I’m cross-posting this, which I also put on the San Francisco Critical Mass blog page.
It’s the last Friday of July, 2013, and of course San Francisco’s Critical Mass will be rolling around 6:30 or so from Justin “Pee-Wee” Herman Plaza, as it has for the past 20 and a half years. I’m not going today, but it’s not because I don’t generally still show up and usually enjoy myself, but because I’m doing something else at the same time that I bought tickets for.
As it happens this is the same week that Joe Eskenazi’s article “Critical Mass Goes Round and Round” appeared in the SF Weakly. I’ve had a few friends wonder what my take on it is, since he attempts to summarize the political impact of 20 years of Critical Mass in the context of bicycling politics and city transit priorities more generally. I’m also quoted in the piece a few times, a product of an hour I spent speaking with Joe a month ago or so.
I don’t love having a complex set of ideas and experiences reduced to a few out-of-context soundbites that just serve to reinforce my apparent disconnectedness from what matters in terms of the realpolitik of San Francisco. But that’s what mainstream journalism, even or especially in an alt-weekly, will do. Overall I don’t think he did a bad job of capturing the current malaise that besets Critical Mass (a malaise that is only visible to those of us who have long harbored more ambitious hopes for radical social change), and I think he was spot-on in highlighting the severe limits of the narrow corporatist agenda of the SF Bicycle Coalition, both in terms of its self-proclaimed successes and in terms of the actual state of things on the ground in San Francisco for bicyclists.
Critical Mass, of course, is not an organization, and thus has no agenda, and never did. One of the originating impulses for it was the experience many of us had of so commonly being treated as second-class citizens on the roads by motorists and by the shape of the infrastructure itself. Eskenazi suggests that our early years’ “success” was to insinuate into the DNA of the city’s people the awareness that cyclists are here and deserve accommodation. I think that’s basically true. But for me, Critical Mass was always about a lot more than mere bicycling. As he rather drippingly notes, I lament that the SFBC and its gov’t allies “have no particular problem with wage labor,” and they are narrowly focused on simply “getting more people on bicycles.” Bicycling is great for all kinds of intrinsic reasons, but bicycling per se is simply not enough.
Indeed, the bicycle for me was always a transportation choice that was obviously superior to other choices, but insofar as we gathered en (Critical M)asse, it quickly became obvious that much more is at stake. Our paucity of public space and opportunity to gather and meet and discuss anything publicly without being subjected to the endless imperative to buy something immediately rose to the foreground as an important element of why Critical Mass mattered.
In our book “Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20” we gathered essays from two dozen contributors spread across the world’s cities showing how Critical Mass spread far and wide and repeatedly changed those cities where it appeared in similar ways. As Eskenazi notes, I wrote in my opening essay in that volume that I’d seen a kind of “life cycle” of Critical Mass in different places, usually involving the hopeful, utopian, and open-ended experience that has captivated so many of us lasting about 5 years, give or take. After that the animating spirits of that “golden era” often turn to other ways to pursue their hopes and goals, whether by launching more mainstream advocacy organizations, turning to other activities entirely such as urban agriculture or free software (just as often, of course, activists from those arenas had joined with other cyclists to spur on Critical Mass from its inception, whether in Brazil or Mexico or Italy or Hungary), or beginning DIY skill-sharing “bike kitchens.”
The spate of horizontalist social movements that are continuing to erupt suddenly across the planet, most recently in Brazil, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Egypt, often find Critical Mass cyclists at the heart of those upheavals. This is not to credit CM with being the necessary precursor or essential causal agent, just to note that our shared experiences in making Critical Mass in over 400 cities around the world during the last two decades has already profoundly affected how we think about and engage in politics, civil society, urban planning, and much more. More »