By all means, this city has experienced a physical transformation in the past two decades, whether you're talking about biking or anything else. But, for veteran cyclists, the most noticeable change has been attitudinal. "It used to not be uncommon that people would yell at me for being on the road. They were mad at me for being in their way," recalls Dave Snyder, the former longtime head of the city's Bicycle Coalition, a cycling advocacy group. "Now, that never happens." For Chris Carlsson, a Critical Mass co-founder who has served as something of the bard of the movement, "There was the daily aggravation of riding through the streets and being treated like a child. In obvious fact, we were doing [drivers] a favor. They don't have to salute us, but they don't have the right to treat us like shit."

It was this frustration that led the city's fervent cyclists, a group heavily composed of educated white men, to feel like an oppressed minority. And they decided to do something about it.

"BICYCLISTS!" beseeched the September 1992 poster for the first, as-yet-unnamed Critical Mass ride. "Aren't you SICK & TIRED of having to fight for your life on city streets? Why are we treated like cars by the law but like obnoxious and unwelcome obstructions by people in cars? WHERE ARE WE SUPPOSED TO GO?!" The poster urged cyclists to join "the new monthly ride home together — imagine 25, 50, 1,000+ bikes heading up Market Street together!" Ride co-founder Pomerantz stood atop a trash can and counted the bikes at that historic moment — the world's first Critical Mass. There were 48.

Critical Mass has earned a police escort for its monthly wanderings, to the tune of $188,000 in 2012.
Photograph by Joseph Geha
Critical Mass has earned a police escort for its monthly wanderings, to the tune of $188,000 in 2012.
An 1896 San Francisco Examiner  illustration poked fun at the suboptimal cycling conditions on Market Street.
An 1896 San Francisco Examiner illustration poked fun at the suboptimal cycling conditions on Market Street.

But within a month, there was a Critical Mass ride in Poland. Soon, hundreds of cities followed suit. Not long thereafter in the grand scheme of things, no one had to merely imagine thousands of bikes heading up Market Street together. By Pomerantz's reckoning, the ride grew by 80 percent each month. Eventually, it reached city politicians' radars. And they wanted it off.

Sixteen years ago this month, San Francisco police, at the behest of then-Mayor Willie Brown, descended upon Critical Mass riders after weeks of threats and two-inch newspaper headlines anticipating mayhem. And mayhem ensued: Some 250 riders were arrested, their offending cycles carted off in trucks and held for days.

San Franciscans may not like being trapped in cars and buses by rude, entitled cyclists, but they definitely don't like seeing cops manhandle people. The crackdown was widely viewed as an overreaction. And that, says Carlsson with a grin, was "the turning point." That's when Critical Mass won.


Since the 1997 clash, people have been reconsidering cyclists' place on the road. Now, cycling is permanently on politicians' radars; cyclists have become a voting bloc.

Nineteen ninety-seven was also, Carlsson admits, the point when the movement began the inexorable decline from what it was to what it is. Critical Mass, admits the man who co-founded it and edited two compendiums of essays about it, "isn't a phenomenon or an event that's particularly interesting right now. It hasn't been for a while."

Critical Mass was a battering ram that ruptured a social and political wall. But, after a battle, no one turns to a battering ram for advice on how to formulate policy. The anarchic, ostensibly leaderless movement didn't have opinions on where to put in bike lanes or road diets or sharrows or other bits of traffic management jargon that have since altered the city's landscape. But the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition did.

While the coalition was founded in the early 1970s with the aim of "promoting the bicycle for everyday transportation," it took Critical Mass to make it relevant. With the city unable to negotiate with a loosely organized mob, it turned to the highly organized cycling politicos. In the wake of the 1997 crackdown, the coalition's membership rolls swelled — and have since grown nearly 12-fold.

Two decades ago, Department of Parking and Traffic boss Bill Maher declared, "There'll be bike lanes on Valencia Street over my dead body."

Bike lanes were installed in 1999. Maher still roams the earth.

Now elected officials and bureaucrats are biking to work, and not just on Bike to Work Day or Sunday Streets. Yesterday's cycling radical is today's city planner or transit consultant. And not just here.

Portland is hailed as the nation's most bicycle-friendly municipality — 8 percent of commuters pedal — and New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has been beatified for her efforts in transforming the Big Apple's cycling infrastructure. But years ago, both cities loosed the cops to heavy-handedly crush the Critical Mass rides.

"The mid-1990s was basically a rabble-rousing acknowledgment of a group of people who were staunch advocates for bicycle infrastructure," says Tim Papandreou, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's director of strategic planning and policy. "That percolated into the psyche of public agencies." Actually, Critical Mass was never a movement about bicycle infrastructure. Yet it enabled such a movement. Now the city hopes for even more.

The Board of Supervisors in 2010 unanimously passed a resolution calling for 20 percent of trips in the city to be undertaken by bicycle by 2020 — a gargantuan leap from the current estimate of 3.5 percent. Like many utopian resolutions passed by the board, this falls into the category of urban planning by magic lamp. It would require the city to carve out cycling lanes and other amenities at a pace rivaling railroad construction in China.

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21 comments
John Lilly
John Lilly

anarchists don't feel the need to answer to anyones irrelevant opinions.

NoBikesOnSidewalks
NoBikesOnSidewalks

I'd have much more goodwill to cyclists if they would stop riding on the dang sidewalks! If you have to bike up Pine Street, do what you've got to do, but do not think it is okay to ride on the sidewalk there: it is not. The few bad, obnoxious apples who don't give a flip about anyone else are what makes people see all cyclists as a nuisance.

cafelinus
cafelinus

As a progressive (who hopefully hasn't lost his sense of humor or patience) I might point out that encountering critical mass back in the 90s as a pedestrian meant having to wait at street corners with sore feet (from working a long day at a job that really didn't pay enough to live in the city even then) while a quite long parade of people on bikes passed by (without in my recollection giving you chance to cross the street).

EssEffOhMy
EssEffOhMy

I assure you that Critical Mass remains very relevant to me and my many friends who ride in it whenever we get the chance. Joe, why didn't you interview anyone for this article who still rides in and enjoys Critical Mass? (Just interviewing the founders who don't enjoy it anymore, obviously doesn't count.) Considering about 12K rode in the anniversary ride last September, there a still a few of us. And I say "a few" facetiously. 

Andy Blue
Andy Blue

There is nothing more predictable in this town than the occasional newspaper article claiming Critical Mass is bad and/or ineffective and/or irrelevant. But it's never done anything but just bring more publicity to the event. My prediction is that THIS FRIDAY will now end up being be the biggest ride in months. And you know what? It'll be a blast. Thanks Joe Eskenazi! The obvious fact is that hundreds, sometimes thousands, continue to find CM very relevant to their lives and community and continue to show up for this celebration of freedom, public space -- and of course bicycles -- every month, year after year. I could go on for days about why Critical Mass is incredibly relevant. But I don't have to. Anyone who shows up on the last Friday of the month knows this. (Course if anyone wants me to go on and on, and even provide evidence from academic research, I would be thrilled to talk your ear off!).

jymdyer
jymdyer

• Interesting and informative piece.  I have quibbles here and there, but never mind.

I was in S.F. during and after the 1997 crackdown on Critical Mass and N.Y.C. during and after the 2004 crackdown (which started with the Republican National Convention). In both cases, a burgeoning bike community associated with Critical Mass was growing even without attractive bike infrastructure.

Here in San Francisco, our numbers kept growing even during the injunction that Rob Anderson's lawsuit imposed.  In New York City we had to contend with Sadik-Khan's hostile predecessor, Iris Weinshall (who would later file her own failed nuisance lawsuit against a bike lane), yet even under those conditions, our numbers kept growing.

 I expect that good infrastructure will swell our numbers even more, and the data shows that they have -- and at 0.46% of the transportation budget it's a bargain!  But it's worth looking at what make our numbers swell in the first place, even in the face of hostile authorities.

sfparkripoff
sfparkripoff

Cycling is Impractical for Families and Daily commuting.....So why is the SFMTA Deficit spending to build more Bike Lanes?  By willfully ignoring most of San Francisco’s residents, the Board of Supervisors and the MTA have created a master plan that makes no sense at all. 

It demands that people ride bicycles or use a transit system that doesn’t work. The enduring fiction is that cars and their drivers are evil, but bicyclists are holy.  The number and type of bicyclists remains constant because people do not convert to bike riding, but move into, then away from it. As people move into their professional lives, age and have children, bike riding becomes a recreational activity, not a commuting choice.

Yet, San Francisco has developed an urban plan around the loud but short-sighted desires of 15,000 people in our population of 800,000. All the changes required will be paid for by extending parking meter hours, raising parking rates, raising parking fines, and installing tolls into San Francisco. The narrowing of traffic lanes to add bicycle lanes has only added to the gridlock around the city. Shrinking the number of auto lanes and replacing them with bike lanes has created less efficient roadways for public transit,  private autos, and emergency vehicles. 

Over the last ten years developers have been fighting the construction of parking garages and using the Bicycle Coalition to spread their car-free message. Why? So that they can construct car free, stack and pack, high rise transit villages WITH NO PARKING!  Why? 

1. Because it lowers their overall construction costs

2. It maximizes their profit 

3. Car free housing is easier to get through the planning department 

According to architecture 2030 The Building Sector is the Largest Contributor
to U.S. CO2 Emissions. Breakdown as follows:

Buildings      46.7%
Industry       19.9%
Transportation 33.4%

Most of this energy is produced from burning fossil fuels, making this sector the largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet – and the single leading contributor to anthropogenic (human forcing) climate change

Developers LOVE that the Bicycle Lobby is encouraging the public to drop their cars in favor of bikes. Keep the public focused on the terrible cars so that the developers pack the skyline  with so many people that the city will be in total gridlock. Once that happens the only way you will be able to get around the city will be on a bicycle. If you look into the history of the Bicycle Lobby and all of the other non-profits that were spun off from them you will find questionable legislation, multiple conflicts of interest, and a lot of deception.

The public would love to see the writer report on that story!

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

City Hall is bluffing about putting anything bike-related on the ballot, since even those dim bulbs know that the bike people are the most unpopular special interest group in the city. A citywide vote on the bike bullshit would put an end to all the "improvements" to city streets the MTA is now foisting on the neighborhoods.

For the record: the city did absolutely no environmental review of the 500-page Bicycle Plan before the Planning Commission and the BOS voted unanimously to make it part of the General Plan. Representatives from both those agencies stood up and lied about that during our last appeal hearing before the Supervisors. 

It was an easy decision for Judge Busch, since the city was obviously violating the most important environmental law in the state. That's why City Hall and phony "moderates" like Scott Wiener want to "reform" CEQA; so that no favored City Hall project will never be delayed again. 

Where's a link to Matt Smith's Critical Mass story ("Critical Masturbation") in 2003?

Rob Anderson

beaugheale
beaugheale

@NoBikesOnSidewalks I take the same attitude towards pedestrians: As long as any are poorly behaved, I don't care about any of them. Fortunately, I stop short of holding this attitude about any particular race, let alone I might end up with a show on Fox News!

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@jymdyer 

The number of cyclists in SF is "swelling"? According to the city's own numbers, there were 2.1% riding bikes to work in 2000, and in 2010 there were 3.5% commuting by bike, a not-so-swollen gain of 1.4% in ten years.

Speaking of numbers, the writer here invokes the 71% gain number, but it only represents a gain between a few years of the annual bicycle commuter count, not a gain in cycling in the city overall.

Another number cited in the story: the city is paying $188,000 a year for the SFPD to babysit Critical Mass every month.

And the problem with the changes the city wants to make to city streets on behalf of your small minority is not a lack of money, since City Hall always finds enough money to do what it wants to do. It's a lack of space on city streets to make bike lanes. Polk Street is a good example of the problem: making bike lanes there requires taking away a lot of scarce street parking, which that neighborhood---and others---will resist.

GetSomeFacts
GetSomeFacts

@sfparkripoff Dense urban housing is by far the most efficient form of housing. Parking garages for your car to live don't count. I ride my bike every day to work - it is the most practical way for me to get to work by far. And yes, I have a family. So speak for yourself.

mrericsir
mrericsir topcommenter

@sfparkripoff Dude, it's time to loosen the tinfoil hat, turn off Glenn Beck, walk slowly away from the TV and go outside.

jymdyer
jymdyer

@rmajora Unlike this present piece, the 2003 piece was just a tirade unsupported by facts.

beaugheale
beaugheale

@rmajora @jymdyer Ideologies aside, going from 2.1% to 3.5% is a 60% increase. Perhaps it's time for a new calculator. Or a new way to fudge statistics.

meatsack
meatsack

@beaugheale @sfparkripoff  

The majority of Americans drive a car, so if this majority of tax payers are not supporting the full cost of driving a car, who is?

sfparkripoff
sfparkripoff

@mrericsir@sfparkripoffGo to Google and type in: 

Livable City shares an office with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition

Now start a new Google search and type in:

Livable city car free legislation  

You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@jymdyer @rmajora 

Smith criticized Critical Mass from the perspective of an avid cyclist who thinks it does a lot more harm than good for your cause, which is why, if a bike bond is put on the ballot it will be rejected by a majority of city voters.

beaugheale
beaugheale

@rmajora @beaugheale @jymdyer Perhaps if your issue is with the way statistics are calculated, you might want to launch a campaign against high school math teachers. Though it won't help you with the bigger problem: That cars aren't paying their own way in the transportation system. In any event, I hope your blog is better than your math skills.

rmajora
rmajora topcommenter

@beaugheale @rmajora @jymdyer 

You're the one who's "fudging." If this is a serious way to calculate the increase, why isn't the city using it? Because even they know that it's ludicrous. The 71% is also ludicrous, but that's another story, which I've written about on my blog.

mrericsir
mrericsir topcommenter

@sfparkripoff ...says the guy who offers nothing but his own "facts."  I hope for your own sake that you're being intentionally ironic here.

 
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