What is Relevance?

July 26th, 2013 by ccarlsson
June 2013 Critical Mass on Larkin in Civic Center.

June 2013 Critical Mass on Larkin in Civic Center.

It’s the last Friday of July, 2013, and of course San Francisco’s Critical Mass will be rolling around 6:30 or so from Justin “Pee-Wee” Herman Plaza, as it has for the past 20 and a half years. I’m not going today, but it’s not because I don’t generally still show up and usually enjoy myself, but because I’m doing something else at the same time that I bought tickets for.

As it happens this is the same week that Joe Eskenazi’s article “Critical Mass Goes Round and Round” appeared in the SF Weakly. I’ve had a few friends wonder what my take on it is, since he attempts to summarize the political impact of 20 years of Critical Mass in the context of bicycling politics and city transit priorities more generally. I’m also quoted in the piece a few times, a product of an hour I spent speaking with Joe a month ago or so.

Another "circling up" at Mission and South Van Ness in June 2013.

Another “circling up” at Mission and South Van Ness in June 2013.

I don’t love having a complex set of ideas and experiences reduced to a few out-of-context soundbites that just serve to reinforce my apparent disconnectedness from what matters in terms of the realpolitik of San Francisco. But that’s what mainstream journalism, even or especially in an alt-weekly, will do. Overall I don’t think he did a bad job of capturing the current malaise that besets Critical Mass (a malaise that is only visible to those of us who have long harbored more ambitious hopes for radical social change), and I think he was spot-on in highlighting the severe limits of the narrow corporatist agenda of the SF Bicycle Coalition, both in terms of its self-proclaimed successes and in terms of the actual state of things on the ground in San Francisco for bicyclists.

Parents still bring kids to the ride regularly.

Parents still bring kids to the ride regularly.

Critical Mass, of course, is not an organization, and thus has no agenda, and never did. One of the originating impulses for it was the experience many of us had of so commonly being treated as second-class citizens on the roads by motorists and by the shape of the infrastructure itself. Eskenazi suggests that our early years’ “success” was to insinuate into the DNA of the city’s people the awareness that cyclists are here and deserve accommodation. I think that’s basically true. But for me, Critical Mass was always about a lot more than mere bicycling. As he rather drippingly notes, I lament that the SFBC and its gov’t allies “have no particular problem with wage labor,” and they are narrowly focused on simply “getting more people on bicycles.” Bicycling is great for all kinds of intrinsic reasons, but bicycling per se is simply not enough.

Indeed, the bicycle for me was always a transportation choice that was obviously superior to other choices, but insofar as we gathered en (Critical M)asse, it quickly became obvious that much more is at stake. Our paucity of public space and opportunity to gather and meet and discuss anything publicly without being subjected to the endless imperative to buy something immediately rose to the foreground as an important element of why Critical Mass mattered.

Fell street in June 2013

Fell street in June 2013

In our book “Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20” we gathered essays from two dozen contributors spread across the world’s cities showing how Critical Mass spread far and wide and repeatedly changed those cities where it appeared in similar ways. As Eskenazi notes, I wrote in my opening essay in that volume that I’d seen a kind of “life cycle” of Critical Mass in different places, usually involving the hopeful, utopian, and open-ended experience that has captivated so many of us lasting about 5 years, give or take. After that the animating spirits of that “golden era” often turn to other ways to pursue their hopes and goals, whether by launching more mainstream advocacy organizations, turning to other activities entirely such as urban agriculture or free software (just as often, of course, activists from those arenas had joined with other cyclists to spur on Critical Mass from its inception, whether in Brazil or Mexico or Italy or Hungary), or beginning DIY skill-sharing “bike kitchens.”

The spate of horizontalist social movements that are continuing to erupt suddenly across the planet, most recently in Brazil, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Egypt, often find Critical Mass cyclists at the heart of those upheavals. This is not to credit CM with being the necessary precursor or essential causal agent, just to note that our shared experiences in making Critical Mass in over 400 cities around the world during the last two decades has already profoundly affected how we think about and engage in politics, civil society, urban planning, and much more.

The fact that San Francisco’s ride is so predictable and often boring, lacking in any internal political discussions, publications, social dialogues, or anything close to what made it so vital in its first five years, doesn’t make meaningless or irrelevant. It is still a gathering point, a place where people meet, where ideas can hatch, and month after month, it’s a training ground for spontaneous self-organization. Though it can seem very trite and repetitive and is too often directed by racers or the cops, it is still the case that every month something completely unexpected COULD happen, and for people on their first or early ride, it can still impart that euphoria we all know so well. I still experience it from time to time and I’ve been riding for 20 years!

Critical Mass doesn’t have to answer to anyone’s measurement about efficaciousness. It is not an instrumentalized experience designed to “achieve” something. It is real life, open and flexible, and as a persistent reality on the last Friday of every month, it is always there to be reclaimed, repurposed, and reanimated by anyone who cares to make the effort. I’m glad it’s still going. It’s not something we do to score political points or to gain any particular demands. It’s an expression of life itself, and it is still a chance to taste however fleetingly a brief moment of another way of life, one not dominated by the frenzied rush to and fro from work and home, not reduced to buying and selling, an experience that is valuable for living it, and smelling it, and sharing it… and nothing more.

Passing the library in early evening sunshine in June 2013.

Passing the library in early evening sunshine in June 2013.

At the Wave Organ in May 2013.

At the Wave Organ in May 2013.


17 Responses to “What is Relevance?”

  1. the greasybear says:

    Three of us (two with soundsystems) did make a point of getting the Mass to pass by City Hall to help support and celebrate that day’s sudden return of legal gay marriages, and we also worked hard to get everyone onto Polk Street, to protest the prioritization of motorists’ convenience over cyclists’ safety. Alas, not every rider understood the import of either locale–but it’s not like nobody is striving for relevance.

  2. Jym Dyer says:

    Is that you with the aqua blue soundbike trailer? Playing Gary Numan’s “Cars” on Polk was brilliant! People were shouting “bike!” every time he said the word “car.”

    It was an excellent ride with good energy. We may not have a very sunny summer here, but at least the daylight lasts longer.

  3. bobs says:

    You comment on “… the experience … of being treated as second-class citizens on the roads by motorists and by the shape of the infrastructure itself.”

    Please check out this article on “The Marginalization of Bicyclists (How the car lane paradigm eroded our lane rights and what we can do to restore them)” It explains exactly how we got to this second-class citizen status, and invites action – including by CM participants – to restore our equality on the roads.

  4. the greasybear says:

    Jym, my friend Brendan pulls the rig but I picked that song for the ride! We put together a car-themed setlist with the intent of playing at least a few of them on Polk Street proper. As for the tunes themselves, I think my favorite was Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic” at Van Ness and Hayes.

  5. David says:

    The July ride was great. So fun to see so many of my friends I’ve made at CMass over the years. Agree with Jym that it was an excellent ride with good energy.

    I found it interesting, in the past the circling at intersections seemed pointless to me, needlessly riling drivers with no gain. This time the frequent circling seemed an enjoyable celebration as we massed up and decided which direction to go next. Most drivers giving us an enthusiastic thumbs up during the process.

    Yes, an enjoyable ride this month.

  6. Fladabosco says:

    I am a liberal guy, a conservationist (my dad was the first municipal water pollution inspector in the US) and generally supportive of any activity that gets pollution issues in the public eye.

    But as somebody who occasionally works in SF I can tell you that much of critical mass is made up of people who just love to dress up as clowns and interfere with other people’s lives.

    Please tell me how making thousands of cars idle and ruining traffic patters is doing anything other than 1) wasting thousands of gallons of gas and 2) really pissing off the people YOU SHOULD BE TRYING TO REACH.

    It’s counterproductive, selfish and wasteful. Apart from that I am totally for it.

  7. As somebody who occasionally works in SF, I don’t know how you are qualified to characterize the thousands of people who ride in Critical Mass.

    I addressed your concerns a few years ago here: http://www.sfcriticalmass.org/2010/05/25/is-critical-mass-bad-or-good/

    And here: http://www.sfcriticalmass.org/2010/04/30/argument-1/

  8. Fladabosco says:

    Yeah, so I read the pages mentioned by hughillustration. If anything they make my points; that people love this because it’s an event, that it wastes oil and does a lot of harm to the environmental movement.

    How much good do you really think it does to cause massive traffic jams (a car not moving is getting ZERO miles per gallon) while being dressed up as freaks? Do you think it makes the average person want to support you and your cause? No way!

    Many people do a lot of good for society and I applaud them. It’s not always easy. You don’t always get recognition. It can be time consuming, frustrating and costly. Then there are those that just like to make the noise and will look for any tiny tidbit of data that shows that they made a difference.

    I know which people I would support. And I do. And I know whom I won’t support. And I don’t.

  9. Thanks for the comment, and for taking the time to read my arguments, even if you don’t agree with them.

    I’ve issued this challenge multiple times in the comments section here. Bring me evidence that Critical Mass has damaged the bicycle advocacy movement. Not an assertion, not an anecdote, but real evidence. Or at least try? All you have done is assert that we do no good, or cause problems. No evidence. (You also denigrated our self expression, which is insulting and shows that you don’t know much about San Francisco…)

    You’ll notice that I went to some trouble to back up my arguments with evidence, which was admittedly scarce. I got first person testimony from bicycle activists about the contribution of Critical Mass to this change. I pointed to the unbelievable and very rapid increase in cycling during the 20 years that Critical Mass has been ongoing. I made a logical argument that Critical Mass cannot have much of a negative effect, given the afore-mentioned massive changes.

    You could try doing something similar if you’d like to continue the dialog.

  10. the greasybear says:

    Well, I’ll tell you–CM really does sink into irrelevance when the speed demons at the front split us into three different groups not long after the ride starts blow right through areas like 6th and Folsom that deserved at least a circle-up due to the recent death and botched SFPD investigation there, take freaking bike paths rather than the roads, and eventually leave hundreds of riders behind. Worst CM in a long, long time. It’s not a fucking race!

  11. Jym Dyer says:

    @greasybear – Oh, hey, here’s my helmetcam footage of your friend Brendan playing your musical selection: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V44YCkFipmA

    (First helmetcam ever for me, very amateur.)

  12. Cody says:

    @hugh – I love how you try and point the finger when someone says that CM isn’t helping anything and that all supporters do is look for any tiny piece of data that says they make a difference. Rather than back up with your own facts and data, you simply point the finger elsewhere like little johnny on the playground at recess who got his kickball taken from him.

    You need to show some real evidence that CM is making a difference in any way, shape, or form. But you can’t. You cyclists that ride in these protests are the ones creating the problems for everyone. How can you CM riders be so ignorant and selfish that you are just on a leisure bike ride and have no care or regret for delaying hundreds of people from getting home from work, or visiting family, or taking their SO out for lunch/dinner… Or what ever the agenda may be for motorists. Albeit that most of the riders are just being sheep and going along with it.

    I don’t mind cyclists. (Nor do I dislike most of the CM riders, because 95% of them are just doing it to “stick it to the man” and use power of numbers to break some laws for fun. I bet in all of the CM rides, most of the people that participate do not use bikes as a main source of transportation, or at all.) It’s the few that act as human barricades and put themselves infront of 4000lb. vehicles so they cannot move is just insane. You Hugh, seem to be one of these people. I can tell because of your response to a comment on your “is critical mass bad?” Page. Someone had said,

    -“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”

    And your response was simply, “best comment ever.”

    But somehow, you said on August 20, 2013 that, “I made a logical argument that Critical Mass cannot have much of a negative effect”

    So, You are here to “anger motherfuckin motorists, motherfucker.”? Nope, no negative effect can come from that. Hypocritical much?

  13. Hi Cody,

    Thanks for your response. The tone of your note is angry, accusatory and not very constructive, but I am happy to give your a reasonable and friendly response.

    First of all, I applaud your demand for data. More people who discuss political question in public forums should provide data for their claims.

    As you may know, elsewhere on this blog I have noted that there is a lack of reliable data on the question of whether Critical Mass is good or bad for cycling. Many people make claims on either side of that question, but none supply data. I discussed this in the article linked to below, in which I supplied anecdotal evidence to support my position — not my preferred response, but the best I can do under the circumstances. You might be interested in the article: http://www.sfcriticalmass.org/2010/05/25/is-critical-mass-bad-or-good/

    One thing that is important to note is that cyclists enjoy greater safety, numbers, infrastructure and political influence now than they did in 1992, when CM began. This is a fact, and is not in dispute so far as I know. Since CM has taken place monthly during that time, we can safely assume that if the influence is negative, the negative influence must not be a very great, since it has not prevented cyclists from becoming a major and respected force in the transportation community.

    On the question of claims made without any data, you yourself have made several assertions, none of which is supported by evidence of any kind. Please reply here with the data to back up the following claims made in your comments:

    • “You cyclists that ride in these protests are the ones creating the problems for everyone.”

    • “95% of them are just doing it to “stick it to the man” and use power of numbers to break some laws for fun.”

    • “…most of the people that participate do not use bikes as a main source of transportation, or at all.”

    • “You Hugh, seem to be one of these people [who cork motor vehicles at intersections]. I can tell because of your response to a comment…”

    I would also like to thank you for pointing out my hypocrisy. You are absolutely correct, I am a total hypocrite. While I have consistently espoused a peaceful, friendly, non antagonistic approach for Critical Mass on this blog, I did reply “best comment ever” to a comment that appeared to me to be a humorous and ironic endorsement of violent bridge blockades. I see now that this comment was entirely serious, and that I was in error. The only possible explanation I can offer is to say that my sense of humor temporarily malfunctioned. As they say at the New York Times, “we regret the error, but cannot guarantee that it will not happen again in the future.”

  14. Stefan says:

    Much love and many greetings from germany, Europe:

    Hamburg: http://criticalmass-hh.de/

    Munich: http://criticalmass-muenchen.de/

    Freiburg: http://www.critical-mass-freiburg.de/

  15. Mikeinsf says:

    Fladabosco may not live in SF and may only be occasionally here, but I live here and bike commute every single day. I agree completely with his take. When I’m biking and see your group, I avoid you like the plague. Your horde provides cover for way too much bad behavior that I’ve personally witnessed, from attempting to take over the Bay Bridge back in ’97 or ’98, to the many times I’ve seen your participants freezing all traffic at intersections for ten minutes, to cyclists screaming at drivers and pounding on cars when they get legitimately fed up with their two-wheeled tormentors. Your event is toxic.

  16. angie says:

    I lived in SF for most of my adult life. Over 25 years. I commuted the last few years by bicycle and I obeyed all of the traffic laws.

    I HATE this critical mass crud. I feel SO bad for those who must go home to their families outside of the city after a work week. Driving in SF is no picnic even on a good day. Not everyone who works in SF lives in SF. It’s very selfish/self centered in my humble opinion.

  17. Harassing drivers especially women in the Marina is real tough. Why don’t you do that to a bunch of Bikers on Harley’s. Why? Because they would kick your ass! Maybe you should go harass 5 year olds next time.