Critical Mass

San Francisco celebrated twenty years of Critical Mass a couple of nights ago. Well, some of the people held up in traffic weren’t exactly celebrating: This one guy lost it, got out of his car, shouting at me over and over to move my bike, oblivious to the several other thousand bikes around me and in front of him. You’d think they would have become aware that on the last Friday of every month there’s some traffic action downtown; a parade of bicyclists cruising around going nowhere slowly, thousands celebrating this most holy of movements: Raising the consciousness for twenty years; Critical Mass.

And so it was on Friday, September 25, 1992 at 6 pm, that a few dozen cyclists rode out into the traffic with the idea to begin a series of such events – and this idea of some kind of cycle demonstration was quickly adopted elsewhere. Existing projects, too, morphed onto the Critical Mass movement which has become, two decades later, a survivor of the urban evolution of protest, sub-cultures, anarchy, the surveillance-state and anti-terrorist legislation. In the UK, autonomous zones have always been heavily policed – a new law in the 90’s gave the cops extra powers to stop and control access to any event and they focused on free parties, festivals and protest movements like Reclaim the Streets. We’ve seen the anti-G8, the black blocks and we’re still looking at Occupy this and that only a year after it burst into life. In 20 years we’ve suffered an increase of CCTV, data control, the infiltration of organisations by the authorities… But Critical Mass just goes on, a bulldozer of a movement, unstoppable, building up and up, one month at a time, all over the world

So the San Francisco 20th Anniversary ride was a fantastic mass – hundreds of people came down for it especially, boosting the regular attendance level to several thousand. A very chilled out vibe from the cyclists countered the standard bouts of hysteria from enraged pedestrians and drivers. Some mustachioed gentlemen on high bikes and penny farthings, a few Burners fresh from the Playa, sleek and dark couriers, sound systems and octo-bikes were sprinkled throughout the long procession that wound its way round downtown. We got as close to the front of this flood as we could then stood to one side and watched the celebration pass by, backed up in the end with grumpy looking motorcycle cops and the city returning to “normal”.

Most things that happened to me 20 or even 19 years ago are a little vague now  – there are misty images of having conversations in pubs with fellow activist cyclists and furtive mass rides involving, like, half a dozen of us. I vaguely recall being hassled by the cops as I flyered every traffic light for miles down Edgware Road. This would have been for one of the first Critical Mass in London, one year after San Fran in 1993: Seeing the London Mass grow from nothing, in the cold and the dark and the wet, to hundreds of us by the following summer, I could well appreciate the efforts and enthusiasms of the Bay Area Cycling Nation.

One thing I noticed was that the Bay Area Cycling nation People still cannot ride a bike from one side of it to the other using the Bay Bridge. The bridge is only open to motorized traffic – it’s long and pretty crazy, like a mad max bridge or a scene from a driving game – it’s fun to drive, I admit – you have to be careful not to be distracted by the views of the city and keep it slow for that big bend in the middle of the water. For cyclists, however, it’s a no go. People have tried over the years and most of those got stopped, arrested, fined, whatever, but no bunch of cyclists ever rode across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Oakland. Or even, now that I think about it, from Oakland to San Fran. Please correct me if I’m wrong because I wish I was – I only read this in the local newspaper last week; an article relating another failed attempt to make it further east than the on-ramp. It freaks me out for some reason – imagine, my London friends, if you had to pay 5 quid to get over the Thames (which is now a mile wide), from North to South, South to North. You might never make the trip if you had to do that. (Ahem).

Foggy memories merging into the present kaleidoscope of SF CM aside, here’s the incredible insight into Critical Mass and what it means: Quoting wikipedia:

” in China, both motorists and bicyclists had an “understood” method of negotiating intersections without signals. Traffic would queue up at these intersections until the backlog reached a “critical mass”, at which point that mass would move through the intersection.”

I’m thinking a scene where the mere presence of individuals piling up at the junction forces something to happen – the pressure of a mass of people suddenly overcomes the problems that change means and the people surge across knowing that the opposing forces have been out-numbered and out-flanked. Is it Mob Rule? Possibly –  but surely in the nicest way possible.

The Chinese thing connects a few of these strands: One point was how the Critical Mass would have a gray kind of legal status – a mass made up of law-abiding individuals whose collective weight out-plays the rules of the road. This has been of immense importance in that CM sustainability and, from what I’ve seen in London and SF, an inclusivity. That there are no organizers here, no leaders, is an innocence employed by other protest movements who have always appreciated the traffic calming skills of a well-achieved mass whose individuals are doing nothing more than taking a ride through the streets.
You can also see that Critical Mass has persevered as a mirror, or crucial component even, of the urban evolution of the last two decades where we see bike use go up in cities all over the world. It used to be pretty lonely out there on the streets – now every morning the commuters of the world are flooding through the gaps in motor-vehicle-clogged slave lanes and outpacing the sardines in the bombed out cattle trucks trundling through tunnels beneath them; a growing number of people taking control of their lives and opting to use a bike. It has already become an unstoppable collective momentum –  it means something will one day have to change and the people will pour right on through over that intersection. They might even have take the Bay Bridge.

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