Critical Mass Could be Challenged in SF

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According to a recent report on KGO-TV 7, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco, the City’s Police Chief is considering cracking down on the monthly Critical Mass bike ride. From the report:

Critical Mass may be at a critical juncture in its history. The San Francisco police chief is talking about cracking down on a monthly bike demonstration that often ties up traffic. This Friday night, however, police could not be happier.

It is a mass of people that causes massive problems and San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon is questioning its existence.

“We definitely are looking at the process, evaluating it, looking at where we can improve,” said Police spokesperson Lyn Tomioka.

Read the full story

27 Responses to “Critical Mass Could be Challenged in SF”

  • brad says:

    Personally I agree with a crackdown. These kinds of purposefully disruptive events are what give bicyclists a bad name. Bicyclists and autos can coexist peacefully every day by sharing the road. Taking over the road is not sharing, and doesn’t set a good example.

  • David says:


    I don’t even like to take a full lane unless my immediate safety requires it. Why piss people off unnecessarily?

  • Matthew says:

    I think the critical mass organisation is not representative of true cycling.
    I strongly agree with the need to improve the presence, needs and rights of cycling and cyclists generally, but this sort of action I personally feel is counter-productive to the cause. It raises the heckles of not only road users, but the councils and authorities we are trying to persuade. Those bystanders that also witness the events then also get the wrong impression of what they (we cyclists) are trying to achieve.
    It is good to continually pressure for change, but the negative awareness and chaos that generally results from these and other similar events can only make the relevant authorities put cycling and other green policies lower on the agenda. I am a cyclist, I commute regularly in a city and I have never owned a car. It would be great to have more cycle lanes and money spent on improving facilities for cycling and get more cars off the roads. It is hard enough these days to get your voice heard but this type of shouting only aggravates not alleviates.
    If these events are organised in a way that promotes the message in a positive way, without creating animosity, but still clearly gets the message across, then you have my vote.
    Otherwise you have my permission as a fellow cyclist to get them off the roads! They do not represent me.

  • Geis says:

    I disagree with the crackdown, though I find it to be inevitable. No rights have ever been won by being polite and reasonable. African americans didn’t win civil rights legislation without civil disobedience. Gay rights did not advance until after the Stonewall riots. Bicyclists will not be treated as equal users of the road without at least some people standing up and refusing to relinquish their place on the road. Eventually, those who want to continue the statis quo will feel threatened and strike back. People will get hurt. But the wider audience, if society has evolved enough, will finally stand up and say “that’s not acceptable anymore” and change will come.

    Bicyclists and autos CAN coexist peacefully every day by sharing the road, except that they don’t. I have been run off the road and assaulted. I know people who have been chased down and struck by malicious drivers. Most people I know that ride the roads have been yelled at, insulted, menaced, threatened and otherwise have had it made clear that they are not welcome. That will not be changed by people attempting to converse in a reasonable manner. When confronted by obstinate hate, being meek and gentle will not change things. For that you need to make waves. You need to get the attention of legislators. You need to get the attention of law enforcement to embaras them into doing their job of enforcing the laws that apply to ALL road users. You need to make it clear that we will not be bowed, frightened and chased off. We have a right to be where we are. We are not going quietly away.

    And, yes, we need those reasonable people to step in and show the legislatures how to write good and fair legislation. But, without lawsuits, cour cases, embarassing media attention and people behaving badly, those reasonable people will never get into the offices and courts to make the case for all of us.

  • John says:

    Bikes are traffic – this is the point of CM. And as much as I dreaded last Fridays when I worked in Sausalito and had to commute home to the Peninsula in the early naughties, I knew to avoid being in a rush on those Fridays. I’d leave work early or late to compensate, just as I would if there was some function in GG Park or at Candlestick.

    When just cars create traffic (ballgames, accidents, whatever) drivers can’t really target their hate at anyone but themselves for driving a single-occupent vehicle. That inward-looking criticism hurts and is often ignored by the person jammed in gridlock. When cars have to wait for bikes, they get to direct all their frustrations at “those guys” tying up traffic. But bikes AND cars ARE traffic.

    I’ve never participated in CM and probably never will, but I have absolutely no beef with it as an event (whereas I have beefs with individual bike riders’ behaviors much as I do with individual behavior in car drivers).

  • Graham says:

    @ Geis:

    Are you seriously comparing the Civil Rights Movement in the US to Critical Mass rides? I sincerely hope that you are being sarcastic (if so, well done!), but on the off chance you are serious… really?

    The main point to remember here is that cycling is ALREADY LEGAL in the countries and towns where Critical Mass rides occur. In fact here in the US the problem isn’t that there is legal discrimination but that people are generally unaware (including law enforcement, sadly) of the laws already in place.

    Where Critical Mass rides missed the boat was when they decided to flaunt the traffic laws. When you decide that your protest can jam up traffic at intersections and flout red lights and stop signs, then you have ceased to be a positive demonstrator for change and instantly become a tool. CM rides could have been hugely effective if they had stuck to the letter of the law and shown drivers how many cyclists there actually are and how proper bicycling infrastructure would benefit everyone but by acting like tools they have succeeded only in fomenting hate and discontent.

    Incidentally, the philosophies of those civil rights movements you mentioned earlier all shared the philosophy of non-violence, which at first read appears to be different than what you’re advocating.

  • Sharper says:

    If taking over the road is not sharing, I would suggest that a crackdown on the daily automobile Critical Mass will go a lot farther towards ensuring we have safer and more courteous streets. Since I’m rolling my eyes just typing that pipe dream, we’re stuck arguing about the cyclist Mass.

    I’d like to point out that Critical Mass (and I unfortunately have no firsthand experience with SF’s ride) does something rare in some advocacy circles: it gives cyclists a frequent opportunity to exert their right to the road casually and with a high degree of safety and security. Drivers don’t often seem to see single cyclists. Drivers might intentionally act aggressively towards individual cyclists. A solitary cyclist is normally an obstruction to drivers. But gather cyclists into large groups like Critical Mass, and they become predominant traffic (with all of the leeway the California Vehicle Code provides to that group), visible, and defended by the power of a latent, smiling mob.

    Now, I’ve got an axe to grind here; I helped restart Sacramento’s smaller (but from reports, more mannerly) Critical Mass. And while I’ve been harangued by bicycle advocates for it, I happily point to the fact that while our local Critical Mass might not have helped get a bike lane put in, it did get dozens of riders out on the streets using those lanes. What’s more, it has helped connect riders from very different bicycle tribes, informed some less-knowledgeable riders of their rights and requirements, and even introduced a few cyclists to political organization and bicycle advocacy. Further inconveniencing a bunch of rush hour drivers seems a small price to pay for such gains. After all, eradicating a well-known and longstanding civic tradition isn’t going to bring peace and joy to the hearts of anyone stuck behind a steering wheel on the last Friday of the month at 5:30 anyway.

  • MarkA says:

    Regardless of whether you agree with the aims of CM or not, you should be supporting people’s right to assemble and protest in the manner they see fit. Surely it’s a free country after all?

    I am indifferent towards CM – it’s good fun, but you get some idiots along for the ride too. It’s good to ride ‘in a pack’ and meet other riders, but I condone the actions of people who use it as an excuse to pick a fight with motorists. But peaceful protest? Surely everyone is entitled to do that if they see fit?

    And of course, I’m sure I don’t need to point out that Friday night motor traffic would probably snare itself up anyway, without the help of a CM!

    It’s quite a ‘hot potatoe’, this issue, and I envisage it will run and run…
    i b i k e l o n d o n blog

  • John says:

    As far as I can tell, most CM rides are nonviolent in the sense that they do not set out to deliberately destroy property or human lives. CM engages in civil disobedience to draw attention to the de facto second class status of bicyclists on the public highways. The Civil Rights movement in the US also engaged in civil disobedience to claim rights they felt were being ignored. For this, they incurred the wrath of those who did not want to see change occur. Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 “letter from a Birmingham jail,” for example, was a response to ministers who criticized him for breaking the law in his effort to bring about social change.
    Whatever one thinks of CM’s tactics (and I think the effectiveness of those tactics is legitimately open to debate), they cannot be accused of “violence” simply because they engage in civil disobedience that angers people.

  • Sharper says:

    You can draw comparisons without stating equivalency. It’s true that as a human rights issue, cyclists’ rights aren’t at all in the same league as women’s rights or minority civil rights, but that doesn’t mean that bicycle riders don’t experience social discrimination (particularly on roads they have a legal entitlement to — much like that century the 14th and 15th Amendments went unenforced) and shouldn’t confront it. And for better or worse, some civil rights advocates’ nonviolent methods worked in part because they could point to growing support for more extreme advocates that didn’t adhere to nonviolence. When the Nation of Islam is banging down your door, the SCLC starts to look a lot more reasonable.

    I’d like to point out, too, that Sacramento’s Critical Mass was (re-)started by three students in a Political Science class who saw some parallels between real-world bicycling and what they were learning about in a course labeled “Politics of the Under-Represented.”

  • Madness says:

    I agree with Geis – I almost wrote a very similar comment. He is not comparing the magnitude of human rights with cyclist rights, but the way in which change happens. Loud noise and agitated dissent is the squeaky wheel. It makes people uncomfortable, obviously, and that can instigate change. Btw, CM is nonviolent. They agitate, but are nonviolent. And not all sectors of the civil rights movements were nonviolent; it took a wide spectrum – but I’m not comparing the two!!

    And I agree with John. Cars can withstand one protest a month. We’re so car-culture driven that we’re nervous about jamming up traffic on a Friday or so worried about our reputation as cyclists or what drivers think of our radicalness! We need radical and civil sides to every struggle. The cars, they’ll be ok. Cyclists flexing their frustration to the point of discomfort, it’s ok. Down in Santa Monica, an off shoot of CM took a portion of our busiest freeway at rush hour a couple times. Critics went bananas over the danger, when really, all the cars were at a standstill anyway. The cyclists wore banners that read, “If you rode a bike, you’d be home by now.”

  • Madness says:

    I meant, CM is not violent. Sigh.

  • bongobike says:

    Shall I state the obvious? Critical Mass is counter productive. You don’t win over people by pissing them off. It creates nothing but animosity against cyclists, thereby making our problems on the street even worse by producing more excuses for moronic, angry drivers to take out their frustrations on us. Thanks, CM!

  • David says:

    Hear hear, bongobike.

    I’d be a lot more sympathetic to CM if they were organizing mass rides that followed the traffic laws and raised awareness out of sheer numbers, rather than by blocking traffic and deliberatey pissing people off. Compare CM to Act Up! or the suffrage and civil rights movements all you want but I don’t buy that a bunch of bikers engaging in civil disobedience is necessary to make people aware of bikers and their needs. All that’s needed is a bunch of bikers, period.

  • Geis says:

    > Are you seriously comparing the Civil Rights Movement in the US to Critical Mass rides?

    I am. Absolutely. It is a civil rights issue. I have a right to the road. I have a right of association. I have a right to peaceably assemble for a redress of grievances. I have all these rights that are being taken away from me, and the government, those charged with protecting my rights, are complicit. Governments have destroyed neighborhoods for the benefit of cars. They have designed and built roads that are inherently dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians. The police, in their patrol cars, stand by while drivers regularly flaunt any number of laws yet institute crackdowns on cyclists who ride on the sidewalk because they don’t want to die in the street. They often blame the cyclist in any sort of interaction with cars.

    Here in Pittsburgh, I know someone who was run off the street but a guy in a large truck. Even though he was injured and his bike was destroyed, he verbally confronted the driver, who then proceeded to physically assault the cyclist. When the police arrived, they questioned the driver and took no statement from the cyclist. He refused to charge the driver with assault because “he didn’t see it” but then charged the cyclist for a traffic violation that he hadn’t witnessed either.

    Oh, yes. This is a civil rights issue.

  • Robert Frith says:

    Contrary to popular mythology the meek will not inherit the Earth.

    Every time I ride my bike I see people in cars running red lights, rolling through stops signs, talking on their mobile phones, talking on their 2 ways, texting, speeding, watching TV, eating their breakfast/lunch/dinner.

    Polite deference to the motorist will get cyclists ignored for a while longer.

  • Madness says:

    My neighborhood is next to the one where the prominent doctor purposefully slammed on his brakes in front of two roadies. One cyclist went through the back windshield nearly severing his nose off, the other toppled over the car, dislocating his shoulder. The case is unprecedented because the doctor, even though he is rich and lives in that upscale neighborhood, he was sentenced to five years prison at the beginning of this year. Though many of you might have heard about this case already, what we all know in these neighborhood is that the road cyclists around here are thought of as the assholes of the cycling world. These are the guys that “bring cycling a bad name” or so believed by the precious car culture. They make Critical Mass look like cute, hipster youngsters with pretty bikes, which is kind of how we see CM around here. The Roadies yell at drivers, flip them off, bang on hoods when cars get too close, they take full lanes three-bikes deep; they can chase down cars at 30 miles an hour. And they’re on the road every day, all day around here, not once a month. When that doctor said he wanted to “teach these cyclists a lesson”, this was not the sole sentiment of an insane, violent person. This distain is largely felt here. When the incident happened, the local cyclist community as a whole went into an uproar, we all (mostly) sided with the roadies, but the roadies in particular were extra vocal. They made sure every local blog and paper knew about this story. They attended every single day of the doctor’s hearing, protesting, they rode their bikes there; they kicked up extra dust. And when most people thought a well to do doctor would get off, he got five years, which was unprecedented, and largely due to the fact that the roadies raised hell about it. Even if there is distain still in our neighborhoods, a clear message was sent that if you act upon it now, you could very well land your ass in jail no matter who you are.

  • Sharper says:

    You’re leading me to another point.

    Once the Critical Mass crackdown is complete, we should naturally support a crackdown on the other cyclists who flaunt the law and give cyclists a bad name: fixie kids.
    Once that crackdown is complete, we should naturally support a crackdown on the other cyclists who flaunt the law and give cyclists a bad name: bike messengers.
    Once that crackdown is complete, we should naturally support a crackdown on the other cyclists who flaunt the law and give cyclists a bad name: road racers.
    Once that crackdown is complete, we should naturally support a crackdown on the other cyclists who flaunt the law and give cyclists a bad name: sidewalk riders.
    Once that crackdown is complete, we should naturally support a crackdown on the other cyclists who flaunt the law and give cyclists a bad name: traffic-obstructing cruisers.
    Once that crackdown is complete…

    I don’t believe for a moment that supporting any crackdown on “those” cyclists won’t lead eventually to a crackdown on “these” cyclists. I’ve had on-duty police officers honk at me aggressively when I was riding fully within the law, my rights, and my safety; I think it’s safe to assume that cyclists will enjoy a bad reputation among motorists for merely existing until the day cyclists become commonplace. Critical Mass, for all of its flaws, at least gets riders in the streets, hastening that day.

  • Doug P says:

    In certain circles criticism, even violence against cyclists has become popular. Cyclists now are treated much like minorities were treated in the days before the civil rights movement. How to change this? I propose random acts of politeness can do more for cyclists’ image and lead to more civilized behavior on the road, than ritualized conflict à la Critical Mass. I have decided to change my “f*** you/ to thank you” ratio. The other day at a stop sign, an elderly lady eyed me, as I approached just after her. I nodded at her to proceed, as she had arrived first. She proceeded to go, and gave me a big smile and a wave. Small steps can eventually take us far!

  • Madness says:

    Treated like before the civil rights movement? At the end of the day, you can still get off a bike. At the end of the day, the majority of cyclists, no matter how rough the commute/ride was, can still find equal shots at jobs and housing and fair pay; they still make a dollar to my seventy-five cents; they are not yelled at to get F**k out of this country (on and off a bike) or to speak english only for god’s sake – and this is all now, not before the civil/womens/human rights movements. I’m a loud voice for cyclists rights, for a fair and safe commute, but let’s not trivialize the ancient human rights struggle for the absolute basics that still goes on.

  • Doug P says:

    @madness; no act of discrimination is trivial. While some battles for equality are obviously more important than others, I doubt the family of a dead cyclist would think his right to ride was “trivial”.

  • Madness says:

    It’s absurd to suggest that anyone thinks so.

  • Doug R. says:

    Watch out! They will try to go after those of us who “Tweed” ride next! Fat, lazy Americans will only change when gasoline goes to $9.00 a gallon and stays there. Oh, all of a sudden bikes and bike infrastructures will be all the rage! Keep pedaling and keep up the awareness people.

  • Harm says:

    I like the idea of a crack down on critical mass rides. It’s definitely come to a point where a new chapter must be started. It will be interesting to see what happens. If there is a crackdown i see rides going underground and splintering off into smaller groups (which could become very interesting)
    Maybe the big rides have seen their day and made their point. Maybe it’s time to move on from the novelty factor and look at smaller ‘unassociated rides’ that are more directed at being seen but not interfering (too much) with the other forms of traffic. Weren’t the mass rides meant to be an example how people could ride together without raising the blood levels of car drivers?
    Any ride should be done with a smile and be positive. It looked like the end was insight when aggression (from both parties) came into the picture.
    Isn’t cycling supposed to be fun and healthy way to travel?

    How about a ‘critical mass’ meet beside a busy intersection? Where grumpy and tired motorists can see a small group of cyclists laughing and interacting while commuting.
    In my defense to motorists I always ask them “When was the last time you talked about the weather with a fellow motorist while waiting for a green light?” That usually gets a smile on their faces.

    Ride on, smile and stay positive!

  • Harm says:

    Just to add to my last post. Here in Rotorua New Zealand we’re playing with the idea of ‘The Bike Bus’ It’s loosely based on forming local groups in your community that will ride together into town to go to work. A general meeting point and time is discussed, people meet there to form a group and ride into town together. Non-obtrusive, Positive, Visible and Social, and every week day!! Being seen in numbers is the idea behind it. Rotorua is a very small town in relation to places like NY but this could work very well in larger city’s also. I live about 12.5 km from Rotorua and there are about half a dozen riders that make the same commute each morning. The funny thing is that I hardly see them because they we’re all heading in the same direction! What better way to wait a wile, meet up and ride together? Even the school bus passes us. This could mean that maybe they get the idea and join in too.
    Anyway, just thought I’d share this little snippet of info to all you big city folk :)

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