Critical Mass

January 30th, 2009


It’s like a full moon or a really low tide. It comes once a month and often catches me by surprise: on a Friday night I’ll be heading through the Mission or Market street and see a mass of cyclists and the flashing bike lights. It’s carnival time and the circus passing through town. But even if I’m riding my bike, I always have somewhere else to go.  Or I decide that the crowd looks a little too raucous.  And being all raucous like that really doesn’t further a serious cause like transportation alternatives now, does it…

Maybe under that judgement is the wistfulness of the kid with too much homework and a curfew who wishes he could join in the fun.  If I can’t have fun, then having fun must be wrong.  Right?

Tonight I landed right in the middle of the surging crowd of cyclists riding up Division St. and just fell in without giving it too much thought. We rode up Valencia to 22nd, then to Mission St., looped back to Valencia and up Market toward the Castro. There must have been 1000 cyclists in a sprawling caravan of tinkling bike bells and blinking red tail lights as far ahead as I could see.

It was an unexpected feeling of solidarity and closeness. There were a few DJ’s with huge speakers on bike trailers booming and I’d find one I liked the sound of and keep pace with it pedaling in time to the beat.  When you’re a driver among other drivers, you’re alone in your cacoon of music or silence or your cell phone conversation. If you interact with other drivers it’s often out of anger and righteousness.  They disobeyed some rule or did something stupid, so you become irritated and honk at them.

Well, obviously, being in the middle of critical mass feels different from being in a car in a traffic jam.  But it’s also different from riding to work on the Folsom St. bike lane from the mission to downtown, which I used to do on a daily basis.  I mentioned that to my neighbor and she agreed, then added how when you go a distance along a bike lane, it’s like these little families or tribes that spontaneously cluster then disperse.  “You ever notice,” she said, “how there will be like a mom and a dad and then a sister and a little brother, and you’ll be riding along together and it’s like this little family that just assembled itself on the fly.  You can imagine everyone’s personality and the role they’d play.  And then you get to 4th street and — Woosh! sister goes off to college and then at 2nd St. — Whoosh! mom leaves home without saying goodbye.”

In the transition from small virtual family to large mobile village comes not just stability, but safety. I guess that’s why they call it Critical Mass.  I’d never realized that constant note of fear that plays in the background every time I ride my bike on a road shared with cars, fear that a car might run a stop sign or make a turn, the uneven stakes in terms of what it would mean for the car and what it would mean for me. And now that note of fear is gone, and that absence is the most unexpected and exhilarating aspect of the experience.

Most of the people in the cars were smiling or tapping on their horns or waving out the window. But at a few intersections I’d see drivers leaning on the horn, or  screaming through their windshield at the cyclists who just kept coming like a parade, regardless of the traffic lights. One well-dressed driver stepped out of a sports car and was ranting at the bikes in front of him. “Look at the light! It’s my light! It’s a green light!”

It was my first ever night of riding with Critical Mass, and already I wanted to stop and and give him a helpful lecture:  “Every night of the month, it goes by those rules, except once a month, on the last Friday, the rules change, like carnaval.  you know, just to remind us that all invented systems can be changed if we decide to change them.”

Instead of delivering this speech, I kept on going, and saw other riders who seemed more familiar with the sort of thing just surround his car with their bikes and quietly calm him down.  That seemed like a better way of diffusing the situation, but as I rode on, I continued my imaginary conversation with the angry driver:

We get to feeling that a car is an essential tool, or even an inalienable right.  Anyone who interferes with your car is disrespecting you as well as the rules.  But who invented those rules?  Who benefits by them?  Do cars have rights?

Once in I remember a cab driver complaining to me about the foot traffic in American cities, all the jaywalkers.  In his country, he told me in heavily accented English, the cars get more respect.  The pedestrians know that if they don’t jump out of the way, they will be killed by the cars.

In your country, he said, there are too many laws against killing the people.

Well, we choose to have a system where hitting people with cars is not cool.  We could also have system where it was easier and safer for people to ride bikes.  It’s up to us.

As I put my bike in the garage and walked up the steps of my house, I had a lingering image of the angry drivers, who were kept from their plans by some random, unfair event.  I imagined their reaction: “If it’s not a construction crew or an accident, it’s a bunch of freaks on bicycles.”

Maybe in regards to them, Critical Mass doesn’t measure up. To those who are already bicycle believers,  it’s an affirming experience. But for those who are dependent on their cars, or who just believe that they are, we probably hadn’t opened their mind to other points of view.  More likely that they felt confirmed their sense of their own righteousness — and victimization — in the face of irresponsible and raucous people who had nothing better to do on a Friday night than ride their bikes around, having way too much fun.

Photo Credit: luxomedia via Creative Commons Non-Commercial/Share-Alike license.