Spinning Its Wheels: Critical Mass' Long Ride from Relevance

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Illustration by Audrey Fukuman.


The whirring of thousands of bicycle chains is a magical sound. And, not so long ago in the grand scheme of things, thousands whirred up Market Street. Male cyclists were dressed as ladies. Bikes were done up to look like boats. Another resembled a coffin, bedecked with a skull and crossbones and an inscription "warning all Supervisors of the political death that awaited those public officers who heeded not the demands of the people."

The people watched. And the people cheered. And then they attempted to flip a streetcar that a cyclist claimed nearly hit him.

San Francisco Call, 1896
Bike messenger Jr. has seen Valencia, where he lives, transformed into "a second Haight Street for computer whizzes."
Photograph by Camila Bernal
Bike messenger Jr. has seen Valencia, where he lives, transformed into "a second Haight Street for computer whizzes."

Some 5,000 bicycles jammed the city's major artery, per the next day's newspapers. In San Francisco, there's a term for this: a voting bloc. "It was easily apparent that a new element had come into local politics," predicted a front-page report. "The very fact they stand together as a body proves their prominence as a public factor will be considerable."

True enough. "The people who use the bicycle in their daily travels around the city demand that the city appropriate enough funds to make their progress about the city comfortable and safe," bellowed the city's congressman to the crowd. "San Francisco should be placed in the front rank with other cities." With safer roads for bikes, contended another event-goer, "urban workers could ride to their places of business."

Investment in bicycling, however, wouldn't merely benefit those on two wheels. "I am in favor of generous appropriations to pay for the improvement of the streets and highways not for the bicyclists alone," a future senator told the crowd, "but also for the horse."


In July of 1896 there were, after all, still plenty of horses on the road. Cyclists of the day were forced to contend with their prodigious leavings, as well as cobblestones and impassable unpaved roads. But not for long. The city's thoroughfares were, in short order, paved. And, the cyclists were, in short order, run off them as America began its long and enduring obsession with the automobile.

But, on the final weekday of June this year, a rider coasted down a newly repaved section of Market Street. "It's so smooth, you don't even have to pedal," he cooed. Had he tumbled off his seat, he'd have been even more appreciative, as he was one of a coterie of nude cyclists dotting the most recent Critical Mass ride — as always, on the last Friday of every month.

There were male cyclists dressed as ladies on that night too — some in bridal attire. A few hours earlier, the city had begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. On this day, rolling through the city in a Critical Mass procession alongside a guy in a lace veil had all the fixings of a quintessential San Francisco experience. The 400-odd cyclists exchanged cheers with the newly betrothed in front of City Hall; the sheriff and police chief smiled and waved at the Critical Mass riders as they blew through red lights and pedestrian crosswalks.

A few angry motorists, displeased by cyclists lazily circling the intersections awaiting consensus on which street to clog next, took the bait. They leaned on their horns and yapped that they'd call the police. It was a risible threat, and played into the hands of the more confrontational riders, who quickly swarmed offending automobiles and leered at their occupants. "The police are here," shouted a cyclist. "The police are with us."

Indeed. It's a strange spectacle when a cop on a motorcycle is hustling to block the intersection for an unwarranted bicycle ride (last year the Police Department paid out $188,000 to the officers minding Critical Mass). So, while the Critical Mass ride was fun, uplifting, and — to evoke the most overused word in San Francisco — empowering, it's important to note what it wasn't: important.

Sixteen years ago this month (and 101 years to the day after the 1896 demonstration), Critical Mass was important. Some 7,000 riders inundated San Francisco and were violently confronted by police. It was a watershed moment for cycling in this city; Critical Mass served as a catalyst in changing San Francisco. But, like all catalysts, Critical Mass itself didn't change, even as the landscape around it did, both literally and figuratively.

Instead, a movement created 21 years ago to shake this city out of its institutionalized torpor has, itself, become institutionalized. It has become yet another San Francisco experience, a ritualization of something once vital and meaningful in a city increasingly preoccupied with celebrating what it once was.

"I don't find it to be the same ride anymore," says Joel Pomerantz, a Critical Mass co-founder. "The Haight has museums of counterculture — but it doesn't have any counterculture. Critical Mass doesn't have critical mass anymore. People go to see it the way you go to see the Exploratorium. It's more like an amusement park ride."

San Francisco has staked out a controversial, far-flung, and expensive path to become the cycling Mecca of its dreams. But like its riders aimlessly circumnavigating crowded intersections, Critical Mass continues to ride in circles.


Ask the longtime city cyclists who founded Critical Mass how pedaling a bike through San Francisco has changed over the ensuing decades and you induce a mental bottleneck. They can think of many examples, but have trouble listing any particular one. It's not unlike asking someone to name a Matthew Modine movie and reducing them to blurting out, "Oh, a million things."

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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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