Just Plain Wrong

What’s happening on the last Friday of the month around the world is not a really a parade — it’s the eruption of Amsterdam-like traffic patterns onto streets that were once the exclusive domain of motorized traffic. —hughillustration

Has this guy ever even seen an SF critical mass ride? It’s not a parade, sure, but it’s not a traffic pattern, either. It’s an explicit disruption, complete with rolling intersection closures. I haven’t been on one since their 10th Anniversary ride, but I put more miles on my bicycle most years than I do on my car (which has, for as long as I’ve lived in San Francisco, spent most of its time in a garage).

Here’s what I wrote about it then, in September 2002:

I had never been to Critical Mass before. I dislike riding a bicycle in a group, and it took me some time to learn enough about the political context to feel comfortable with it. I knew many people who went, and none of them had anything compelling to say about participating in it. They mostly talked about some kind of “energy.” I don’t think Critical Mass should be stopped, far from it. I just wasn’t sure what I’d get out of it.

The first Critical Mass ride in San Francisco was in 1992, and the numbers grew steadily over the months and years. It takes place on the last Friday of the month, when cyclists “take the lane” (now the entire street) in a large group, slowing traffic and blocking intersections to allow the full group to pass without a break. Since the group can number in the thousands, and the ride takes place at evening rush hour on Fridays, this creates a significant delay for drivers who are very much ready to go home.

In July 1997, San Francisco Mayor Willy Brown derided the Critical Mass riders as “lawless” and “insurrectionist” and decided to crack down on them. Estimates of the cyclists arrested ranged from 100 to 250, and there was a serious threat of jail terms for arrestees. Mayor Brown famously arrived at Critical Mass in his Lincoln limousine, and while people praise Critical Mass to the skies for forcing drivers to think about the way they threaten our environment in their single-occupancy vehicles, I’d be very surprised if those thinkers are many. Mayor Brown’s crass rage and stubborn cluelessness is still in exuberant evidence among angry drivers today (and in his own public remarks), in a city that recently saw the acquittal of a truck driver that dragged a cyclist to his death under his truck after shouting insults and throwing objects at him.

The 1997 crackdown inspired an outrage that is credited with catapulting Critical Mass into adulthood, relevance, and importance on the San Francisco political stage. It certainly changed the feel of Critical Mass forever. It was once a leaderless, almost formless event, with no specific plan except to gather on Friday nights and take to the streets. Critical Mass had already begun using mailing lists to organize before July 1997, and afterward it was made publicly known that police were monitoring the lists. There is still no official leader, although founders are often present, but now you can find your way to the start of the ride by following the increasing density of police vehicles. Routes are planned, and the police are advised of them in advance.

Last Friday, I made my way to Justin Herman Plaza, arriving right at 5:30 PM. The ride from my apartment is less than four miles, and every few intersections there were significantly more cyclists on the road with me. As we got to Market Street, there were whole blocks lined with cruisers and motorcycle cops. The Plaza was packed with people, with more arriving steadily. The ride began slowly and progressed slowly, often too slowly to keep a bicycle rolling.

The Tenth Anniversary was a big party, with a ridership estimated between 3000 and 5000. It featured costumes, art bikes, naked people, a marching band. It featured the usual run of angry drivers, clueless drivers darting out into the lines of bikes, and drivers being dutifully interviewed by local reporters. “It’s a bit rude. I feel antagonized,” the local metro daily quoted one driver. “As far as the whole bike thing goes, they ought to be working with us (motorists). They’re too adversarial.” Yeah, uh, not like car drivers. The same article reports that some drivers were delayed for as long as 20 minutes by the progress of the ride. For those hitting the Bay Bridge or 101, that was probably the shortest delay they experienced all evening.

Friday’s Critical Mass ride was planned to go up through the Haight Ashbury and Cole Valley and then back through the Castro to Dolores Park. People rode the entire route, but it was dark by the time riders were passing City Hall, and many skipped the route west of Church Street and went straight to the park, where the first arrivals were treated to a free meal. Cyclists lounged and socialized on the grass, and many remained in Dolores Street as the rest of the throng eased in, sitting, chatting, eating, and making plans to pick up take-out food locally and come back to the park.

A rhythmic sound grew from the direction of Market Street, and cyclists started grabbing their rides and moving onto the sidewalk and the strip down the middle of the boulevard. Cops in riot gear were jogging in formation down Dolores, determined to clear the street. I slipped down to 18th and headed over to Valencia. Guerrero street was lined as far as the eye could see with cruisers and paddy wagons. What, exactly, do the police think the Critical Mass riders are going to do? The most threatening shows of force and potential violence at these rides are made by the police themselves.

I doubt I’ll go to another Critical Mass, but I have a better sense of why I’m glad it exists. Like anyone, I’m ambivalent about the way it acts as a magnet for people who want to cause trouble and the way it gives a face to the anger expressed by drivers. It worries me when I see drivers who are so determined not to be delayed that they drive right into the ride. I wonder what the true proportion is of drivers who see Critical Mass up close and actually start thinking about transportation issues, even as I realize that’s a small part of what makes Critical Mass important.

I talked to people on the ride who never commute by bike, because it’s too dangerous, but they were out for Critical Mass. I want them to feel like they can ride a bike to work or let their kids ride to school. Political change is effected by many efforts; it’s not enough to limit activities to bicycle-safety classes for kids and work with legislators. I don’t like the odd bicycle messenger running amok any more than anyone else — probably less — but I understand why they’re angry. The streets will never change without events like Critical Mass to help maintain pressure and improve awareness of this traffic that gets pushed to the side of the road.

Since then I have been shouted at and nearly clipped by Mass riders as I’ve walked nearby, I’ve been surrounded by Mass riders slapping my windows when I had the misfortune to be in my car along their route, and I’ve learned that it’s best to just stay the hell away from wherever they plan to be on the last Friday of the month.

I’ve seen other countries’ diverse transportation cultures first hand. San Francisco doesn’t have anything remotely like Amsterdam (or China or India, for that matter), although it’s a somewhat safer city for bike commuting than when I wrote 8 years ago. But I’ve seen that mainly in the change in allowed traffic on Market Street – with much less private car traffic, it almost feels safe on the way to work now.

I would LOVE to see SF develop a city transportation culture like Amsterdam’s, but that takes more than idealists engaging in scheduled demonstrations. It takes (among other things) committed leaders and planners who have the courage to reduce automobile access to streets and create specific, protected areas that are bike only – and that provide meaningful access all over the city. And those efforts are not helped by delusional claims about a monthly, rush-hour bird-flipping to everyone else on the road.

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