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.