Bicyclist’s lament: Why I hate Critical Mass

San Francisco’s Critical Mass monthly bicycle ride celebrates its 15th anniversary today. I consider myself a bicyclist and I want San Francisco to be a great bicycling city, but I am happy to say I won’t be participating in Critical Mass any time soon.

I remember a time when Critical Mass was fun and seemed it was accomplishing something. Back in the mid-1990s I rode in Critical Mass a couple of times. Although there was a light police escort, the vibe was friendly and relaxed, even on the ride just before the international Cycle Messenger World Championships in 1996, when the city was awash in testosterone, Tri-Flow and malt liquor. The general public was just waking up to the idea that bikes could be a viable means of transportation for normal city dwellers.

I haven’t deliberately ridden in Critical Mass since 1997, just before the stupidity of the notorious clashes with police and the city government’s completely failed response to the ride. However, I have seen it in the past few years as a pedestrian and as a solo cyclist occasionally inadvertently caught up in the crowd. What a mess.

When I worked for a public-policy think tank, up until a few weeks ago, I often rode my bicycle to work, from close to Ocean Beach most of the way across the city to Union Square. I rode because it was just dumb to drive a car by myself but Muni was too unreliable and annoying to tolerate — even though I live close to the L-Taraval streetcar line. I was the very picture of what San Francisco’s bicycle movement has sought for years: I was a relatively normal San Franciscan commuting to a relatively normal office job, and I had chosen the bicycle as the most desirable method of transportation based on objective criteria.

But one Friday I was heading home on my bike, stopped at Market Street and the Central Freeway/Octavia Boulevard. I could hear the Critical Mass riders coming up Market behind me, what with the rolling sound system blaring really awful dance music that seems to accompany every ride nowadays. I was praying they wouldn’t catch up to me before the light to change so I could speed up the hill and duck behind the Safeway on my way toward Page Street, the park and home.

Unfortunately, the leading edge of Critical Mass pulled up while cars were still streaming from the freeway onto Octavia. There was less than a minute left before the light changed and the intersection was packed with cars. Instead of waiting for the intersection to clear and the light to change, however, a couple of fools on fixies — fixed-gear bicycles made to operate on a closed track with one gear, no freewheel and no brakes in the conventional sense — decided to ride right through the cars. So in addition to nearly getting themselves killed, when the light changed the fixie fools almost stranded half a dozen otherwise innocent drivers in the middle of the street, with no way for those drivers to keep from making a hazard for everyone from other drivers to pedestrians.

Eventually, the cars managed to get to the other side of Market and on to Octavia just as the main stream of the Critical Mass riders came along. But what were those first few cyclists trying to accomplish? Was their charge across moving automobile traffic going to bring more bike lanes? Convince employers to give cyclists the same transportation allowance they give car commuters? Encourage drivers to ride bikes instead? Not likely.

That’s just one example of the character of Critical Mass as I’ve observed it over the past few years, but from what I’ve seen and heard from others, it’s pretty typical.

Critical Mass has ceased to do anything helpful, and it’s unfortunate that San Francisco’s bicycle advocates haven’t made any effort to either weed out the troublemakers through social pressure or try to pull the plug altogether. City Hall takes as a given the desirability of policies, planning and practices that enable transportation by bicycle. Many everyday working San Franciscans and even employers consider it normal to bike to work. Eventually, the city will wrap up the lawsuit-forced environmental review of its Bicycle Plan and the plan will emerge stronger because of it. What is left for Critical Mass to do? Sure, implementation of bike-friendly policies is still pretty anemic, but the time for quasi-spontaneous and unfocused street activism has passed. At this point I’d venture to say that, like certain San Francisco politicians, it is rapidly alienating people who are trying to be sympathetic. Critical Mass now does more harm than good.


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10 Responses to Bicyclist’s lament: Why I hate Critical Mass

  1. Brinskee says:

    I think this kind of view is ridiculous.

    It’s the same view as saying – chop off the head if there are a few rotten teeth. You have to have teeth, you have to have corkers. It’s a pretty simply analogy. Maybe supporting a crackdown of these bad seeds? Maybe.

    But you must understand the dynamics of how the peleton (which is essentially what the mass is) works; the front keeps the pace for the back. There are many internal dynamics, but the two are linked. The snake-like push-pull worsens when the lead pack is erratic. It’s almost a necessary evil to have the ‘leading edge’ stomp it’s way into these kinds of busy intersections.

    And how notoriously bad is that intersection at Octavia/Market? ESPECIALLY on a Friday? Maybe CM is a key way to point out to planning and development – and the mayor’s office – just how bad more-and-more automobile traffic is to our city.

    Don’t poison the well because you’re embarrassed about something you used to be a part of but no longer see as a viable way of making change happen. You seem to be a pretty enthusiastic citizen of San Francisco, bravo (although given your time spent observing our city, you come across as rather callous). But what a huge part of our city displays proudly to the world (and the world watches!) is that when the people speak, change happens. I think changing the environment through supporting better initiatives (while not as noble as say the vagrant issue, or a host of other more important issues) is exactly what we should continue to do.

    I can’t wait to be a part of the next one.

    -B

  2. Tom Prete says:

    Brinskee, thanks for responding. Obviously we disagree about Critical Mass, but I appreciate the fact that you took the time to put down your thoughts. For what it’s worth, I would be enormously pleased to be able to change my mind about CM if new evidence warranted it.

    As for being callous, well, maybe. I’ve seen a huge amount of B.S. dumped on the people of San Francisco from all points on the political spectrum, so that wouldn’t be surprising. But I’d like to think that while I’m certainly skeptical, I’m not so far gone as to be without hope that things can be better.

    On that note, here’s hoping I’m wrong about Critical Mass and that your next one is a great (and helpful) ride.

  3. Mike says:

    I get the point about how Critical Mass wants people to get out of their cars and onto bikes. But some of us also need public transit- we can’t afford to live in the city so we live too far away to bike. The bikes should wait for the stoplights, like the one at 4th and Market so the busses can get through and those of us not so fortunate to be able to afford to live in the city can catch the bus/train connection we need.

    Critical Mass riders should realize the classism they support by blocking transit.

  4. Ted357 says:

    You keep demanding change by pissing off people and you’re gonna get it. It might not be the change you want, but you’re gonna get change.

    As a biker (motorcycle), I am sympathetic because I too have to deal with people in cars who kill people like myself by not paying attention or driving recklessly. We have had a great deal of success with lobbying the various state legislatures through our group ABATE. You might want to think about a similar approach. Heck, if we tried to do something like critical mass they would probably call out the National Guard.

    I’m all for more bicycle lanes and paths. I’m not for obnoxious a-holes acting stupid.

  5. Brian Cox says:

    you critical mass types can take the “only a few bad apples” approach if you want, but it does not absolve you of your guilt in the behavior of any mob you choose to belong to. i have seen first hand random destruction of property, not just cars, but store windows along the route, little old ladies assaulted, threats and rage directed at pedestrians just standing on the corner, and personally had a half full snapple bottle thrown at my head, getting glass and liquid all over me from thug yuppies on an expensive bike who shouted “CRITICAL MASS!!” before throwing the bottle at me, i was just walking down the side walk… so as far as i am concerned that WAS you “Brinskee” who attacked me, and who beat up that old lady a few years ago, so FUCK YOU TOO!

  6. SF VOTER says:

    you critical mass types can take the “only a few bad apples” approach if you want, but it does not absolve you of your guilt in the behavior of any mob you choose to belong to. i have seen first hand random destruction of property, not just cars, but store windows along the route, little old ladies assaulted, threats and rage directed at pedestrians just standing on the corner, and personally had a half full snapple bottle thrown at my head, getting glass and liquid all over me from thug yuppies on an expensive bike who shouted “CRITICAL MASS!!” before throwing the bottle at me, i was just walking down the side walk… so as far as i am concerned that WAS you “Brinskee” who attacked me, and who beat up that old lady a few years ago, so FUCK YOU TOO!

  7. Marc says:

    Critical mass is such a misguided mess.

    Here in San Diego it has devolved into drunk college kids behaving badly because they can get away with it. That is not to say they are ALL like that, but what amazes me is the lack of intelligence on the matter. From all the blogs and posts I can find on the matter in San Diego, most true bikers have given up on the event – kudos to them.

    For some entertaining reading on what the locals in San Diego think of our Critical Mass, go here: http://www.yelp.com/biz/critical-mass-san-diego-2
    Obviously this is not a scientific study. But it is nice to see we have a place to rant about these poseurs.

    The ‘few bad apples” comment is shockingly immature and short-sighted. The very IDEA of critical “mass” is that your actions are protected by the “mass”, and in this case, it can better be described as “mob”. Therefore whether you personally are involved in any of the serious crimes that occur, you are supporting them by being part of the mob.

    “Mob rules” is not the way a civilized society behaves

    In short, I whole heartedly agree with SF VOTER above who put it so eloquently.

    FUCK YOU TOO, Critical Mass

  8. concerned cyclist says:

    It is amazing that people still actually ride in this thing and think they are doing good for cycling.

    http://www.CriticalMassSucks.com

  9. Tom Prete says:

    I’m closing comments on this post. This late after the publication of the original post, it seems to attract only comments that contribute nothing to the debate and serve merely as incitements to violence. That’s boring.

  10. […] My own opinion of Critical Mass is no secret. I think it has long outlived its utility as a means of changing either private minds or public policy. It doesn’t even seem like very much fun anymore, with the promise of pointless confrontation with random motorists apparently the major attraction to some riders. […]

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