The movement changed the rules in cities all over the world — and almost, almost, took the Bay Bridge
Steven T. Jones
I was in Zeitgeist on a Friday summer evening, at a planning meeting for the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass, when I first heard about the idea of kicking off the celebration week with a renegade bicycle ride over the Bay Bridge.
The people who first shook up the city’s commute two decades ago were going to take the idea of seizing space from cars a step further — and fulfill a longtime cyclist fantasy. They were going to take the bridge.
Chris Carlsson, the author, activist, and founder of Critical Mass, who has evangelized the concept around the world, reminded me of this super-secret ride last Wednesday when I finally got around to starting my reporting for this story. I was surprised that I’d forgotten about it — but yes, I told him, I still wanted to be there.
“This will galvanize our sense of the week,” Carlsson told me, explaining that Critical Mass has always been about “opening up a space for a conversation,” whether it’s about how urban space is used or who gets to make that decision.
“There is a real necessity to have a place for people to start thinking creatively. That’s Critical Mass’s enduring contribution, 20 years ago and today.”
What started in September 1992 with 48 cyclists pedaling together through San Francisco has become an enduring worldwide phenomenon. On the last Friday of every month, without leaders or direction, this group bike ride simply meanders through the streets, riders smiling and waving at motorists often perplexed at the temporary alteration of traffic laws by a crowd too big to stop or ignore. While views of Critical Mass may differ, the conversation about urban cycling that it started has had an undeniable impact on how people see cities and their power to shape them, placing it high on the list of San Francisco’s proudest cultural exports.
Last Friday evening — a week before thousands of people are expected to show up for the 20th anniversary ride Sept. 28 — I rode over to a meeting in the back of the art gallery at 518 Valencia, the welcome center for the week. The first international arrivals were there: four Europeans who flew to Mexico City, where most of them built tall bikes to cycle up to San Francisco for the anniversary ride, arriving last week after a four-month trek.
They were veterans of Critical Mass events all over Europe, which borrowed the concept from the Bay Area, and they were happy to be going back to its core.
Andrea Maccarone is a 31-year-old Italian who lives in Paris when he isn’t bike touring, which he does quite a bit, last year riding to consecutive Critical Mass events in Paris, Toulouse, Rome, and Madrid. “It began here and spread everywhere,” he said. “A lot of my lifestyle — I’ve been a bike messenger and worked in bike kitchens — is based on what started here.”
His French girlfriend, Marie Huijbregts, described a cultural happening that began when she was 8 years old. “It’s a political movement of cyclists to release the streets from the cars,” the 28-year-old told me. “It’s environmental, do-it-yourself, and a great way to meet people.”
She said she wanted to be here “because it’s supposed to be the biggest one and all the world was invited. It’s symbolic and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Carlsson has watched the event he helped popularize spread to hundreds of cities around the world, from the Biciletada in Sao Paulo to the Cyklojizda in Prague. He loves to see young people who have been energized by Critical Mass and the larger renegade cyclist movement that grew up around it — from DIY bicycle kitchens and art bikes to creative political actions that seize public spaces — “who dream of San Francisco with stars in their eyes.”
But he often feels like we’re the “hole in the donut” of this international urban cycling movement, unable to retain the same intention and energy that it had when Carlsson, Jim Swanson, and a group of their bike messenger and anarchist cyclist friends conceived of the idea (originally called Commute Clot) in the Market Street office of a zine called Processed World.
Carlsson still hears the stories from people whose lives were changed by Critical Mass. But it was only in the last year or so, as the 20th anniversary approached, that he started regularly riding Critical Mass again, with a new generation of participants often drawn by confrontational yahooism, riding well-trod routes and rejecting efforts to suggest destinations as counter to its leaderless ethos.
“It’s extremely predictable now and I’m sick of it,” Carlsson admitted to me, a less diplomatic version of what he wrote in the introduction to the newly released book of essays he edited, Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20, writing that the “euphoria of cooperative, joyful reinhabitation of urban space is hard to sustain after a awhile.”
Yet that powerful central idea is still there, and it remains as relevant as ever in cities dominated by fast-moving cars. People working together to create “an organized coincidence” can still change the rules of the road, opening up all kinds of new possibilities.
“It is an unpredictable space and you never know what’s going to happen,” Carlsson told me. That’s true of the history of Critical Mass around the world — with its storied clashes with cops and motorists, and its glorious convergences and joyful infectiousness — and it was true of our quest to take the Bay Bridge the next day.
TO THE BRIDGE
We weren’t just being daredevils. The idea of fighting for a freeway lane against six lanes of fast-moving cars, drivers distracted by that epic view of San Francisco, was conceived by Carlsson as a political statement protesting current plans to rebuild the Bay Bridge with a bike lane going only from Oakland to Treasure Island, leaving out that final 2.5-mile stretch into The City.
And for years, the Bay Bridge had been out there as a symbol of where bikes couldn’t go — and in dozens of demonstrations, riders have sought to make it up those ramps, particularly during the Bikes Not Bombs rides protesting the US invasion of Iraq, only to be blocked by police.
Carlsson handed out flyers headlined “A Bay Bridge for Everyone,” harking back to the early pre-Internet “xerocracy” that used flyers to promote Critical Mass ideas or suggest routes. A local historian, Carlsson included photos and descriptions of the Bay Bridge with three lanes of cars in each direction on the top deck, back when the lower deck had trains.
Why couldn’t we have one lane back for bikes? Well, it’s actually under consideration — sort of.
The idea of creating a bicycle/pedestrian lane on the western span is the subject of an ongoing $1.6 million study by Caltrans and the Bay Area Toll Authority, which are looking at attaching paths to the sides of the bridge. That would likely require replacing the decks on the bridge with a lighter new surface to compensate for the added weight, all at a cost of up to $1 billion.
Carlsson thinks that’s ridiculous overkill, and probably intended to scuttle the idea (or else put the blame on bicyclists for the cost of resurfacing the bridge). “For five grand, in three hours it could be done,” he said, arguing that all cyclists need is a lane, a protective barrier, perhaps a lowering of the speed limit — oh, and the political will to recognize that we have as much right to this roadway as motorists.
“It is a sad commentary on the nature of our government that the only way the state transit agency will take bicycling seriously as everyday transportation is when pressured by demonstrations and organized public demands,” Carlsson wrote on the flyer. “Why don’t they take the lead in opening space for cycling instead of doing everything to obstruct, deny, and prevent cycling?”
Even getting to Treasure Island for a bike ride isn’t easy for the car-free. Muni only allows two bikes at a time on its 108 bus, so Carlsson borrowed a van to shuttle almost 20 of us out there in multiple trips. Among the crew were the group that rode up from Mexico City, a Peruvian, and many regular local Critical Mass riders, including Bike Cavalry founder Paul Jordan and LisaRuth Elliott, a 10-year Critical Mass rider who helped edit Shift Happens and coordinate volunteers for the anniversary week, along with a couple of its very early adherents: Hugh D’Andrade and Glenn Bachmann.
“Nobody knew what we were doing,” Bachmann said of that first ride. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. But displacing cars left us this intense euphoria.
Elliott said she was drawn to Critical Mass shortly after she got into urban cycling, attracted by the sense of community that had developed around her transportation choice. She was later inspired to visit Paris and Marseille and other cities that adopted Critical Mass rides.
“They have taken charge and are leading their movements to better bicyclable cities. It’s an adaptable idea,” she told me as we prepared to load our bikes on the van bound for Treasure Island.
Once we were out there, we gathered for a picnic on the beach in Cooper Cove, where we got some sobering news from David Wedding Dress, who talked us through the ride and was going to be trailing our crew in his Mercedes as a safety measure.
“Prepare to be in jail until Monday morning,” he told us. There were also the high winds and dangerous gaps to contend with, offering a bleak prognosis.
A veteran radical activist and bicyclist, Dress has ridden the bridge before and been arrested most times, and he didn’t share Carlsson’s view that we were most likely to get away with it. When Carlsson arrived, he tried to shore up our spirits, saying we’d probably be okay if we maintained the element of surprise.
“We have a right to do this and make that point,” Carlsson said.
Elliott, who was already a wobbler going in, decided not to ride, but 16 of us decided to do it anyway, feeling nervous but excited. When a CHP patrol pulled over a car near our spot and it turned into an hour-long arrest and towing ordeal, which we were forced to wait out, we had plenty of time to think about what we were doing.
As D’Andrade told me as we waited to ride up to the bridge entrance, “What feels to me like the early days of Critical Mass is how scary this is.”
THE EARLY DAYS
In the beginning, the Critical Mass activists say their battle for space was a safety issue infused with a political message, delivered with a smile derived from the joyous new discovery that riding with friends made it much easier. San Francisco streets were designed for automobiles, and to a lesser extent public transit, with cycling relegated to the bike messengers and a few renegades seen by most as simply refusing to grow up.
Even the nascent San Francisco Bicycle Coalition of that era — which grew in numbers and power on a similar trajectory as Critical Mass, despite its policy of maintaining a defensible distance from that outlaw event — was initially dominated by the philosophy that urban cyclists should ride quickly with car traffic and didn’t need separate lanes.
“That’s what I like to remind people is how scary bicycling was in San Francisco in the early ’90s,” D’Andrade said.
I first encountered Critical Mass in 2001 when I was the news editor for the Sacramento News & Review, and Berkeley resident Jason Meggs brought the movement into automobile-centric Sacramento. My reporters and I covered those early rides, which were met with a harsh crackdown by police, who often cited every minor traffic violation.
But Meggs was committed to the concept, as he wrote in his Shift Happens! essay entitled, “The Johnny Appleseed of Critical Mass,” a role he has played over the last 19 years. “Critical Mass made me a video activist and filmmaker; it sent me to jail and then to law school, and again to graduate school for healthy cities. It provided us the space to build a vibrant bicycle culture, and to feel free and alive in cities that otherwise felt hostile, caustic, and alien,” he wrote.
Meggs calculates that he’s been arrested more than 20 times and received more than 100 traffic tickets during Critical Mass events, beginning with the Berkeley Critical Mass that he started in March of 1993, in part to protest plans to widen I-80.
“Those early rides were legendary — moment to moment ecstatic joy and street theater,” he remembered. “The combination of bike activists and freeway fighters with anarcho-environmentalists on wheels was a combination that couldn’t be beat. Like a newscaster once said of Critical Mass, back then we were drunk with power.”
Yet in almost city where it’s sprouted, Critical Mass has had to battle through crackdowns by police, which are often met with greater determination by the cycling community. San Francisco fought through a showdown with Mayor Willie Brown in 1997, when his threats to shut Critical Mass down turned out thousands of cyclists for the next ride.
In 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle sensationalized a conflict between a motorist and Critical Mass, beginning a media campaign that led Mayor Gavin Newsom to order a heavy police presence on subsequent rides — a show of force, but one without any apparent plan or directive — again increasing number of cyclists.
Each time, San Francisco city officials were forced to accept the inevitability of Critical Mass, opting to avoid the route of the harsh, sustained, and costly crackdowns employed in New York City, whose police and city officials essentially went to war with Critical Mass in 2004 and have all-but destroyed it. Portland has also had a tumultuous relationship with its Critical Mass, with police there essentially shutting it down.
Yet Carlsson noted in his Shift Happens essay that the bicycle activism that formed along with those rides still prevailed: “Both cities — not coincidentally I think — have implemented extensive and intensive street-level redesigns to accommodate the enormous increase in daily cycling that followed the rapid growth and ultimate repression of their Critical Mass rides.”
San Francisco has seen an even greater explosion in the number of cyclists on the roadways, so many that spontaneous “mini-Masses” of cyclists form up during the daily commutes on Market Street and elsewhere. But despite the near-universal City Hall support for cycling here, and the SFBC’s status as one of the city’s largest grassroots political advocacy organizations, Carlsson said San Francisco’s cyclists still lack the infrastructure and policies needed to safely get around the city.
That’s one reason why the challenge of Critical Mass is still relevant, he said, and one reason why we were determined to ride our bikes into San Francisco on the Bay Bridge.
The cops left a little before 6pm, so we massed up and headed for the Bay Bridge, pedaling single-file up a long hill. Soon, the long western span of the bridge came into view, stretching to the downtown destination that we all hoped to reach without incident or arrest, as we passed a sign reading “Pedestrians and Bicycles Prohibited.”
As we crested the hill and dropped down toward the freeway entrance, our pathway seemed clear, with the only real variable being coordinating with Dress in the Mercedes trail car, but Carlsson was on the phone with him and we all assumed that we were about to ride our bikes onto the Bay Bridge.
We were in a fairly tight pack, Maccarone smiling atop the tall bike that had traveled so far to this point, as we rounded the swooping right turn to the point where even cars make a dangerously quick entrance onto the bridge from a complete stop, merging into loud and dense traffic moving at freeway speeds.
We stopped, looked back for Dress, and he wasn’t there. A minute crept by, then another, as cars drove cautiously past us to get onto the freeway, their drivers giving us the same quizzical, confused looks that we’d seen on Critical Mass so many times. Another minute passed, then another, as Carlsson lit one of the road flares that we planned to use as a secondary safety measure to the Mercedes.
Then, a CHP patrol car rounded the bend, the officer sternly telling us over his PA system, “Don’t even think you’re getting on this bridge with those bikes.”
So we turned around and began to head back when Dress finally arrived in his Mercedes, presenting a moment of truth. Did we proceed anyway, even though we had been warned and knew the officer had probably radioed in our presence, taking away the element of surprise and increasing our chances of arrest?
There was dissension in ranks and a clear division among those urging opposite courses of action, but Carlsson and others continued to ride away after talking the Dress, who proceeded onto the freeway. Later, Carlsson said he was still game to go at that moment, but tried to be responsive to the collective: “I was not comfortable imposing going on the bridge on everyone.”
D’Andrade advocated for going anyway, but most felt it was too risky at that point, siding with Carlsson’s argument that is wasn’t about getting arrested: “I like to do something and get away.”
And so it was decided that we would choose a strategic retreat, some pledging to take the bridge some other day, hopefully with greater numbers. Besides, we all had a big week ahead of us, starting the next day with the first official event of Critical Mass’s anniversary week: the Art Bike/Freak Bike Ride and BBQ.
We gathered the next afternoon on the waterfront under sunny blue skies, our aborted bike crew increased in size 10-fold, joined by underground DIY bike crews from San Francisco’s own Cyclecide to the Black Label crews from Minneapolis, Oakland, and Los Angeles, infusing the ride with a countercultural edge.
Urban bike culture is now vast and varied — from the eco-warriors and urban thinkers to wage slaves and renegade tinkerers — and they’ve all found a regular home in Critical Mass. “Twenty years on, people are kinda nostalgic about it, even if they don’t ride in it or think it’s a good idea,” an activist name rRez told me during that beautiful Sunday ride, the one we were able to take because we weren’t in jail.
Carlsson told me on the ride that he was at peace with our failed mission of the day before, a sign that being radical isn’t the same thing as being reckless. “That was a good strategic retreat moment. It’s very adult,” he said. “It was a good experience for all of us, and nothing bad happened and nobody is in jail.”
In a way, that’s the essence of Critical Mass. It isn’t pure anarchy, and it’s not about fighting with the cops or the motorists, something Carlsson sees as straying from its original intent. It’s a joyful gathering, an exercise in the power of people who are willing to challenge the status quo and take well-considered risks to create a society of their choosing.
“In a modern capitalist society, the roads are the lifeblood,” Carlsson said, “and if you block them, you’re a threat.”
CELEBRATE 20 YEARS OF CRITICAL MASS
East Bay Ride, meet at West Oakland BART station, 11:45am. Ride along the east shore of the bay to the Rosie the Riveter monument in Richmond.
NOIZ Ride, McKinley statue on the Panhandle at Baker Street, noon. Bring food, drink, and layers for a several hour, non-strenuous ride featuring three live bands.
Shift Happens book release party and discussion, Main SF Library, Latino-Hispanic Room, 100 Larkin St, 5:45 p.m. Discuss Critical Mass and this new book with its writers.
Book release concert, Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF, $15, 8pm. Featuring Seaweed Sway, Aaron Glass and Friends, and Kelly McFarling
Mosquito Abatement Ride, Meeting place TBA near 16th & Valencia, SF, 11am. One-hour rides with a cycling city contractor.
NYC Critical Mass discussion and video, 518 Valencia, SF, 2pm. Hosted by Times Up New York City.
Bike Polo, Jose Coronado Playground, 21st and Shotwell, SF, 7-9pm. Play with locals and visitors, share a beer.
Bikes, Bands, and Brew: CM’s 20th Bday party, CELLspace, 2050 Bryant, 7pm, $10-20. Bike cultural offerings and music by Grass Widow, Apogee Sound Club, The Rabbles, and Future Twin.
20th Anniversary Critical Mass Ride, Justin “Pee Wee” Herman Plaza, Market and Embarcadero, SF, 6pm
Vintage Bicycle Film Festival, Oddball Films, 275 Capp, SF, $10. Saturday 29 International Critical Mass Symposium, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission, Rooms 303/304, 5-8pm. Event will include an open mic and CM20 Anniversary Week photo contest at 7pm Sunday 30 Farewell Bike Ride and Party, 1pm departure from 518 Valencia, 2pm at Ocean Beach. Bring food and drink to share with your new friends and listen to bands on Rock the Bike’s pedal-powered stage. For more events and details, visit www.sfcriticalmass.org