Critical Mass, the anarchistic monthly bike ride that takes place monthly throughout the world, got its start in San Francisco fifteen years ago. The last Friday of every month, cyclists congregate at a predetermined location and take to the streets. It’s an amorphous, wandering conglomeration of bikes and riders of all kinds: hipsters, cruisers, racers mounted on tandems, recumbents, racing rigs, and yesterday’s trash. Whoever is in front of the ride chooses the course, and the ride’s leader constantly changes.
From Bicycling Magazine:
Now, take those overcaffeinated riders, add the graying longhair with the water bottles in his tube socks, the three or four who come as circus clowns, and the guy wearing the unflattering George Bush mask, spice with an additional 2,000 assorted cyclists and you have a Critical Mass.
I’ve personally always had a love/hate relationship with Critical Mass. I was working as a bike messenger in San Francisco during the infamous summer of 1997. Mayor Willie L. Brown declared war on the event and promised to crack-down and impose order. The result was an escalation in the ride’s numbers – 5,000 cyclists congregated in Justin Herman Plaza – and a change in attitude among participants, motorists, and police. Hundreds were arrested; cyclist/motorist skirmishes and vandalism erupted. Things were getting ugly.
I’d always steered clear of the Mass rides. For one thing, I had plenty of miles in my legs after a week of riding and didn’t need to add in more Friday spinning with thousands of other riders. Also, at the time, the violent element seemed prevalent. People who rarely rode would bring their bikes into the city and use the group dynamic as an excuse to lash out at cars and expel angry energy.
Though the destructive cyclists were a small minority, they garnered the most attention and often set the tone of the event. Friday’s are always the busiest car traffic days, and road rage is often one red light away. Add to this mix unruly cyclists going beyond the peaceful scope of the ride to taunt motorists or vandalize cars. Most Critical Massers didn’t have to show up to work on Monday and ride the city streets all week. The change in motorists’ attitudes after the July, 1997 ride was palpable – and made the streets a dangerous place for me for months.
On the upside, Critical Mass has taught people how to ride safely on streets. Most rides are peaceful, enjoyable excursions. Dads ride with their kids; people grow up doing these events. The intimidation of traffic is at bay; people are spinning, chatting, and building community.
According to Anna Sojourner’s interview in the KALW radio program, the ride has improved conditions for cyclists in San Francisco. In the past, drivers would throw things and yell for riders to get off the roads and onto the sidewalks throughout any bike excursion. Dangerous conditions, no bike lanes, and angry motorists were on tap. Critical Mass was largely in response to these circumstances. “We’d just gone too far with automobiles,” says Sojourner.
What started with 50 riders in San Francisco back in 1992 quickly grew to 100 – and topped 1,000 by the end of the year. San Francisco rides now regularly draw several thousand.
Critical Mass has since become an international event. In London, the ride is largely accepted as part of the urban landscape. In fact one publication lists the ride as one of the “101 More Things to Do Before You Leave London.” Budapest recently hosted a 50,000-strong Critical Mass ride and Bicycling describes the event in Warsaw as “the living, breathing (and occasionally wheezing) heartbeat of the Central European underground.”
Photo via flickr by decitect
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