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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!

Why Is Critical Mass Budapest So Huge?

November 11th, 2009 by Joel Pomerantz

Imagine a Critical Mass so large that it simply can’t begin in only one spot at only one meeting time. Imagine a Critical Mass “ride” with so many participants that nobody actually can ride for the first half hour because it’s too dense and slow as tens of thousands of bicyclists begin to move, walking their bikes, along a major urban highway. What I’m asking you to picture is Critical Mass at its biggest, in Budapest, Hungary.

The ride in Budapest routinely and dramatically surpasses all other Critical Mass ride records for size. Why is that? On the one hand, why is it that the ride is so big? On the other, why aren’t all of them like that, in every large city?

It’s easy to point to some of the superficial causes for CMB’s size: It’s only twice a year. The weather’s mild in April and September. Budapest is a capital city. It’s mostly flat. Bikes have been popular for generations in Hungarian cities. But to get to 40,000 riders and more, there’s clearly more going on.

Budapest Massers, while cooperating with authorities, lift their bikes in the air en masse, a gesture that has come to represent defiance and territorial reclamation in American cities.

Budapest Massers, while cooperating with authorities, lift their bikes in the air en masse, a gesture that has come to represent defiance and territorial reclamation in American cities.

Rather than point to all the promotion, civic organizing and volunteer effort that creates the ride (and there’s a lot), I’m most fascinated by the underlying reasons for all that effort. In this article, I’m going to build a hypothesis that the success of the ride is, as elsewhere, largely a reaction to intolerable interaction with cars.

Historically, motorized transportation shifted from railroads to automobiles slowly in most places. The first private automobiles made a nasty reputation for themselves by getting stuck in mud easily, being loud, scaring horses, breaking arms (before the crank starter was replaced with a “self-starter” model), and careening through crowds of pedestrians trying to innocently cross the public thoroughfares. The problem of mud, alone, was at such a level that it influenced habits of etiquette into the 1970s, when I was taught to walk between a lady companion and the curb, so as to protect her from splashing mud.

Let’s compare the American story with the proverbial frog placed into a cool pan of water and slowly boiled before it can know what’s happening clearly enough to jump out of the pan.

Now let’s look at the frog in Budapest. Budapest under the Communists was a place of public trains, buses and streetcars, bicycles and serious pedestrian ways. People shopped on foot, near their homes—even in the new suburbs. Commuters used “tram” streetcars instead of cars. The first subway in the world was built in Budapest.

And, of course, there were cars—but not very many. Only the well-connected and politically-favored could drive with any regularity, and an undercurrent of discomfort existed, reflecting a combination of fear, envy and resentment against power and special privilege, including car use. In 1974, only 80 out of each 1000 people in the population owned cars, and fewer still were using them for commuting. [Data from the Hungarian Institute of Transport Sciences.] Compare that to ownership rates of 480 per 1000 in the U.S. at that time.

When the decade of the 1980s ended with the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet control over Eastern Europe, the white-hot culture of the automobile came blazing in. Suddenly the frog felt the heat. Unlike in places where roads had to be slowly paved and extended, an infrastructure capable of supporting high-speed car use was already in place, inviting its use.

The opportunities offered when Communist corruption was replaced with Capitalist corruption (and marketing) were similar to those in the recent U.S. housing scandals when banks were newly allowed to make housing loans even to those unable to afford them. Suddenly in Budapest more than half the adult population made it one of their top priorities to own and use a car. People who could barely afford one bought cars to enhance their business opportunities, and their self-respect in the new eyes of a scorching fast culture. By 2004, the car ownership rate in Budapest was 350 per 1000 residents.

To summarize, the Budapest frog went from cool to hot in a very short time.

And it jumped.

The Budapest Critical Mass is evidence of that leap. A quick look at how Critical Mass is viewed in Hungary gives insight into the confused nature of the politics simmering in reaction to the onslaught of cars and dangerous streets on a large, accelerated scale. When I arrived in April 2006, I saw major promotional materials about the ride in the most unlikely of places, by San Francisco standards.

A contingent of hundreds of route monitors leads the ride, peeling off in pairs wherever safety monitors are to be stationed. The streets used for the ride are already closed for the entire day by the police, so Budapest's monitors generally act as a buffer between the ride and pedestrians.

A contingent of hundreds of route monitors leads the ride. The uniformed volunteers peel off in pairs wherever safety monitors are to be stationed. The streets used for the ride are already closed for the entire day by the police, so Budapest's monitors generally act as a buffer between the ride and pedestrians.

The free tourist booklets advertising hotels and nightlife were promoting it—on the front cover. Full size billboards beside the Danube River were promoting the ride. In the newspaper editorials, party bosses and union leaders from all political lineages were promoting the ride. Recumbent bicyclists were promoting the ride with large sign board trailers.

Needless to say, I had to participate. So I borrowed a bike from my hotel, went out on the street, and flagged down every cyclist I saw. Each had a different answer to the question of when and where Critical Mass Budapest began. This is how I learned that the ride started in multiple places, each contingent setting a time corresponding to how far it was from the official congregation point along the river.

When my section of the ride had gone two miles down the river, across the bridge, and then two more miles back north along the other side, I could easily see the crowd across the river. The official starting point was still thick with contingents just beginning the Critical Mass route. We were told that there were 32,000 riders that day. I don’t doubt it.

What I found, though, was a ride with a balance of celebration and politics that I couldn’t quite calibrate. The ride took over the city, with police cooperation, road closures, official shirts and safety monitors. But I couldn’t find one person who could explain why this outpouring hadn’t yet translated into policy changes suppressing the growth of the automobile. Every ride since has topped 40,000—and yet city officials are still promoting infrastructure for cars, trying to balance it with new bicycle measures.

The ride gets going slowly, because of the extremely dense crowd.

The ride gets going slowly, because of the extremely dense crowd.

As I’ve seen in my visits to rides from Chapel Hill to New York, from San Francisco to Rochester to Rome, the draw of a city’s Critical Mass seems to correlate directly to the absolute quantity of bicyclist frustration on the streets. If the infrastructure makes bicycling a non-issue, as in Amsterdam, or the overwhelming control by cars suppress bicycling altogether, there is no Critical Mass ride. In locations with a small number of cyclists or very polite automobilists, there is a small ride. Where there is a difficult street experience and a large number of bicyclists, there is guaranteed to be a large Critical Mass. Nowhere do these conditions converge so dramatically as in Budapest.

For a few years now, the Budapest frog has been jumping. As we pass the twentieth anniversary of the end of Communist control in Hungary, when will Budapest’s frog find its way out of a pan that has grown very large?

On the weekend of Critical Mass in Budapest, our hotel, right beside the Danube, is sponsoring a sports car rally. That's my mom complaining to the tour leader about the long bus ride she's about to be forced to take. Our attempt to spend a week on a riverboat was thwarted by the "hundred year flood" that devastated the region. Is there a metaphor in that?