How Critical Mass Helped Create a Mass Movement to Take Back Our Streets
If you’ve ever been to a protest march, you’ve probably heard people chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” But those moments of collective action to take streets back from cars are, at least in the U.S., usually fleeting. The exception: Critical Mass. The monthly bike ride, which has taken place on the last Friday in San Francisco since September 1992, gives visibility to people on bikes.
A month ago, we spoke with Chris Carlsson, one of the founders of Critical Mass, as the last Friday commute ride was about to celebrate its 30th anniversary. The ride, on September 30, 2022, coincided with one of the best days for bicycling in California, with a host of pro-biking and walking bills passed in Sacramento, including CalBike’s legislation to decriminalize jaywalking and get bike infrastructure built more quickly.
The anniversary ride and this year’s legislative victories happened 90 miles and several worlds apart, but they are inextricably linked. Critical Mass brought visibility to the fact that bikes belong on our streets. The ride didn’t shy away from discomfiting drivers and sparked a vital conversation that we’re still having today.
The first Critical Mass
As Carlsson tells it, the idea for the first ride, called the Commute Clot, was for bike commuters to ride home as a group for safety at a time when, he says, bike riders were “treated like shit on the streets.”
“All the bicyclists knew each other in town,” Carlsson recalls. “There was a lot of creativity going on around bikes and politics.”
In 1992, before the internet, the initial organizers publicized the ride by printing and distributing flyers and would have been happy if 50 people showed up. Within six months, word had spread, and the monthly ride attracted 200 people; by the first anniversary, there were 1,000 riders.
“The cops didn’t really even notice us till April of 1993,” Carlsson recalls. “The cops were at wit’s end by then.” The police would get in front of the ride; then, the ride would go in a different direction, playing cat and mouse.
Carlsson wasn’t concerned about interacting with the police or the press. “The point was this reinhabitation of the city that we invented in real time that really couldn’t have been done any other way than just stumbling on it and doing it,” he says.
Within that first year, Critical Mass spread to several other cities worldwide. Now it takes place in more than 400 cities globally.
Clearing the way for more liveable cities
Although he thinks we still need Critical Mass, especially with the surge of traffic violence and backsliding on Vision Zero commitments, Carlsson rarely goes to the San Francisco rides anymore. They have become more of a celebration, and Carlsson wanted politics, wanted to have philosophical debates while riding. He still finds that energy at Critical Mass events in other countries (he was recently in Santiago, Chile) but not in the ride’s hometown.
Here, Critical Mass is perhaps a victim of its success. It’s an event that seems to thrive on conflict: Its biggest visibility came when then-mayor Willie Brown picked a public fight with the event in 1997. Brown lost, and Critical Mass grew stronger. But, by its 20th anniversary in 2012, when thousands of riders took over the streets, the ride had already begun to change the urban landscape.
“The bike infrastructure we have today would not exist without Critical Mass — mass seizure of the streets,” Carlsson says. “It caught people’s imagination,” led to “an explosion of bicycling,” and created an activist culture that helped birth other movements, most notably Occupy.
[pull quote]“The flow of bicycles is safer by staying in a mass and keeping moving,” Carlsson says. “We aren’t blocking traffic — we are traffic.”
To co-opt a saying about well-behaved women, polite bicyclists rarely change the culture. But a mass of disruptive bike riders, joyous and angry, catalyzed a movement, and we continue to reap its fruits.