The Temporary Urbanism of Critical Mass

Critical Mass, a monthly gathering of cyclists originally founded in San Francisco, has quickly become a worldwide phenomenon. Rocco Pendola discusses the origins of this loose confederation of bike riders, its philosophical underpinnings, and its relationship with New Urbanism, smart growth, and temporary urbanism -- an alternative way of looking at public space.

Photo: Rocco Pendola

Critical Mass is back in the news again. Shortly after last year's arrests in Buffalo and the recent police crackdown in New York City, the monthly deluge of urban cyclists onto city streets made headlines a few weeks ago in Portland. The city's Mayor, Tom Potter, kept a campaign promise by joining the January ride with 250 other cyclists. Not surprisingly, critics are taking Potter to task for condoning - even encouraging - the so-called lawlessness. The Oregonian recently chastised Potter for his part in "keeping Portland weird."

It's hard to believe that anyone interested in urban planning is unaware of Critical Mass, but just in case, here's the nutshell history and "definition:" Back in 1992, a number of folks in San Francisco posited themselves along Market Street, holding signs that read "Make Room for Bikes," while encouraging passing cyclists to join them that Friday night for a bike ride through the city. A few people showed up for the initial ride that September night, so they decided to do it again the following month. More riders showed up in October, more in November, and so on. Since then, crowds averaging one thousand cyclists (often quite a bit more) crowd Justin Herman Plaza on the Embarcadero for what has become a monthly San Francisco staple. The phenomenon has spread around the globe to about 300 different cities.

Image of hundreds of bike riders on an urban city street with people watching them ride by.

Wherever there is a Critical Mass ride, there is controversy. The disdain usually emanates from two sources: the police department (often in cahoots with City Hall) and non-participant observers. The cops claim that cyclists should not be permitted to break traffic laws, as the Mass typically ignores stop signs, red lights, and halted auto traffic in an effort to keep riders bunched together, both for unity and safety reasons. The bystanders, consisting of some motorists, newspaper critics, radio hosts, and assorted public and private figures, offer similar criticisms, along with cries that Critical Mass is "counterproductive," only serving to set cyclists back in their undying quest for "space on the road." I find the argument over vehicle codes and protest tactics to be tired and boring. After all, if Critical Mass was nothing more than a monthly traffic jam, it would hardly enjoy an infamously legendary status that has endured for more than a decade. By religiously participating in the rides here in San Francisco, I find that Critical Mass not only physically transforms the familiar urban environment; it also throws a kink in the relationship most have with the status quo - hence the strong reactions to the event.

Critical Mass is neither a protest nor demonstration. Generally, riders are not out to make some previously agreed upon point. Critical Mass is not an "organization" or a "cyclists' rights group," as the media so often refers to it; rather, the term "spontaneous coincidence," commonly used by participants, best defines it. One of the so-called founders of Critical Mass, Chris Carlsson, sums it up nicely when he says the rides are "about the demise of public of space... [and] the breakdown of human communication and community." According to Carlsson, while Critical Mass was originally intended to secure space on the road for cyclists, it has evolved into a form of "self expression," where "bikes are curiously incidental." Most importantly, Carlsson contends that "every individual brings something of their own to the ride," showcasing what he thinks is "a better life in urban America."

Critical Mass participants, especially in San Francisco, recognize what Carlsson says is more than abstract philosophical rambling. The monthly gathering of friends and strangers, the subsequent reclamation of the streets, and the temporary urbanism created is the antithesis of what the American city has become. Riders assemble, chitchatting and sharing stories with people they may have never met before. Friendships develop. Often, riders pass around free food and drink. Capitalism and fear of the other rests, if only for a few hours. A sense of community takes hold. Never on time, real people - whole families, teachers, activists of all shades, messengers, nine-to-five office workers, old folks, teenagers, you name it - flood the streets, producing an unfamiliar picture of the city. Riding a bicycle in the middle of this scene is exhilarating, to say the least. For all intents and purposes, cars are absent in and around the Mass; the ones that are present sit and wait - powerless, sometimes dismayed and agitated, but more often than not, supportive and intrigued. With bikes and pedestrians occupying car-free streets for blocks - hooting, hollering, and cheering - it is as if streets designed for the singular purpose of facilitating auto traffic have been renovated into the finest of European public squares.

Image of many bike riders in a tunnel with cars.

Isn't this, when it comes down to it, what the New Urbanism and smart growth movements are all about? Taking our present reality and implementing wholesale cosmetic, physical, and attitudinal changes to it. Critical Mass provides the perfect illustration of such lofty goals put forth by those concerned with the sad state of American life and place. Critics have called suburbia everything from "ugly" to "boring" to "car-dependent" and "socially and morally bankrupt." Many of our central cities have been left for dead. Our best cities are far from perfect. The New Urbanism seeks to retrofit the sub par environments of the present through application of neotraditional design. Practitioners of the craft can look into a brown field and see vibrant neighborhoods like Portland's Pearl District or San Francisco's North Beach. Whether one seeks mixed-use development, car-free cities, pedestrian friendly streets, public spaces for neighbors to come together, or all of the above, showing the skeptics that these notions should supplant the prevailing car culture is a monumental task -- one that, frankly, we are not winning.

Critical Mass, in its own way, serves as a vision of what the city can be. I am not suggesting that it is a solution in and of itself; rather, it displays numerous qualities month after month that many claim our society lacks - community, human-scaled streets, active lifestyles, non-polluting transportation, and more. It is common for urban planning professors to take their students to the best developments in their particular city or town, in an effort to demonstrate how their craft "should" be done. Why not make them ride in Critical Mass, in order to show them the manifestation of the type of public realm they support, yet have probably never experienced? Instead of vehemently opposing it and suppressing alternative visions of the city, public officials and private citizens, especially planners, politicians, and urban thinkers, ought to observe Critical Mass, even take part in it like Potter did. Such an education might help transform other parts of America into places as "weird" as Portland, or as Kunstler says, into "places worth caring about."


Rocco Pendola lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughter. He is an urban studies student at San Francisco State University, who intends on beginning pursuit of his PhD in 2006. For more information on Critical Mass vist http://www.critical-mass.org and http://www.scorcher.org/cmhistory/.

Comments

Comments

Backing up what I said

"Philosopher" asks how my cycling experience has been negatively affected by CM. I included that information in my post: the only effects I've seen from CM have been the construction of _bike lanes_. Those are a serious blight on any cyclist's ability to travel safely and conveniently.

Again, this is a puff piece that has _no_ hard information about what CM has ever achieved.

Why all the Fuss?

Well stated, I often hear numerous complaints about the lawlessness of Critical Mass demonstrations. People are quite put off at the idea of bicyclists gathering together and making a trip in unison and creating congestion while showing disregard for many traffic laws.

It reminds me of another similar demonstration held by automobile owners, only they hold it twice a day every day and don't have as much fun!

Critical Thinking

While I agree with much of what Mr. Pendola has to say, I find his defense of lawlessness and anarchy to be "tired and boring."

I have ridden in three San Francisco Critical Masses -- two highly enjoyable, and one entirely annoying and frightening. Ironically, what should have been the most joyous, the 10th anniversary of the event, was to me, the frightening one. Let's say, at one point Critical Mass was a toddler being toilet trained, proudly bringing excretory efforts into the living room, and exclaiming, "look what I made !" Yes, dear, that's a traffic jam, now put it back in the toilet.

Critical Mass has now matured to an unruly adolescent, claiming old-fashioned rules of civility don't apply in this modern era. Hello? The WORST Critical Mass I participated in was due to two factors: 1) its sheer size prolonged traffic snarls and made drivers angrier than ever and 2) the number of uncivil, angry bicyclists drawn to participate in the event made it entirely unenjoyable.

Once the mass dies down, the solitary cyclist is left, alone, to defend against hulking metal antagonists who are angrier than ever. Twenty-nine days of suicidal righteousness. One day of glory? Sorry, I'd like better odds.

I'd like to see small, easily passed groups of bikes "take the lane" EVERY DAY. Instead, most of the time, random cyclists zip in and out of threatening traffic, causing everyone's heart to race. Maybe someday Critical Mass will grow up, realize that rules are for the common good, and help save cyclists every day, rather than continue as a once a month reaction to 29 days of angry threatening cars.

?puff?

When I ride in CM in chicago, I don't see any "explicit modeling" of Chinese cycling patterns taking place.

If he could elaborate on the "tangible" "actual" effects I would be surprised. Without some kind of reference or cite here I think it is just more puff and
hard info is lacking.

Velospher seems
to believe Cm has degraded his urban cycling experience. - Isn't this assertion needing some supporting information of some kind?

Long Live Critical Mass!

critical mass

I see nothing wrong with taking back our streets from the most wasteful form of transportation ever invented and giving them back to the most energy efficient form of transportation ever invented. If this is what Critical Mass is all about, then I am a supporter.
At the end of the 19th century, bikes in cities were the rage and there was discussions of a bike "craze." Similarly, the first subways were being built and streetcars were crucially popular at the same time.
Within a couple of decades, the power of the automobile took over America and to a great extent, sent bikes and mass transit packing, even though transit helped create our cities and the first rings of inner suburbs (remaining among the most desirable places to live today). What is so ironic is that it was early bike activists who helped "pave" the way for road building before the car even took hold. At the same time, bike manufacturers were among the early and most successful designers and builders of the first automobiles. (Think "Sea Biscuit"...) I've helped organize modestly successful and low-key bike to work days. Maybe I should be thinking more critically!!! (for more information see Flink's "Car Culture" and Jane Holtz Kay's "Asphalt Nation"

speaking of SF Critical Mass

As a participant since Sept 92 in San Francisco's Critical Mass, and almost every ride since then, I can speak of this ride only. I understand there are vast differences among the 300+ Critical Masses that happen around the world.

Rocco's point was missed by velosopher. As I read the article, the ride is not about asserting cyclists' rights, which under U.S. law are practically the same for cyclists as for drivers. No, the ride is about something bigger and better than that. Who cares if you have the right to mix in with noxious, unhospitable car traffic? Why should we desire to be an equal part of that anti-social system? All over the world, with Critical Mass, Car-Free Sundays, street fairs, spontaneous protests and events of one kind or another, human beings are momentarily claiming our most important and ubiquitous public space for convivial social interaction.

Rocco closed with his strongest point: by participating in such events, urbanists have a special chance to experience such conviviality, and revitalize their hopes and ideas for creating better urban space.

A puff piece with no hard information

So Rocco finds arguments about "vehicle codes and protest tactics to be tired and boring?"

Well, in that case they must not be discussed!

Certainly not if the actual effects of Critical Mass as opposed to Rocco's unsupported wafflings are to be ascertained.

Critical Mass is modeled explicitly after the behavior patterns of cyclists in China who have no status under the Vehicle Code unlike US bicyclists. It is inappropriate, counter-productive and serves primarily as a goof-off for people that are too timid or ignorant to ride as they should.

I don't think most of the criticism of Critical Mass comes only from the police and "bystanders". It also comes from people like me that ride bikes daily, want to be seen as a legitimate and regulated part of traffic (as we are under the Vehicle Code), and want to be seen as a part of traffic instead of part of a mob of selfish people snarling up traffic. Yes, yes, I know "we are traffic!!!", but if cars travelled in convoys that didn't obey red lights, and took up all of a road then I'd agree that we are behaving like traffic.

Critical Mass is modeled on survior behavior in a different society where cyclists have no rights. Here we have them and we should enforce them, not flout other people's rights.

The actual, tangible effects of Critical Mass have been the provision of well-intentioned, poorly-researched, badly-implemented "Bicycle Lanes" dreamt up by "urban planning PhDs" who imagine they're in UtopiaEurope.

No thanks. Keep them and keep Critical Mass. They both degrade my urban Vehicular Cycling experience.
http://www.johnforester.com

Air conditioned isolationism

As a Portlander, I've been on many Critical Mass rides. Missed the one with Potter because of rain. Potter rides a rear-suspension E-bike recumbant. Nice.

Some people pooh-pooh'd Potter's ride, but if these same people want the young and disadvantaged to be less rebellious and more aware that society's 'well-to-do' aren't completely oblivious to the world beyond the windshield, beyond air-conditioned isolationism, Potter's effort should be commended.

Long live Critical Mass!

CM is a beacon of hope for better cities everywhere. With around a third of every city being dedicated to the automobile, how much space is there for the humble bicycle?

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