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Massive Critical Mass in Budapest (Shift Happens! excerpted)

November 9th, 2013 by LisaRuth

In September 2012, to accompany the release of Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20, we published excerpts of Critical Mass history and its effects from several cities. We’re picking it back up again, because there is so much more to highlight (17 more towns and cities!), and also because book co-editors Chris Carlsson and LisaRuth Elliott will be appearing in a fun evening about the book at San Francisco’s Booksmith next week. On Friday, November 15, The Literary Foolery Cabaret will highlight Shift Happens! along with treating attendees to music, storytelling, and a unicycle duo! Check out the evening of “booze, books, bicycles, and burlesque” if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Today we showcase the most massive Critical Mass on the planet. Budapest boasts numbers of up to 80,000 bicyclists in their twice-a-year Critical Mass rides, active since 2004. Two articles — from Justin Hyatt and Kükü and the Critical Mass Budapest Community — chart the surprising rise (even to them) in popularity of the rides and the lasting effects on the city as well as on bicycling in general.

In “We Have Changed Our City Forever,” Kükü and the Critical Mass Budapest Community outline the beginnings of how “in less than five years a tiny subculture event blossomed into the largest civil movement in Hungary”:

The predecessor of Critical Mass Budapest was a regular ride organized by a group called Friends of Urban Cycling. It was much like the international Critical Mass, and ran for several years with 50-300 participants. At the same time the bike messenger community in Budapest often gathered for more hardcore rides, sometimes spontaneously or organized for special occasions.

However, the history of Critical Mass Budapest began only in 2004 when the mayor moved Carfree Day to the weekend in order to avoid interruption of car traffic. At that point some of us decided to organize a Critical Mass ride on this internationally-recognized September 22 date [of Carfree Day] as a protest. … Three weeks before the ride, approximately 30 messengers and their friends gathered at a park. … The idea was to recruit not merely participants, but organizers. “Critical Mass—The real Carfree Day,” read the slogan on the leaflets. We invited everyone for a huge demonstration hoping for 500 participants (that was the highest number we could imagine).

Justin Hyatt tells some more of the history of Critical Mass Budapest in “Positive Symbols and High Optimism in Budapest,” and how it has diverged from experiences in other cities:

The year that saw the axles greased and the tire rubber screeching en masse was the phenomenal year of 2004. An unheard of Critical Mass ride took place that numbered 4,000 people. … Every Spring and Fall season a new ride was organized. … 4,000 cyclists turned into 10,000 the following spring. That was doubled again in the fall to 20,000. … Eventually all the major and some minor towns in Hungary put on their own rides. Towns whose names you would never be able to pronounce and places hardly a speck on the map achieved ridership to rival the giants. … If numbers are a measure, the pinnacle of achievement in the history of Critical Mass Budapest was Earth Day in 2008 with 80,000 gleeful cyclists along for the ride. There has never been a larger ride that goes by the name of Critical Mass in the history of the world.

While holding firm to the notion that there must be something special to the spicy paprika that Hungarians eat, here are a few leading reasons:

First, it must be understood that these are rides that happen twice a year, not every month. There is therefore ample time to build up momentum and make a big splash of an event, something that would be a lot trickier were they held every month.

The rides are also registered ahead of time with the police and follow a given route, and thus hit a different note than the usual spontaneity and brazen independence of Critical Mass rides elsewhere.

The general consensus is that providing a legal basis for the movement has been an important compromise. … People rightly point to the fact that the average Hungarian is fearful of breaking the law or engaging in civil disobedience. Since the rides have been legal and also maintained a strict neutrality regarding party politics, the doors have been opened widely to the masses. It is a family event, an activist event, and an occasion where the citys head mayor or Ambassador of the Netherlands might just show up (and have, in fact).

Critical Mass has provided ordinary Budapest citizens with the opportunity to join a fun and dynamic movement that is free of the usual humdrum of everyday politics, and connect with others to take a stand for one very positive symbol: the bicycle. Many also quickly recognized a powerful message that is inherent in the Critical Mass rides: Ride your bike—it is cheap, it is fun, and it doesn’t pollute. Budapest has long been one of the most polluted cities in Europe.

Kükü and the Critical Mass Budapest Community talk a bit more about the impacts of and evolution beyond the rides:

In the early days we did not have any definite goal, but as time went on we realized that we are one of the most progressive communities in town and it would be a giant mistake not to engage in outlining our needs and standing up for our wishes. With our small community behind us we started to collect demands online, and took our neat little wish list to the City Hall. As the demonstrations grew bigger and bigger, the town began building some new bicycle lanes and the two-wheel symbol suddenly appeared in political campaigns. But political support was not strong enough and only resulted in 30-40 km of badly-designed and poorly-constructed bicycle roads, mostly at the expense of pedestrians. But we were too smart and enthusiastic to stop, so we reconsidered our goals and instead of politicians, we took aim at the people of Budapest. By this time a very strong net of cool activists started to take shape, and we have slowly become the largest civil movement in Budapest, without any official organization, strict hierarchy, office, or expenses.

The city cannot keep up with the bike boom and is now facing a strange phenomenon: as cyclists have no dedicated space, they have simply begun to flood the streets and ride anywhere they can. In the beginning this led to numerous conflicts with motorists, but soon it brought a drastic drop in accidents, which fell to about 10% of their previous level; this in turn caused a further decline of the fear that inhibits people from riding bikes in traffic. There’s something really unique going on in Budapest: the city is becoming bicycle-friendly despite the circumstances, without substantial investments.

We’ve moved past the never-ending growth as the agent of change. Now the everyday sense of enormous numbers of cyclists is the demonstration itself, spreading cycling like a virus to workplaces and schools. … The unbelievable truth is that we have managed to change our city forever.

To learn more about the various ways the Budapest bicycle movement has matured, and how cycling enthusiasm has reached out past the city to the world, get your own copy of Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20, either at the event next week, or online. You can also download it to your Kindle.

Great editorial in SF Examiner!

September 27th, 2012 by LisaRuth

Read about the power of cycling in the event that has its birthday tomorrow. And come out to join thousands (?) of cyclists—around the world—celebrating on Friday at 5:30 PM at Justin Herman Plaza!

Many Voices on Critical Mass

September 27th, 2012 by hughillustration

Critical Mass and the SF Bicycle Coalition are often seen as one entity by the public or by the media. That’s a huge categorical error, and one it is often necessary to try to correct. On the one hand you have a leaderless street action, and on the other you have a nonprofit organization that works with city government. Those are two very different breeds! But happily there *is* a lot of overlap, and over the years lots of synergy and mutual support.

The SFBC chose to stop listing Critical Mass on their calendar some time ago, and just recently did not list the 20th anniversary and associated activities that have been put together.

Some people in the bike community were upset about this, so this blog published an open letter yesterday from Quintin Mecke to the SFBC, taking them to task for not including these events in their calendar. Quintin’s views are his own, but we were happy to publish them.

That’s why we started this blog — to give a home to many diverse views about Critical Mass, bicycle activism and bike culture in the Bay Area. We’ll publish almost anything! If you have an opinion about Critical Mass or bike culture and activism, send it to us. If it’s not outright hateful/racist/inflammatory/threatening, we are happy to publish it.

Though surprising, for those of us who moderate this blog and for those of us who volunteered to put together many of the activities this week, not being on the SFBC calendar is OK with us! We still appreciate all that they do at the SFBC. (Sitting through hours upon hours of meetings with city bureaucrats for one thing — not many of us can possibly face this! Thank god the SFBC has the patience!)

Looking forward to the Critical Mass ride on Friday!

— Hugh D’Andrade, LisaRuth Elliot, Chris Carlsson, Adriana Camarena

A Bay Bridge for Everyone

September 23rd, 2012 by Russel

A Bay Bridge for Everyone

Next year the new east span of the Bay Bridge will open. Thanks to the diligent and dogged efforts of cyclists and sustainable transport advocates in the 1990s, Caltrans was required to build a bike-and-pedestrian path as part of the new structure.

Caltrans (known as the California Department of Highways for most of its existence) has always been biased in favor of automobiles and freeways, and has never shown any interest in providing bicycling infrastructure. It’s obvious that Caltrans bureaucrats were angered by the requirement to include a bike path. How could it be that in 2012 the primary statewide agency in charge of transportation infrastructure neglects its responsibility to provide fair and equal resources to California’s cycling citizens? Are they trying to prove that nobody wants to cycle across the bay by making it unpleasant? So it seems.

Instead of being put on the north side of the new span, with great views of Marin and the North Bay—and the steady rush of clean fresh air that generally comes with the prevailing northwesterly winds, the new bike lane:

  • • has been placed on the south side of the new bridge,subjecting everyone to car exhaust
  • • faces the old bridge until it is demolished
  • • will face the hazy view south toward the Port of Oakland

Worse still, the new lane arrives in mid-Bay at Yerba Buena Island with NO current prospect of continuing to San Francisco.

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