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Critical Mass: 20 Years Of Being Traffic

By September 27, 2012October 17th, 2021No Comments Critical Mass: 20 years of being traffic

SEPTEMBER 27, 2012


I was 35 years old when I rode in my first Critical Mass in 2000. I knew what it was. It was a gathering of cyclists that assembled themselves in Justin Herman Plaza on the last Friday of every month before embarking a ride throughout the city. It was leaderless. Anyone could guide the Mass or determine the route, which snaked through San Francisco. It started back in the nineties, a year or so before I moved to Valencia Street, then the epicenter of Goddess worship and a place where four-bedroom apartments went for 750.00.

Why people started massing en masse using their bikes is another story. Critical Mass has two distinct origin stories. It was first explained to me as an anti-Gulf War-protest. 20 or 30 people had biked down Market Street, spurred to action and protest by the onset of America’s first act of aggression against the Mideast. Right on, I thought. Where I was from (Orange County) people were out in the streets celebrating the war.

Later, a handful of people got on their bikes, calling themselves Commute Clot, in order to create a striking visual of a new model of what our streets could look like if people took California’s vehicle code, section 21200-21212, seriously. Bikes have the same rights to the roadway as cars. Our streets were supposed to be multi-modal. Why then were cars the dominant form of transportation? What would it look like if cyclists hit the streets?

Commute Clot changed at some point to Critical Mass and the rest is history, 20-years’ worth as of this month. As many as 10,000 cyclists are expected to participate, many visiting from other states and countries. The Critical Mass birthday party is tonight and the 20th Anniversary Interstellar Critical Mass Ride is tomorrow, Friday September 28th at 6 p.m. A special “Kidical Mass” ride for parents and their children will meet near the Vaillancourt Fountain before leaving the main mass for Dolores Park. And female cyclists, who are sometimes conspicuously absent from Masses (which makes the ride a bit testosterone-heavy) will be assembling into a cycling contingent.

I stepped into the slipstream of this particular bit of cycling history through the simple act of accepting a very strong gin and tonic from the hands of Chris Carlsson, author, historian and early Masser at a weekly party he hosted in his office at the Grant Building located at Seventh and Market. I worked next door from Chris’s office as a fundraiser for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Chris encouraged me to ride in the next Critical Mass.

I didn’t need much urging. I had been working for the SFBC for a few months at that point and it reinvigorated my bicycle riding. Those were scrappy, scrappy days for cycling advocates: the SFBC under the leadership of Dave Snyder and Leah Shahum was a bare-bones organization with a huge job ahead of them: to get San Franciscans on their bikes, to create a contiguous, city-wide system of bike lanes and paths and to convince city agencies, media outlets and the general public (not in that order) that San Francisco could be and should be bikable. It’s a simple idea. It has proven to be such a complex task.

I rode alongside hundreds of others in my first Critical Mass and was surprised that find that I, who had been riding in San Francisco for a while, felt I was intruding on cars-only territory. I realized I didn’t really believe that these streets were my streets. I was really was traffic for the first time in my life and it was a shock. Biking in Critical Mass felt dangerous and edgy.

But there was an undeniable sense of power too, which helped me get past that initial timidity pretty quickly. There were too many interesting and passionate people urging me to really think about why I biked. Cycling was more than just a way of traversing the cityscape of San Francisco: it helped me redefine my relationship to everything: the buildings I passed on my way to work, the roadway that rumbled under my wheels as I biked. And it forced me to come to terms with the costs that came with the urban and suburban development throughout California that saw the automobile as the pivot around which neighborhoods, sub-divisions and cities should be planned.

The Southern California landscape I grew up in has been manipulated and compromised past recognition to make room for streets and freeways which function as exclusive car-only spaces. The ecological costs that Orange County has been forced to bear because of unrestrained development is shocking: in my birthplace of Newport Beach, more than 90% of coastal, riparian habitats are now interred in sepulchers made of black tar. Among the victims of Cal Trans and car-centric city planning was a magnificent Live Oak that I loved looking at as a child. It was torn down in the nineties to make room for a new location of Fletcher Jones Motorcars.

Three years later, I hopped on my bike and cycled to an anti-war protest at a spontaneous Mass one night in March 2003, not long after the invasion of Iraq had begun. Many people were absolutely glued to their TV sets, watching the early events of the Gulf War unfold as if it were a video game. Nightmarish images of the rocket’s red glare bursting in air were the first images we saw. Later, images of the dead would fill TV screens and magazine covers. Two years later, Marla Ruzika, a dear friend of mine was killed in Iraq.

I stayed away from the images. I knew what the war would bring. What it would do to the earth. What it would do to people’s bodies. I turned to my bike, and the company of others who also wanted to resist being passive witnesses to the war.

At some point that night, my friend Krikor and I, together with a group of about 50 cyclists, had turned away from the main body and were pedaling down a street. We saw a gas station to our right. The price of gas was maybe two or three dollars. Krikor and I simultaneously began to chant “Four dollars a gallon, six dollars a gallon, seven dollars a gallon…”. Soon, we were all yelling out this incantatory chant that beckoned the change we wanted to see: the cost of gas becoming too dear to bear and the world as we knew it changing in response.

That particular Critical Mass was a mass in the truest sense of the word: the chants of the cyclists combined into a spontaneous and passionate liturgy for the dead and the living. A sense of collective action and the act of mourning commingled. My bike was – and is- a symbol of hope and an agent of change.

I still think about that year in protest and what I’m doing when I ride in a Mass with sometimes rowdy, always passionate people. I think about that grief-stricken and hopeful Gulf War protest. I think about change and its unpredictability. I think about hope and friendship. I think about my bike multiplied a thousand times over, each with a person powering their way through this world, using their pedals, not petroleum. Yes- I know it takes energy to make a bike. Manufacturing bikes isn’t a carbon-neutral process.

But cycling sure is.

Go here for a calendar of this weekend’s events celebrating 20 years of Critical Mass.

And get on your bike! You are traffic!