Monday Opinion: Critical Mass Incident a Setback to Cycling Progress

This is an editorial about communication. It’s tangential to business but could be considered applicable to many aspects of the environmental movement. On the last Friday of every month, in cities around the world, but especially in San Francisco, there is a huge bike ride called “critical mass” which sometimes attracts thousands.
The main point, aside from having fun, is to raise awareness of the forlorn state of bicycle infrastructure, particularly in American cities. The rides are typically lively affairs which ignore traffic lights and cause automobile drivers to have to wait till the “mass” passes. Generally speaking, it’s a great, positive event with little turmoil that has done much over the years to improve cycling conditions and promote bikes as everyday transportation.
Unfortunately, it also attracts a fair share of anarchists and troublemakers…

Why,I don’t really know, but anarchists looking for a fight have been a problematic part of critical mass since the early days and are known to fly off the hinges at the slightest provocation from motorists. To make matters worse, a fair number of motorists have been known to fly off the hinges and provoke fights as well.
Unfortunately, last month, a woman with her kids in a mini van panicked at finding herself in the middle of critical mass and began driving fast through the bikes to get out, possibly hitting one. Not the brightest move, but it’s understandable from a suburbanite in a suddenly unfamiliar, chaotic situation. The response from some folks in the crowd was to smash the van’s back window and kick dents all over it while the kids inside screamed inside.
Not cool. Given the media attention this received, it’s exactly this kind of thing that sets back progress for urban cycling and a host of other issues that for whatever reason are considered out of the mainstream. Although 99% of those who ride bikes in San Francisco are peaceful law abiding people, the behavior of a handful of anarchists gets everyone labeled a radical. Although I rely on a bike as my primary means of transportation, I haven’t ridden in critical mass in years precisely because I don’t want to support hateful, unreasonable mob-like behavior.
Thusly, I was a little disappointed that the SF Bicycle coalition didn’t condemn the incident strongly enough, and pointed the finger back toward the minivan. Personally, I think the SFBC should go after anarchists and bad behavior as much as anything else they do so successfully. I’d even suggest a boycott of critical mass until it gets under control. Doing so would be taking advantage of a great opportunity to right a wrong and earn a lot of friends in places where it needs to be done.
Here’s a good news report that is actually pretty balanced – KRON 4

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

2 responses

  1. Wow, talk about mixed emotions! This whole subject certainly inspires them in me. I belong to a cycling club and own four bicycles, and two of my friends have been killed by cars when riding bicycles.
    That said, however, I’m a bit leery of Critical Mass. I’ve observed the event many times, and on the one hand wanted to cheer the bicyclists taking back the street, not to mention dressing funny and having a good time. ;-)
    But on the other hand, the event is inflammatory. It’s during rush hour on Friday afternoon and it blocks drivers who are exhausted after a long week and just want to get home. It’s dangerous for the cyclists and, as the confrontation you describe shows, dangerous for the drivers.
    There has to be a better way to promote understanding and sharing the road. Holding community meetings? Promoting the pro-bicycle agenda to political candidates?
    Here’s one vision of a way to help bikes and cars roll in harmony:
    Janis Mara

  2. I have always felt that critical mass is a really really bad way to make a point. It basically causes a bunch of average citizens in their cars to be delayed, heckled, and confused, with really no benefit. The motorists get angry, and the bikers alienate themselves from a more mainstream audience whom, if approached more intelligently, might support their mission.
    I think bikes are a wonderful thing. I think causing a ruckus and a nuisance for ordinary people is counter to the mission of bike advocacy.

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