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Critical Mass: A Mess or Master Tactic





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By David Mozer

In its simplest form Critical Mass ("the mass" or CM) is once a month, traditionally on the last Friday, at 6 p.m., just after rush hour. The group bikes together on public streets, to show numbers and build camaraderie. The ride is timed to permit people to bike home from work together. Participants include parents, grandparents, kids, students, professionals, commuters, recreational cyclists, etc. Route maps may be distributed but other than that there are no leaders, support vehicles, arranged rest stops or set agenda. Reasons for participating range from purely social to highly political (deep felt resentment and frustration about not being heard on issues like unsafe streets, lack of traffic calming and bicycle parking, road-rage towards cyclist, air pollution, etc.) For most it is probably a combination of reasons. CM started September 1992 in San Francisco and has since been replicated in dozens of cities across the United States, Canada, Europe, and around the world.

A lot is made of the additional congestion that is caused by the mass. "Congestion is not our intention. The ride is benign," says Dave Snyder, executive director of San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC). "The cause of congestion is not bikes, it's too many cars squeezing into our compact city. During Critical Mass, a few people in cars experience slight delays, while many more people on bikes experience free-flowing, safe streets, for a change. If we really wanted to mess things up we'd leave at 5:00 p.m."

There doesn’t seem to be a question that these rides have an impact, but it is hotly debated in letters to the editors of major newspapers and within the bike community whether the Mass is positive or negative. Have the bicycle communities that were frustrated about not being heard before instituting critical mass, been better heard since starting the program? Yes, but the most noticeable noise has been negative press (is there any other kind?). Is there anything positive to balance this? Yes again, but often this is not as well covered.

The lightening rod for much of the debate is San Francisco’s July 1997, Critical Mass. Anne Ng reports (SC, Sept-Oct 97) that even before the controversial ride, the San Jose Mercury put the bike community’s controversy with S.F. Mayor Brown on the front page four times in eight days. The Mayor’s comments maligned the participants and called for a crack down on CM, but did not address the issues. Over the next three weeks the Mercury carried eight news stories, one opinion piece, two non-disparaging editorials cartoons and thirteen letters to the editor.

Even in the case of the SF Critical Mass, which included a confrontation with police, reports indicate that there were five thousand participants (TT, #42), of which a few percent were involved in the confrontation. According to Capt. Dennis Martel, SF Police, 110 people were arrested. Most arrests were for failure to disperse and traffic citations. Follow-up reports say that the "failure to disperse" was caused because police hemmed groups in and prevented them from dispersing. There were a few, isolated, cases of assaults, Martel says (TT, #42). All of the charges against pedestrians and bicyclists were subsequently dropped. No motorist who committed illegal acts out of resentment and frustration was cited.

The League of American Bicyclists (LAB) urged that the debate raging over the tactics of Critical Mass not be allowed to obscure the real issues and underlying concerns of bicyclists – roads built and maintained for shared use, and education for motorists and bicyclists to support such shared use. "It’s unfortunate that it took anarchy and breaking the law to get front page coverage," said Jody Newman, executive director of the LAB, "but there are very legitimate concerns that need to be brought to the attention of the press and policy makers. It is important that we not lose sight of the important underlying issues. It will be to the advantage of motorists as well as cyclists if it is safer and easier for people to bike to work, to the store and for errands." "Now that Critical Mass has captured people’s attention, let’s work to implement some win/win solutions," Newman concluded.

The irony is, the CM that had started nearly five years earlier out of frustration of not being heard on issues like unsafe streets, lack of bicycle parking, road rage towards cyclist, etc. still wasn’t being heard—until the confrontation. Nothing else in the history of S.F. has focused so much attention on bicycle advocacy.

Shortly after the July confrontation the City agreed to an "alternative transportation summit". Though a year later, a full blown alternative transportation summit still is being planned, there has been other progress. The Mayor’s strident anti-bicyclist rhetoric has been tempered and his support of bicycle projects has noticeably increased. In an amicable meeting, November 1997, the Mayor expressed his support, in general, for the SFBC bicycle agenda, and commented this seems "more like a press conference than a summit." SFBC’s agenda includes installation of a half dozen critical bike lanes; a bike station downtown; a share-the-road campaign including "Bikes Belong" stencils on every single bike route in the city; traffic calming; and dedicated funding for the city’s Bicycle Program. Dave Snyder writes, "If 1997 marked the year that bicyclists got political recognition… 1998 will be known as the year of implementation." (TT, #46) While there seems to be progress, the SF bicycle community still has challenges ahead; the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission recently voted against implementing the bike route network.

Traffic jams are not unique to 6 p.m. on the last Friday of the month. Politicians and citizens are going to have to look beyond CM for the causes of traffic jams and their commuting woes. Perhaps they should look to CM for the solutions.

Sources: LAB – League of American Bicyclists, 1612 K St NW #410, Washington DC 20006.  SC – Spinning Crank, Newsletter of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, PO Box 831, Cupertino CA 95015-0831 USA.   TT – Tubular Times, Newsletter of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, 1095 Market St #215, San Francisco CA 94103 USA.  Critical Mass and Critical-Mass


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