A funny thing happened on the way to Critical Mass' 3rd Birthday. It got mighty BORING!
Allow me to explain:
This summer, San Francisco's Critical Mass got a lot bigger, perhaps surpassing 3,000 riders on one or two occasions. But at the same time that hundreds of new people were showing up to join the scene, many dozens of regulars were dropping out, quite a few apparently for good. Some intangible magic that was once a 11 natural" feature of Critical Mass seems to have slipped away. The vibrant social space certainly has diminished. Many of us have found the rides too big, too passive, often too long, too controlled and predictable, and too anonymous. One time, I couldn't find anyone I knew for 40 minutes! That would be great if I was surrounded by stimulating conversation and engaging xerocrats, but that was not the case. In fact, the larger crowds seemed conversely to be rather lifeless compared to the smaller, but more energetic rides of the past.
Seeking to recapture our own excitement, some of us have begun breaking away into smaller, self-managed groups. In July, during the round- route through the South of Market and over 1 16th Street into the Mission, about 75 of us broke away early at Sutter and Market, heading up Sutter. Exhilarated at our "getaway," we happily found ourselves without any police escort, no endless sea of strange faces surrounding us, no uniform mass in which our chief preoccupation was to avoid crashing into someone else. We planned our route on the fly, shouting to each other our preferences until some consensus formed and we turned and twisted with our collective whim. Excited conversation and happy whooping and bell-ringing filled the street as we protected ourselves when necessary with the resuscitated skills of "corking" and sticking together. After a good 30-40 minutes of zipping around TenderNo6 and midtown, we found the main body of the ride at around 1 16th & Bryant, though most of us abandoned it again and dispersed before it left the Mission on its lengthy journey to foggy Stern Grove.
Then last month, anticipating a more aggressive police effort to contain possible breakaways, a couple of dozen of us lingered at the Embarcadero until everyone had left, including the police, and proceeded to have a lovely ride, albeit a bit small (only about 25 or so) around North Beach, Chinatown, Union Square, and eventually up to the Panhandle by way of the Western Addition, and a fun mini-party at the Conservatory of Flowers. Once again, the energy and camaraderie were great, the combination of old and new friends was just right, and the only real drawback was that we were too few to hold the entire street. But we adjusted and mostly rode 2 or 3 abreast in one lane and let cars pass on our left when there was an extra lane for them. We never entered an intersection on a red light, and had little trouble clearing intersections briskly when the light turned. A few times some of us were cut off behind a light change, and the rest of us just waited for them. We still had a lot of the best results of Critical Mass: cars and people cheered and waved to us. Whatever. political point a mass of bicyclists makes, we made it, and the best part is that we actually controlled our own experience by having to be much more engaged in protecting ourselves, sticking together, and talking to people along the way. Better still, we weren't just passively following a route and pace coordinated with and enforced by the police!
Critical Mass suffers from several problems which some people are more aware of than others: 1 ) since about March of this year, there has been an absurd amount of time and words wasted in an empty power struggle behind the scenes over controlling the route-planning process; 2) the real winners of this pathetic conflict have been the police, who according to one person who listened in on the police band radio la last time, could barely control their glee at having completely taken over Critical Mass and eliminated the uncertainty and open-endedness that has bothered them so muck since the very beginning; 3) Xerocracy has sputtered out of existence for all intents and purposes; 4) a large majority of Critical Mass participants seem quite happy to remain basically passive in the face of increasingly centralized authority, mostly in blue uniforms; and finally 5) Critical Mass has become an entirely predictable and politically tepid parade, asserting a lowest-common-denominator unity among bicyclists who otherwise share little in terms of class, political sensibilities, or social goals. This latter situation might be a good thing IF the culture promoted more discussion, dialogue, argument, contention, etc., but actually it seems that everyone is so busy obeying the Northern California dictum to be nice that no one's ideas about anything are being challenged. Moreover, the passive participation that prevails begins to look just like every other atomized, empty ritual of modern society. . . Look what happened to SF's street fairs, which mostly started in the late 1 970s. What began as community festivals to reclaim public space have largely degenerated into "alternative" temporary shopping malls with free nightclub entertainment. The logic of centralized authority overseeing a culture in which you are only "free" to buy and sell is very hard to resist. I have little doubt that Critical Mass, if it continues on its current trajectory, will succumb to this same omnipresent logic.
With these past two months' experiences, I see a way out of the dead-end that Critical Mass is entering. Let's take lessons from the Midnight Rollers, the rollerbladers who take to the streets by the hundreds EVERY Friday night, and from the old anti-nuke movement affinity group structure. The roller6laders don't try to stay in one huge mass, but enjoy fluidly moving around the city in groups of 5-100, dealing with traffic as best they can, displacing it here and there, but mostly just occupying their own space. The old idea of affinity groups, which has its roots in the anarchist movement of the early 20th century and before, suggests that we band together in groups of trusted friends as our basic core structure. Of course we are free to move from group to group as it suits us, and there should always be room for new people to join any group, but with the basic trust among known friends as a bedrock, we can try a new approach to Critical Mass.
Let's still gather the last Friday of every month (or more often if that becomes popular) but instead of allowing ourselves to be herded along on these long, circuitous routes to "nice" neighborhoods on the west side of the city, let's break into a half dozen groups of 150-200, or even a dozen and a half groups of 50-100, and reclaim an original purpose, which was to ride home together. This way smaller groups can actually go where they want to go, based on residence or preference, no one or a few people can work themselves into suck a lather every month trying to get their way regarding the route that everyone's going to follow, everyone has to be much more active during the ride to ensure everyone's safety, and the larger goal of bicycle visibility is even better served by 10 or 15 groups of bicycles displacing cars along a variety of routes as they move through the city. I think we would have to behave more like regular traffic this way, trying not to block intersections unless absolutely necessary for our safety, running red lights only to stick together (but in smaller numbers this will be muck less of a delay for cross traffic).
Some people will object to splitting up because we want to hang out at the end of the ride. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I've had some really wonderful times at bars and parks after Critical Mass rides, and have made many new friends over the last three years. So I like the idea of gather- at the end- On the other hand, I have almost always stayed to the end, but not that many people hang out for very long. Most people head off right away. I would guess that if a ride has 1,500 riders at its peak, it has only about 800 by the time it ends, and of those 800, at least 500 leave immediately. Of the 300 that hang out, 150 are gone in 20 minutes, another 100 by the end of the hour. A gathering point sounds more important than it actually is for most people Nevertheless I I still like the basic idea, so if we go for the Critical Mass-let approach, 2 or 3 end points could be chosen and groups can find their ways there however they choose. We can share stories about how it went and what works and what we should do to keep our space open.
Another other major problem with this idea is the difficulty of getting people to leave at staggered times with a kind of balanced number of cyclists. Perhaps destination signs to gather under in the plaza before leaving. Then organize the departure time and/or route and/or destination among those in a given group. Once a group is rolling it could choose its route and destination on the fly, in any case, we have to find a way for all of us to have the kind of Critical Mass we want. There's fun to be had! We are trying to change the texture of our lives, not just ride our bikes!
— The Pscycle-Analysts, September 29, 1995