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As seen on Adbusters and Rage Against the Machine!


Critical to Recall Real `Mass' Appeal

Charles Higgins, San Francisco Gate
Friday, June 30, 2000
(link to original SF Gate article)

San Francisco -- Bikes held aloft, they clustered defiantly in front of the Bryant Street freeway on-ramp on a recent Friday. Most of the daisies had been handed out already, and the motorcycle cops were not receptive to flowers.
As they circled around anxiously, a police wagon raced down Eighth Street. And it was clear once again that Critical Mass, after nearly eight years of monthly rides, could still slice the last Friday of any month with a jagged edge.
Sadly, it is the confrontational side of Critical Mass that most people remember. The idea that the bicycle is a practical mode of transportation and a symbol of good quality of life gets lost in the fracas.
But there are many faces to Critical Mass. The event is at once a rebellion and a celebration. It is a manifestation of deep consternation over transportation, the environment, materialism and free market-driven urban planning.
And it brings people together in the open air for a festive rolling adventure. It is at once a loud scream and a soft whisper.
Though it raises the blood pressure of some rush-hour commuters, Critical Mass offers a change, if only for a few moments, in the domination of the streets. In place of tons of steel and glass is a rolling community of people who can talk to each other and experience safety in numbers.
Critical Mass exists because thousands of people are exhilarated and inspired by its ability to redefine public space that was mapped out two generations ago with the oil industry at heart. It is the voice of the minority amid the deafening roar of engines and the seduction of Madison Avenue advertising.
Before Critical Mass emerged in 1992, bicyclists were nearly invisible. On the streets and in the political landscape, they were less than a minority.
The ride has helped people question the arbitrary rules set forth by an auto-dominated society.
While some activism and confrontation remain a small part of the ride, Critical Mass provides an opportunity for average people to gather surrounded by other cyclists on the streets that otherwise threaten them. It is an expression of how many people think differently from mainstream society. Critical Mass originally intended to bring people together, at the same time and place, to ride home. It was and is an experiment with unpredictable consequences. That it grew and transplanted to cities all over the world says something about the collective frustration people feel about the streets.
But with new bike lanes, bike routes, bike parking and public promotion of the bicycle as a practical mode of transportation, it might seem that Critical Mass has served its purpose. The fact remains that only a small part of the bike plan for San Francisco was implemented, and many proposed bike lanes were rejected by merchants and City Hall. Pedestrians and cyclists continue to be injured and killed by an increasing number of angry and careless drivers. Bicycles are still an afterthought when new buildings and transportation plans are proposed.
In the end, the ride is likely to continue as long as people need a place to express frustration about invisibility and, conversely, to celebrate human-scale community. Critical Mass is as much about daisies and bugles as it is about global warming and SUV domination.
Charles Higgins is a city native who has used his bicycle for transportation for 20 years.

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