Nearly Seven Years Old, Critical Mass Still Going Strong by Steven Bodzin

Seven years after the first Critical Mass, the ride has become a fixture of the San Francisco landscape and in cities around the world. It is mentioned in more than one tour guide to San Francisco. The police finally handle it responsibly. Participants have settled into a fairly consistent version of chaos. And for bike advocates, Mass has become our secret weapon: it helps us get taken seriously.

This May Critical Mass ride drew about 1,000 bicyclists. PHOTO BY DAVE SNYDER
The ride began in September 1992 with a few people handing out fliers and about 50 participants. Month after month, new fliers were produced with new routes, themes, and moods. Though ostensibly the ride had no leaders, in actuality there were many. It was a surprise to see what happened every month, and as word spread the number of riders increased. On its first birthday, the Mass had more than 1,000 participants, including several dozen police officers who began escorting the ride in May 1993.

In part because of the image of safety afforded by the police escort, the ride continued to grow for the next several years. The police would prevent riders from doing their own corking, or blocking, at intersections. Over the years the number of riders who engaged pedestrians and motorists with flyers explaining the purpose of the ride dwindled. The number of leaders who offered route suggestions and preferred themes dropped, while the number of followers who just went along for the ride increased. The Bike Coalition would occasionally get calls from hopeful riders asking where one could park their car so they could join the ride. While some riders widely publicized the event and got the occasional corporate sponsor to pay for posters and free beer, others resisted the commercialization of the event and began their own small ride from a different location.

Mass gained its greatest notoriety in July 1997. It was then that the peaceful balance between massers, the police, and the political establishment erupted. Mayor Brown declared the unstructured ride the "height of arrogance" and promised "hats and bats," meaning that police would be in riot gear and carrying batons. Cyclists became galvanized. When it became clear that the Mayor thought he could keep cyclists from riding freely where and when they wanted, they took it as kindly as a kick in the spokes.

That month was exciting. Some demagogues in City Hall and even in the cycling community tried to control cyclists' frustration by creating a contrived route map. The police were ordered to enforce that ride only and expected cyclists to go along.

Talk radio called every bike organization around trying to get people to take responsibility for what was shaping up to be an exciting street battle. The newspapers reported that rioters were on their way from across the country to fight in the streets of San Francisco.

On the last Friday of that month, more than 5,000 people showed up to ride. There was a mixture of old-school activists, young punks, suburban downhillers, bike racers, and, of course, hundreds of police officers. Even the Mayor showed up at the ride's opening at Justin Herman Plaza to give a speech on a huge PA system. The boos and bike bells drowned out his words.

Riders filled the city, defying the police as they splintered into groups and rode through all parts of the city. The evening east-bound commute came to a halt as the on-ramps to the Bay Bridge were blocked.

Both riders and city leaders who thought they had a "deal" with the cycling community were confused. Many riders went home shortly after Mass began, but thousands circled around the city for hours until nightfall. Near dusk, the police indiscriminately arrested 115 people in a massive sweep, although they reported that they had arrested 250. Eventually, every charge was dropped, and a civil suit was filed against the city's actions and won.

The July '97 Mass was a watershed moment. Cyclists were a political and social force to be reckoned with more than ever before. The Bike Coalition took advantage of the unprecedented attention on bike issues to extract some concessions from city officials. They agreed to consider about a dozen bike lanes as called for in the city's approved-in-concept Bicycle Plan. That process, begun in July 1997, resulted in the approval of bike lanes on Polk Street and Arguello Blvd. in May 1999. The bike lanes will be striped this fall. "Bikes Belong" stencils are also being added on bike routes.

Cyclists' influence has continued to grow. A Supervisor's aide told us why the bike community has clout compared to most groups: "They [others] can't turn out thousands of people in the streets." At public hearings now, a group of cyclists making a point carries an implicit threat: don't get our community angry.

Today, Mass has continued to evolve. Following the July '97 ride, cyclists diligently obeyed traffic laws, filling downtown with thousands of mostly orderly, law-abiding cyclists a pleasant change from the usual car chaos. Later, rides began to splinter into sub-rides, with braided routes to one or more destinations. It allowed the rides to become more democratic, with anyone who wanted to calling out, "Go left!" or "Wait up!" In 1998, the police escort shrunk to a handful of motorcycle

cops who intervened on the rare occasions when there was violent conflict with other road users. Cyclists are still occasionally ticketed, (and still more frequently than the motorists who threaten or assail riders), but if one rides away when police approach the officers don't usually press charges.

Recent rides have become smaller. Where summer rides in past years had over 2,000 participants, in recent months it has been closer to 1,000. The mood, route, and theme of the ride is still up to the riders. So make a flyer, pass it out, and see what happens.