Critical Mass still brakes for no one after 30 years of blazing paths and creating controversy, though it’s sped up the adoption of urban biking in SF and all over the world.
For the last 360 consecutive months in a row, dating back to 1992, San Francisco cyclists have gathered on the last Friday of every month at the Embarcadero location they’ve called “Pee Wee Herman Plaza” at 6:30 p.m. for a little something known as Critical Mass. But this Friday’s ride will be the Critical Mass 30th Anniversary Ride, celebrating a tradition that was born in San Francisco, but has had a chain reaction to spread to dozens of other cities all over the world.
It's the 30th anniversary of Critical Mass at the end of this month! September 30th for 30 years, Embarcadero Plaza at 5:30pm, be there!!!!— SF Critical Mass (@CriticalMassSF) September 1, 2022
Art by Joey Lusterman 😍 https://t.co/rzyIDzmk2C pic.twitter.com/2M3TKZII2V
“A motley crew of couriers, commuters and recreational cyclists together invented a new kind of celebratory public event,” says Critical Mass co-founder Chris Carlsson in his 30-year Critical Mass retrospective essay in the Examiner. “We wanted to call attention to the dangerous marginalization we were routinely subjected to on the streets of San Francisco.”
Young’uns may not realize how incredibly common bike messengers were in 1990s San Francisco; it was kind of a rite of passage job at the time, like temping at Schwab or Wells Fargo. For one happy hour Friday every month, Critical Mass gave power to an underpaid and powerless demographic. Critical Mass pumped up the urban cyclist movement, but certainly also encountered some road rash over the decades.
Here's Critical Mass posters & flyers over the past 30 years, leading up to the 30th anniversary this Friday!— SF Critical Mass (@CriticalMassSF) September 27, 2022
1992: The first flyer
1993: 1 Year Old flyer by Jim Swanson
1992 - THE FIRST CRITICAL MASS
Above we see the flyer for the first ever Critical Mass, held on Friday, September 22, 1992. Except it wasn’t called “Critical Mass,” it was called “Commute Clot.” The un-catchy name would change to “Critical Mass” later that night, after the first ride, with the new name inspired by a scene from Ted White’s 1991 underground film Return of the Scorcher.
“I had left over 200 flyers on bicycles around the city over the previous week. (In 1992, that meant I hit every bike I saw.),” Carllson writes af FoundSF. “Four dozen people were there, and we had a great old time, riding in the golden evening light, ringing bells, hootin and hollerin, confusing the world with our happiness.”
1993-96 - PEOPLE THINK CRITICAL MASS IS TOTALLY TUBULAR
Critical Mass immediately started picking up speed. “After April 1995 we ceased and more or less stopped being a ‘secret cabal’ behind the tone and etiquette of the ride in San Francisco,” Carllson writes at Streetsblog LA. “Critical Mass was growing very large by then, reaching well over 1,000 riders, and by mid-summer 1996 the ride was drawing several thousand riders.”
The following year, Critical Mass spread to both Berlin and Chicago. So the event was certainly attracting fans and followers. But it was also making powerful enemies, including the “honorable” mayor of San Francisco.
1997 - WILLIE BROWN DECIDES HE HATES CRITICAL MASS
After the June 1997 Critical Mass drew more than 3,000 riders, the anarchic monthly bicycle ride had become a real pain for Friday night automobile commuters (and perhaps that was part of the point?). As such, Mayor Willie Brown, and his then-police chief Fred Lau, decided it was time to bring Critical Mass to a halt.
"I don't know how this city ever got to the point where it tolerates bicyclists breaking all rules," Brown complained to the Chronicle. "The ultimate arrogance is to say, 'I'm immune from any authority whatsoever.'” (Mind you, this is Willie Brown complaining about arrogance.)
Meanwhile, Chief Lau promised that SFPD would start seizing riders’ bicycles, claiming these were "instrumentalities of crime."
This of course backfired on both Brown and Lau. On the July 25, 1997 ride, an estimated 7,000 riders showed up, twice the average. Brown tried to speak to the riders at the Embarcadero before they set out, but was shouted down. Police did arrest more than 100 riders that night, and did confiscate a few bicycles.
Only one of those arrestees had his case go to trial, Berkeley professor Howard Besser. Besser had his charges dismissed in December 1998, and San Francisco Judge Sue Kaplan awarded Besser $500 plus court costs.
2007- A KAREN CLAIMS CRITICAL MASS RUINED HER KID’S BIRTHDAY PARTY
The SFPD had backed off, providing friendly escorts to minimize the conflicts, and Critical Mass was being normalized. Supervisor Chris Daly showed up for rides, and nationally, Critical Mass was creating offshoots for children (Oregon’s Kidical Mass) as well as R-Rated adult versions (Burning Man’s Critical Tits). A new website called SFist was generally giving you friendly reminders when Critical Mass was on that particular evening.
But on the March 30, 2007 ride, an alleged scandal surfaced. When a Redwood City family celebrating their daughter’s 11th birthday got caught up in the Critical Mass mayhem, they claimed bikers smashed up their SUV and made the daughter cry. The Chronicle’s Matier & Ross gave the version of events that “It was supposed to be a birthday night out for the kids in San Francisco, but instead turned into a Critical Mass horror show -- complete with a pummeled car, a smashed rear window and little children screaming in terror.”
But a few days later, more detail emerged that painted a different picture. The Fog City Journal reported that the SUV had committed a hit-and-run against one of the riders, which set off the angry response. We may never know the real story, but that fracas was the beginning of the end of the relationship between Critical Mass and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
2012 - CRITICAL MASS BREAKS UP WITH SF BICYCLE COALITION
For the 20th anniversary ride, the tenuous relationship between the coalition-building SF Bicycle Coalition and the bomb-throwing Critical Mass came to an end. Self-appointed Critical Mass “spokes” person Quintin Mecke penned an angry open letter decryng the Bike Coalition, saying “This is the San Francisco Bike Coalition and you couldn’t even bring yourselves to stick a small mention of Critical Mass in your newsletter or on your website (or god forbid you actually celebrate/acknowledge CM and show some pride).”
2015 - ROAD RAGE HIPSTER CREATES PR PROBLEMS FOR CRITICAL MASS
Trouble again at the August 28, 2015 Critical Mass, when in the chaotic melee seen above, one rider pounded on a Zipcar with U-lock. That rider would become known on this website as Road Rage Cyclist Ian Hespelt, and his well-waxed mustache earned him some curiosity points.
“Critical Mass is dying of self-inflicted wounds,” Nevius declared that September 2015 week.
But you know what? Critical Mass is still here, while Nevius has left town and has been relegated to Substack. And not every Critical Mass survives, let alone survives for 30 years, on a still-every-month basis.
And after 360 months of SF Critical Mass, there are more bike lanes in San Francisco, and more bike riders in San Francisco. Critical Mass may not have the friendliest reputation, but there’s no question it has led San Francisco being more bike-friendly.