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Spinning Its Wheels: Critical Mass' Long Ride from Relevance 

Wednesday, Jul 24 2013
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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.

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.

More credible, however, is the comprehensive MTA Strategic Plan aiming to swell that 3.5 percent bike share to 8 or 10 percent by 2018. Papandreou is the point-man responsible for crafting and implementing this ambitious program to rapidly triple the number of cyclists on the road. Yet he admits he doesn't even know when Critical Mass rides.

"I don't pay attention to it at all."


Chris Carlsson doesn't wear a bike helmet. This, he says, is a statement against capitalism. Why, he asks, should cyclists feel the need to go out and make additional purchases before pedaling off?

The San Francisco author and radical activist has a ready smile and a white beard resembling Sigmund Freud's. And, sort of like Freud, Mass co-founder Carlsson believes a bicycle isn't just a bicycle. Instead, "it's a signifier of our cultural revolt against the stupidity of modern life. In and of itself, bicycles aren't very interesting." He laments that the Bicycle Coalition and its government allies "have no particular problem with wage labor" and "just want to get more people on bicycles."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly, which he has written for since 2007. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers... more

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