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Spinning Its Wheels: Critical Mass' Long Ride from Relevance 

Wednesday, Jul 24 2013

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.

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."

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.

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."

Critical Mass is a leaderless, or at least an authority-less, movement. The rides ostensibly have individual meanings for each individual rider. But Carlsson's sentiments do encapsulate its limitations in effecting policy change.

Critical Mass was, at the start, a radical undertaking — but it helped to push cycling into the mainstream. In doing so, it was a self-diluting movement: Far from symbolizing a revolt against modern life, cycling is now seen as a signifier of that modern life. Critical Mass riders hoping to topple this and other cities' powers-that-be have been disappointed; bikes go well with "wage labor." The powers-that-be are resilient enough to not only coexist with augmented cycling, but to make a buck off the deal.

The bicycle lanes installed over Bill Maher's dead body on Valencia ushered in a neighborhood of twee, fair-trade cafes, twee, fair-trade boutiques, and bike corrals encased in knitted cozies — which is twee, if not fair-trade. "When I moved onto Valencia 30 years ago, it was a backwater street. All the stores were closed and the only ones out here were Holy Rollers," recalls Jr. (his legal name), a 64-year-old bike messenger with a Santa Claus beard who's been delivering packages in this city since 1968. "Now it's a second Haight Street for computer whizzes. It's a direct route with no hills. And many of [the whizzes] are bikers."

Census data indicate some 15 percent of trips now taken in the demographically metamorphosed Mission are on cycles. And, unlike Jr., most of these bikers aren't riding 40-year-old Schwinns held together with welds and electrical tape. They're often successful young members of the "creative class" with the desire — and the means — to live in the bike-friendliest portions of the bike-friendliest cities. Catering to these economic winners "elevated biking. It's seen as an economically beneficial part of a development strategy," notes S.F. State geography professor Jason Henderson. The ability to bike to work, he continues, is a selling point for the companies to draw these young workers, as well as for a city banking on accommodating those companies.

In fact, the city is hustling to make up for lost time. San Francisco was in 2006 slapped with an injunction against installing cycling infrastructure such as bike lanes after a judge bought outspoken bike critic and blogger Rob Anderson's argument that the city shirked on analyzing the environmental impacts of that infrastructure. The MTA is now thrilled to disgorge numbers marking its progress since the injunction was lifted in late 2010: Twenty-two miles of bike lanes added to the city's burgeoning network; 3,350 new bike racks; and an estimated 71 percent more riders since 2006 — despite the injunction.

Papandreou points to the 71-percent jump as proof that cyclists are coming whether the city caters to them or not. But the construction cranes mushrooming around town indicate a looming glut of new San Franciscans. If the city's pro-development forces have their way — and that's where the smart money, and plenty of it, is being wagered — San Francisco's population may surge to well over 1 million.

In our wee city, it'd be impossible for the horde of anticipated newcomers to each drive their own cars without inducing traffic nightmares of a sort inconducive to "wage labor." This is where the Bicycle Coalition fits symbiotically into the ecosystem. "The Bicycle Coalition is probably one of the most powerful special interest groups in town right now. I'm not calling bicycle transportation a bad special interest. They're a good special interest," says former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin. "But, as a political matter, they'll side with the greediest developer to get 10 extra bike spots."

Developers are happy to no longer adhere to antiquated ratios of auto-parking-spots-to-dwelling-units, and the coalition is happy to lobby for concessions for cycles (bike spots, bike lanes, a bike-sharing program) from the transforming city and the burgeoning developments marketed to affluent people embracing a car-free lifestyle.

Peskin admits this 10-speed Machiavellianism is working. For the coalition to be able to work with both progressives and business interests requires a commitment not to the politics of the day, but to a greater, and more, basic, cause.

"Our power comes from our focus," says Leah Shahum, the Bicycle Coalition's executive director for the past 11 years. "If we were overly broad, we wouldn't have a strong membership."

She just wants to get more people on bikes. Sometimes, a bicycle is just a bicycle.

The city, meanwhile, wants you to leave the house. People sitting at home all day is bad for business. And the city wants more business. It wants more commerce. It wants more growth. It wants more jobs. So it wants you to leave the house. But not, if you can help it, in a car.

Studies out of Portland indicate cyclists spend their money in-town, as does data from officials in New York. Polk Street merchants recently revolted over a plan to install bike lanes and parking at the expense of some car parking. Yet, in the Pacific Northwest, Rutgers urban planning professor John Pucher notes that shopkeepers are eagerly signing onto waiting lists for bike corrals.

Currently, 61 percent of the trips in this city are taken via automobile. Seventeen percent are on public transit, 7.5 percent are on foot, and just 3.5 percent are on bikes. Considering the surge of people, and trips, anticipated in the coming years, far more journeys must be shunted to alternative means just to keep the number of cars around its current level. Reducing car trips to the SFMTA Strategic Plan's goal of 50 percent requires about 20 percent of trips to be on transit; 20 percent to be on foot; and about 10 percent to be on bikes.

For those already cycling regularly, this strategy is bittersweet: It's not for them. It's a ploy to coax would-be cyclists to dust off the wheels and hit the road. For all the talk of the Bicycle Coalition's great influence, the city's investment in cycling has been modest and its bike network is disjointed and incomplete. Stretches of smooth, traffic-segregated lanes inviting to even novice cyclists are broken up by dangerous and bewildering segments. These swaths essentially render miles of cycling paths useless for all but the daring — who were already on the roads. Pucher says the mark of a truly safe cycling system for young, old, and non-Lycra-clad riders is observable parity of the sexes. In San Francisco, however, only 28 percent of frequent cyclists are women. And, based on the city's own "Levels of Traffic Stress" assessment, only 10 percent of bikeways are suitable for everyone. Even large portions of Market Street are accessible only to strong, experienced riders.

With safer roads for bikes, urban workers could ride to their places of business. That was true in the 19th century, and it remains so in the 21st. Building safer roads now, however, costs more.

The 2013-2018 SFMTA Strategic Plan is the most comprehensive cycling document the city has ever produced. It dwells upon the intersections requiring upgrades, the routes on which to create bike paths, and the existing bike paths to beef up. It calls for installing tens of thousands of new bike parking spaces and hundreds of future stations for the city's nascent bike-sharing program.

It does not, however, identify where the money to pay for this is going to come from.

The plan's graphic representation of the $30 million in available funds placed in the context of its $190 million price tag resembles a depiction of Earth next to Jupiter. (Transforming San Francisco into a Copenhagen-esque bike city, meanwhile, is priced at $600 million). Tearing up the streets requires money, and ongoing, Polk Street-like battles require time. And time is money.

Precious few state or federal dollars are earmarked specifically for cycling projects. So, they're included under the aegis of "complete streets." As a result, bike advocates aren't in favor of generous appropriations to pay for the improvement of the streets and highways for the bicyclists alone — though the horse lobby has dropped off since 1896.

"Bicycle boulevards" — in which some auto lanes are removed in favor of bike lanes and everyone is made to slow down — are now being rebranded as "neighborhood greenways." This is marketing, says Pucher. Building bicycle-friendly roads "benefits pedestrians, people crossing the street, neighbors who want to chat in the street. You can make the argument you're doing it for the kids!" And, as this is San Francisco: It's good for dogs, too.

It's an argument that, likely, will be put before city voters. "We need to get things on the ballot," says Papandreou. The shortfall of $25 million a year between the present and 2018 "is too large to make up internally."

Mainstream cyclists and cycling advocacy groups sniping about blowback from Critical Mass riders' antics is a ritual as tired as the derivative antics of those Critical Mass riders. In the not-too-distant future, however, voters may be hit up for heaps of money to make cyclists' progress about the city comfortable and safe in order to place San Francisco in the front rank with other cities. As such, cycling advocates both inside and outside of city government seem to be reading from the same script in describing the dollars spent on cycling infrastructure as a boon to even the non-cyclist. Voters' perception of bike-riders will be critical, as the city hopes to spend public dollars to create more of them.

But Critical Mass remains unscripted. Blockading an intersection during the most recent ride, a cyclist bellowed to his fellow riders and the trapped drivers: "Own it! Own it! It's ours! You can't have it!"

The whirring of bicycle chains is a magical sound, but, then, so is Daft Punk. The thumping beats emanating from sophisticated rolling soundsystems drown out all ambient noise at either Critical Mass or the other group rides it has spawned. Things are changing: When Carlsson shows up these days with sheets of proposed routes — "Xerocracy" in Critical Mass jargon — riders look askance at him. "There's never been a planned route for Critical Mass," they tell its ardent co-founder, who planned out routes decades ago. "You don't know shit about Critical Mass, do you?"

That's about the same thing riders say when Carlsson tells them to stop blocking cars for the sake of blocking cars.

One week after every Critical Mass ride — on the first Friday of every month — the San Francisco Bike Party rolls through town. Rather than gather at Justin Herman Plaza during the height of the commute, Bike Partiers avoid confrontation, meeting at 8 p.m. within Golden Gate Park. Like Critical Mass' earlier iterations, there's an organized route, with a definitive ending point, and volunteers guiding people along. Unlike Critical Mass, Bike Partiers don't goad motorists into pointless arguments; they stop at red lights and (some) stop signs. Asked to explain what they're up to, Bike Party organizers made oblique references to Critical Mass: "It's a very positive environment, as opposed to some group rides." ... "We're very pro-bicycle as opposed to being anti-anything else." ... "We're trying to get more people on bikes by using more carrots, and less sticks."

The Bike Party is just what it says it is: a party that just happens to involve bikes. On the July ride, cyclists dressed as robots cheered during one of several boozy rest stops as a lithe young woman, visible only in bicycle-helmeted silhouette and backlit by throbbing neon lights, gyrated to E-40.

Well, there's nothing wrong with that. Bike Partiers don't espouse the serious, transformative ideals that inspired Critical Mass. They don't publish compendiums filled with essays titled "Putting the 'Critical' in Critical Mass: Patriarchy, Radical Feminism, and Radical Inclusiveness," or "International Solidarity: The Bicycle as a Creative Response." They drink beer and dance to E-40.

But, at this point, they're accomplishing just as much. There's plenty of crossover between Critical Mass on the last Friday of every month and the Bike Party a week later. That's hardly surprising: Both rides provide cyclists with a social opportunity and the chance to stop feeling like scattered minnows among whales on the road. The Bike Party, however, does this without Critical Mass' baggage.

In his trips around the world to participate in Critical Mass rides, Carlsson has observed a five-year "golden age" before they "lose their magic" and become institutionalized rituals (San Francisco's Bike Party, incidentally, is not quite 3 years old).

Critical Mass has been running on inertia for far longer than it hasn't. If it weren't already a city custom, it's hard to imagine San Francisco's present-day demographic reacting to San Francisco's present-day cycling conditions and establishing one.

But Critical Mass hasn't stopped. Its riders don't stop to drink beer and dance; they don't stop for cars or pedestrians or the Pacific Ocean. When the Mass reached Ocean Beach, cyclists began aimlessly circling in the intersection of Great Highway and Fulton. The event has no set route and no finish line; riders drop out in bunches until just a few careen through the night. That day's 400-odd participants represent 5 to 10 percent of how many rode during Critical Mass' paradigm-shifting heyday, back when city policymakers couldn't help but pay attention.

A first-timer leaned over and asked a stranger when the ride would end. The dreadlocked young man's response encapsulated more than any one ride: "It's a lifestyle, yo. It never ends."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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