Critical Mass in
San Francisco:
One Year Old!

Critical Mass: One Year Old
Illustration by Jim Swanson

San Franciscoís Critical Mass is rolling on toward its one-year anniversary. Various people have taken responsibility for different functions over the past ten months: making and distributing flyers and stickers, selecting routes, promoting the ride, telling friends, helping to "cork" at cross streets, bringing unique sounds and sights to the ride, making it a socially rich and generally fun time, and so on.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that a number of people are losing (or already have lost) their enthusiasm for the ride. In some cases, people are hostile to the ride without having ever been on it, or maybe having had one short experience. Iíve heard of people who donít like Critical Mass because:

ē ITíS TOO DISORGANIZED (no one in charge; not following traffic rules; too chaotic and unpredictable; too many inexperienced bicyclists riding together causing dangerous conditions).

ē ITíS TOO ORGANIZED (self-appointed "organizers" aggressively impose their own idea of acceptable behavior; too much direction; mysteriously pre-selected routes and a peaceful, good-spirited and directable mass makes a boring ride; no room for spontaneous action against cars, stores, ostensibly rich people, etc.; no danger, no risk, and so on).

ē ITíS TOO APOLITICAL (no demands; no relationship with politicians, government regulations, legislative proposals, etc.).

ē ITíS TOO POLITICAL (too many people aren't having enough fun!)

All of these criticisms are understandable in the empty void of contemporary politics, but I think our Critical Mass is just right. We need to resist the myriad contradictory pressures to make Critical Mass something more, something different, than itís been. Remember that Critical Mass has caught on for most of the same reasons that people now criticize it.

CRITICAL MASS IS A SOCIAL SPACE. Critical Mass is a public act of self-acknowledgement by bicyclists who are at the cutting edge of challenging the transit priorities of this society, and by extension, most of the priorities of this culture in general.


While many of us are no doubt impatient for bigger events, more rapid and deep changes, and so on, itís foolish to blame this event for not becoming the fulfillment of all our political goals. Itís also counter-productive to blame the event for specific individual behaviors. As always, an active and vocal participation is encouraged from all. If you donít like something that someone is doing, you should challenge it.

Critical Mass should be a space where we learn how to talk to each other in respectful but passionate tones, where we begin to develop a culture that encourages face-to-face interaction and discussion. We all need a lot more experience in public discussion and argumentation, a lot more experience of trusting each other (even though weíre strangers) to be honest and real, and we need to learn to distinguish between our personal-emotional agendas (which always loom large in any political environment) and our political-social goals. Of course theyíre not tidily separable, but letís face it, an awful lot of promising social and political initiatives have been drowned by egotism, incoherence, insecurity, megalomania, sexism, racism, etc. Our engagement with a new political process, like this one opened up by Critical Mass, requires an equally potent engagement with our own "trips," and a real effort to find new constructive ways of dealing with disagreement and disappointment.

The beauty of Critical Mass (and hopefully other similarly unstructured "spaces") is that it gives us a rare chance to address group and individual behavior, political ideas and ideologies, and our own visions and desires, in a social environment which by its very existence has already diminished the social isolation, alienated loneliness, and hopeless impotence that the dominant society has done so much to impose. This is a precious and fragile space. It will only persist if we continue to feed it with our good will, creativity, optimism and hope, and passionate certainty that life can be so much more than an endless cycle of buying, selling, and sleeping. See you on the next ride!

— Chris Carlsson, July 1993

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