The bicycle phenomenon known as Critical Mass started in San Francisco 20 years ago and has since been exported to many other cities around the world. Thousands of cyclists from across the globe are in town this week to celebrate the anniversary of a movement that has raised the profile of urban cycling.
The first Critical Mass ride in San Francisco was called Commute Clot, a name that carries with it one of the biggest criticisms of the ride: That drivers and, to a certain extent, public transit riders can be stuck in congestion while the pack of cyclists rides through the streets without obeying traffic laws. But at its core, Critical Mass is a political statement about the roads we all pay for and how they should be used. And in spite of the occasional inconvenience that accompanies Critical Mass, it has been very effective as a political movement.
After all, many reforms do not come from centrist ideas that emerge from government bureaucracies. The fringes of the left and right are often where changes start, and as ideas gain acceptance they are often watered down as they are embraced by centrists. The civil-rights movement started with illegal marches on the streets, not with congressional legislation. Same-sex marriage is just now being embraced at the federal level, decades after advocates started pushing for the right to wed.
Two decades ago, when Critical Mass started, the idea that bicyclists also deserved space on San Francisco’s streets was not as well-accepted as it is today. Cars ruled the road, and the dangerous space on the edges was where cyclists rode — if they were brave enough. But Critical Mass brought to the forefront the idea that bikes, too, deserved a safe space on the streets.
Whether you love or hate the Critical Mass rides — and, at times, both attitudes have been appropriate — they have pushed urban cycling issues into the mainstream in San Francisco and around the world. The idea of a physically separated bike lane on Market Street, the grand avenue of The City, would have been inconceivable 20 years ago. Today, not only is there a stretch of Market with such a lane, but talks about re-doing the street include proposals to make many more miles of the stretch safe for cyclists.
Critical Mass is not the only entity that deserves credit for the increase in cycling advocacy in The City. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition tirelessly pushes for projects that will make cycling safer. And several lawmakers who are themselves cyclists support riding as a transportation option rather than just a recreational activity.
When the riders of Critical Mass hit the streets this Friday for the anniversary ride, they will stop cars in their tracks and halt Muni buses while the bikes go by. But instead of complaining about your own personal inconvenience, take the time to think about your mode of transportation and contemplate whether you have ever had to protest to make sure you were safe during your own commute.
Although by no means perfect, Critical Mass deserves recognition for what it has helped to accomplish in the past 20 years.