Critical Mass at 20

The movement changed the rules in cities all over the world — and almost, almost, took the Bay Bridge

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Chris Carlsson helped spread Critical Mass around the world
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MIKE KOOZMIN/SF NEWSPAPER CO.

steve@sfbg.com

I was in Zeitgeist on a Friday summer evening, at a planning meeting for the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass, when I first heard about the idea of kicking off the celebration week with a renegade bicycle ride over the Bay Bridge.

The people who first shook up the city's commute two decades ago were going to take the idea of seizing space from cars a step further — and fulfill a longtime cyclist fantasy. They were going to take the bridge.

Chris Carlsson, the author/activist who helped found Critical Mass and has evangelized the concept around the world, reminded me of this super-secret ride last Wednesday when I finally got around to starting my reporting for this story. I was surprised that I'd forgotten about it — but yes, I told him, I still wanted to be there.

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"This will galvanize our sense of the week," Carlsson told me, explaining that Critical Mass has always been about "opening up a space for a conversation," whether it's about how urban space is used or who gets to make that decision.

"There is a real necessity to have a place for people to start thinking creatively. That's Critical Mass's enduring contribution, 20 years ago and today."

What started in September 1992 with 48 cyclists pedaling together through San Francisco has become an enduring worldwide phenomenon. On the last Friday of every month, without leaders or direction, this group bike ride simply meanders through the streets, riders smiling and waving at motorists often perplexed at the temporary alteration of traffic laws by a crowd too big to stop or ignore. While views of Critical Mass may differ, the conversation about urban cycling that it started has had an undeniable impact on how people see cities and their power to shape them, placing it high on the list of San Francisco's proudest cultural exports.

Last Friday evening — a week before thousands of people are expected to show up for the 20th anniversary ride Sept. 28 — I rode over to a meeting in the back of the art gallery at 518 Valencia, the welcome center for the week. The first international arrivals were there: four Europeans who flew to Mexico City, where most of them built tall bikes to cycle up to San Francisco for the anniversary ride, arriving last week after a four-month trek.

They were veterans of Critical Mass events all over Europe, which borrowed the concept from the Bay Area, and they were happy to be going back to its core.

Andrea Maccarone is a 31-year-old Italian who lives in Paris when he isn't bike touring, which he does quite a bit, last year riding to consecutive Critical Mass events in Paris, Toulouse, Rome, and Madrid. "It began here and spread everywhere," he said. "A lot of my lifestyle — I've been a bike messenger and worked in bike kitchens — is based on what started here."

His French girlfriend, Marie Huijbregts, described a cultural happening that began when she was 8 years old. "It's a political movement of cyclists to release the streets from the cars," the 28-year-old told me. "It's environmental, do-it-yourself, and a great way to meet people."

She said she wanted to be here "because it's supposed to be the biggest one and all the world was invited. It's symbolic and I wanted to be a part of it."

Carlsson has watched the event he helped popularize spread to hundreds of cities around the world, from the Biciletada in Sao Paulo to the Cyklojizda in Prague. He loves to see young people who have been energized by Critical Mass and the larger renegade cyclist movement that grew up around it — from DIY bicycle kitchens and art bikes to creative political actions that seize public spaces — "who dream of San Francisco with stars in their eyes."

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