Critical Mass Turns 20


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King of the streets? Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr

On a September afternoon in 1992, roughly 50 San Francisco cyclists pedaled together down the middle of Market Street, leaving congestion in the wake of an event they dubbed “Commute Clot.” The unfortunate name highlighted the negative consequences of the ride for motorists, rather than raise awareness of a growing movement of cyclists. Eventually, the group changed the name to “Critical Mass.”

Today, hundreds of cities around the world hold Critical Mass gatherings on the last Friday of every month. Many credit the movement for helping to improve cyclists' rights on city streets. Others say the riders are unrepresentative of commuters in general and decry the traffic jams, occasional arrests, and rare violent confrontations that have occurred during the rides. In 1992, a cyclist in San Francisco smashed the back window of a family's minivan. Last year, a driver in Porto Alegre, Brazil, drove his black Volkswagon Golf through a gathering and injured 30 cyclists.

To commemorate their 20th anniversary, Critical Mass of San Francisco put out a book titled Shift Happens. Rather than spending time to critique that title, I compiled a reading list that offers a brief history of the movement and some perspective on cyclist-driver confrontations.

Critical Mass Bike Movement at 20 Years, San Francisco Chronicle
“The bicycle party known as Critical Mass turns 20 on Friday.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of riders in all manner of dress and—if
recent history holds true, no dress at all—will band together for a
commemorative, congestion-causing cruise through downtown San Francisco.”

Critical Mass Anniversary a Time to Acknowledge What the Movement Has Accomplished, San Francisco Examiner
“Whether you love or hate the Critical Mass rides—and, at times,
both attitudes have been appropriate—they have pushed urban cycling
issues into the mainstream in San Francisco and around the world. The
idea of a physically separated bike lane on Market Street, the grand
avenue of The City, would have been inconceivable 20 years ago. Today,
not only is there a stretch of Market with such a lane, but talks about
re-doing the street include proposals to make many more miles of the
stretch safe for cyclists.”

Holy Rollers, New Yorker
“Since 2000, according to a certain moral calculus, more than 120 New York City bicyclists have been murdered—struck dead by
automobiles—and another 20,000 have been injured, by enemy car
doors and steel-fortified taxicab fenders. Three were killed in the
course of three weeks in June of this year, including one, Dr. Carl
Nacht, who was felled by a police tow truck while riding with his wife
along the Hudson River Greenway—an officially sanctioned bike path.
Since 2004, about 600 cyclists have been arrested while
participating in monthly political-protest rides known as Critical Mass,
most notably during the Republican National Convention, when scores
were ensnared in nets, and later imprisoned, and their bikes were
confiscated as 'evidence.'”

Rage Against Your Machine, Outside
“The U.S. Census Bureau defines an 'extreme commuter' as someone who spends more than three hours getting to and from work. This
is usually understood to be by car. It's not clear, then, how the
Census would categorize Joe Simonetti, a 57-year-old psychotherapist who
lives with his wife in Pound Ridge, New York. His commute takes him
from the northern reaches of exurban Westchester County to his office
just south of Central Park. It's about three and a half hours each way. By bike.”

100 Cyclists Are Arrested as Thousands Ride in Protest, The New York Times
“Thousands of cyclists rode through the streets of
Manhattan last night in an anti-Republican, pro-environment display of
bike power that ended in more than 100 arrests by the police after the
ride blocked some streets. Despite tension over police warnings to obey traffic
laws against blocking traffic and running red lights, the cyclists—numbering 5,000, the police say—did just that in a meandering course
that started at Union Square and wound its way to the West Side, Central
Park, Midtown and the East Village.”

Driver Ploughs Into Critical Mass Ride in Brazil, The Guardian
“One witness wrote on the local Critical Mass blog: 'I saw legs in the air, helmets, bicycles, arms, all mixed together
with parts of the car all flying and making noise. It was like a horror

Easy Riders, Mother Jones
“The 'Mass' to which Roberts was referring is Critical Mass, a willfully
anarchic gathering of people who ride bikes. Once a month in Austin,
Chicago, Sao Paulo, and Perth; in Flagstaff, San Francisco, Haifa,
Anchorage, and maybe 90 other cities—who knows, since no one is
supposed to be organized enough to keep track—people on bikes find
their way to the same place at the same time, thanks to email and the
Internet and posters taped to telephone poles, and do something radical.
They ride together. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of cyclists take to the
streets and for an hour, maybe two, they inhabit a floating, car-free,
fantasy island.”

Rides Not Revenge, Boston Magazine
“It’s a Friday evening in late July, and hundreds of whooping and
hollering bicyclists are clogging the street at Commonwealth and Harvard
avenues in Allston. This is one of the trickiest intersections in the
city—some eight lanes of road pass through it, as well as two sets of
Green Line tracks—and cyclists from a group called Boston Critical
Mass are jamming it up by riding in circles, taunting the drivers. Car
horns blast. A solitary biker held up by the stunt yells, 'You are why
people hate cyclists!' A Honda Civic revs forward, forcing several
cyclists to bail, and races off. Mangled bikes—and one person—lie on
the asphalt.”

When Bikes and Cars Collide, Who's More Likely to Be At Fault, NPR
“Cycling is still a relatively dangerous activity, after all. There were 630 fatalities and 51,000 injuries from bike-motor vehicle traffic crashes in the U.S. in 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But who is really more likely to be at fault when bikes and vehicles collide?”

Ride Smart, Bicycling
“How to avoid the five most common bike-car collisions.”

—Joe Spring