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Feb 05 Critical Mass and “Self-Management”

After some gray days Critical Mass rode last night. It was a fine ride, somewhere between 600-1000 people, depending on who you talk to. I had people tell me it was much larger than they expected, others the exact opposite. As always with San Francisco’s Critical Mass, expectations are all over the map. I got there at five after 6 o’clock and we left about 15 minutes later, heading straight up Market Street. It’s one of my pet peeves that you can always tell when strangers or newcomers are leading the ride because we go straight up Market Street, no turns and no stopping, which causes unnecessary gaps in the ride, and manages to block nearly every bus line in town for up to a half hour. We meandered up Market without any deviations, a very pleasant crowd full of conversation, tinkling bells and generally jubilant energy. For an old geezer like me, doing this ride every month since it began in 1992, I can see that a new generation is now filling our ranks. Kids who were 5 or 7 or 9 when we started are now the dominant population.


Which raises the neverending issue of continuity, cultural transmission, and simply etiquette! We spent an enormous amount of time, energy, and money in the mid-1990s promoting a culture of pleasure and conviviality, and trying to isolate and even ridicule those we referred to as the “testosterone brigade”… the young (mostly men) who ride out of the crowd into oncoming traffic, go out of their way to lurch into intersections to block cars that are crossing on green lights before the ride even arrives there, and are quick to act very self-righteous and victimized when a motorist gets aggravated and self-righteous themselves after being singled out for taunting and unfriendly treatment. It can be a vicious cycle! And then there’s the repetitive ‘circling-up’ that usually erupts when we hit Market and Van Ness… fun the first time or two, but darn boring month after month.

Copies of the first edition of a LA Bikesummer newspaper arrived at my office during our gin and tonic party. It looks really great, and I’m gratified to see that familiar fresh energy that we are now many years past here in San Francisco. A group called Midnight Ridazz has been doing a 2nd Friday of the month late night ride around LA, but one with planned routes and themes (you can get more info at the LA Bicycle Kitchen website).

Planned routes and themes?? Why, that sounds like Critical Mass here in SF for most of the 1990s! I’ve had a few people lamenting to me from time to time that that doesn’t still happen… like, how much they miss the old rides that used to go over the GG Bridge, etc. But it’s nearly always a lament that someone else isn’t organizing it! And therein lies the neverending dilemma of an experience like Critical Mass. It’s only as interesting and thoughtful and provocative as each person makes it. If you come to it expecting someone else to have organized your good time, well, you might be pleasantly surprised, but probably not. And like last night’s ride, you might find yourself following people who have no interesting idea of how to proceed through interesting parts of the city, let alone relate their path to some larger meaning about the quality of life these days, or the shape of our city or what have you.

And yet, last night, in spite of the generally unimaginative feeling of the route and the pace, we finally went up Market and made a right onto the finished part of the new Octavia Boulevard, christening in its incomplete form the reclamation of the north of Market from the hulking freeway of days gone by. (Of course, the “boulevard” will itself become a primary car thoroughfare, like a slow expressway at ground level, and will also gum up Market Street transit quite thoroughly with the onramp spilling right into the GLBT corner!)

Critical Mass managed to break new ground anyway. I had to leave early, so after a clotting up next to City Hall, more tension with motorists and a chaotic departure from there, the ride went down 8th Street and I turned to the Mission when it turned east on Folsom. I had some great conversations, as usual, and made some good connections, plus I enjoyed seeing a whole different, younger generation, making its presence felt. I hope some of them take up the task of internal communication, sharing and defining the internal culture of the ride in a way that promotes a constructive, playful engagement with the urban terrain rather than a pointless and predictable pattern of antagonistic games with motorists…

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