The 20th anniversary of the cycling phenomenon known as Critical Mass began this week with eight days of events that culminate in today’s Interstellar Critical Mass Ride.
The global movement got its start on the final Friday of September 1992, when 60 bicyclists rode down Market Street in San Francisco. Since then, the leaderless ride has spread to over 300 cities around the world, buoying spirits of cyclists while occasionally infuriating drivers.
“A couple years ago we knew the 20th anniversary was approaching, so we wanted a proper celebration,” said Critical Mass co-founder Chris Carlsson at Monday night’s opening of the Critical Mass welcome center in the Mission District.
The celebration includes a screening of “Critical Mass @ 20,” a film on the movement’s history, and the launch of the book “Shift Happens!,” a collection of essays and artwork on bicycle-related advocacy and politics worldwide.
Carlsson, who co-edited the book, believes that metropolitan measures to promote bicycle safety have increased but that a fundamental shift in the attitudes of people toward bicycles as a primary means of transportation still has a ways to go.
“Conditions [for bicyclists], albeit cosmetic, have improved over the last 20 years,” Carlsson said. “But we have to make it better. There needs to be dedicated bike thoroughfares, and not a bike lane that’s sandwiched between moving and parked cars.”
Cities like Berlin, Copenhagen and Amsterdam are exemplars of bicycle-friendly cities, according to Carlsson. “The more people bike, the safer it will be,” he said.
Critical Mass defines itself as an “open idea” that lacks leaders or members.
Critical Mass “is about the choking off of public space,” said Carlsson, surrounded by bicycle-inspired artwork and Critical Mass supporters at Monday’s event. “You don’t have to buy anything to be a part of it, just show up on two wheels.”
Marie Huijbregts, 28, is one of those supporters who showed up on two wheels, but her journey was far from ordinary. The Paris-based bicyclist started her ride from Guadalajara, Mexico, in May of this year, reaching San Francisco a few days ago to volunteer at various events during the weeklong celebration.
“It was great riding through a nice landscape with nice people,” said Huijbregts, a lifelong bicyclist who joined Critical Mass rides in France five years ago.
Huijbregts says bicycle ridership has increased exponentially in Paris. “The reason is gasoline in Europe is very expensive and people are thinking of other ways to get around,” she said. “Traffic in Paris is dense.”
Riders are expected to arrive from countries including Mexico, Peru, Italy, France, Argentina, Brazil and the United Kingdom, according to organizers.
Homegrown supporters include 82-year-old Lurilla Harris, a longtime San Franciscan who now resides in Bernal Heights. Harris says she’s a believer in the ethos of Critical Mass, even though she hasn’t ridden a bicycle since childhood.
“Look at all the pollution we see and the traffic in the city,” Harris said. “I’m just in favor of Critical Mass and bicycling as a way of getting around.”
Hugh D’Andrade, an artist who runs the website SFCriticalMass.org, first rode in Critical Mass in 1993 and has been a witness to the change in urban cycling culture.
“The net result is positive, and evidence of that is right in front of me,” said D’Andrade, while showing his bicycle-themed artwork, which adorned the walls of the Critical Mass welcome center.
But D’Andrade acknowledges the controversial nature of Critical Mass, whose opponents present bicyclists as lawbreakers who provoke drivers and create traffic jams.
“If you take a path of direct action, without leaders, there is no way to reject bad behavior,” D’Andrade said. “It happens everywhere — it happens at Giants games or Bay to Breakers. It’s a problem of democratic self-governance. We’re not out for a fight.”
But bad behavior aside, there is a more fundamental reason to oppose Critical Mass, according to Rob Anderson, who runs the blog District 5 Diary. Anderson questions the basic legality of the ride itself. “I oppose Critical Mass for a number of reasons, the first being that it’s an illegal demonstration,” he said. “Normally a group that wants to cause that much disruption to normal city traffic has to get a parade permit from the city, and somebody or some organization has to be legally and financially responsible for the event.”
Critical Mass will host a Farewell Bike Ride on Sunday, starting at 1 p.m. at 518 Valencia St. A complete calendar of events can be found here.