saying, “well it MIGHT be doing good”. It MIGHT? So you are willfully breaking the law and disrupting the city you live in because – “it MIGHT do some good for cycling?”

    I cannot justify this sort of behavior, and like many like me are mystified that there are those among us who do. The sad fact is that I don’t really think participants actually DO “justify” their behavior. They just do it without giving it that much thought. It’s “fun” for them.

    I understand the need in this day and age to want to do something about the state we find ourselves in, I really do. However there are ways to go about creating change that do not employ tactics against society in general. It upsets me that my fellow man has devolved into this sort of behavior under the guise of righteousness.

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