Tempest in an urban teapot

Pub date April 10, 2007

OPINION Our local road-culture war has erupted again, this time thanks to some unsavory gossip columnists at the monopoly paper in town. Wildly distorted accounts of two confrontations at Critical Mass in March have been presented as evidence that bicyclists are antisocial, out of control, and generally immature scofflaws. Such accounts serve to frame a narrative that is in sharp contrast with the actual experience of tens of thousands of bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists on the last Friday of every month, not just in San Francisco but in hundreds of cities worldwide where Critical Mass rides take place regularly.

Suddenly, normal life is suspended as thousands of bicyclists — talking, singing, playing instruments and boom boxes, smiling and laughing — take to the streets. Bells tinkle, people wave, traffic stops, encouragement is shouted, and uncounted conversations of unknowable depth and breadth happen by serendipity and choice. This is much more characteristic of the Critical Mass experience than the relatively rare confrontation between an overheated, impatient motorist and a self-righteous, antagonistic cyclist.

Cheap journalism of the type practiced by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Matier and Ross just obscures the truth that our transportation system is designed to promote mayhem, anger, and alienation. Every day motorists crash and die, confront one another angrily, and are left cowering in isolation. The fact that such events can also happen during Critical Mass should come as no surprise.

The sheer exuberant pleasure of a rolling mass occupation of city streets month after month is hard to understand unless you’ve been a part of it. For the dozens of online flamers who have ferociously denounced Critical Mass, it’s inconceivable that an event that doesn’t behave according to the staid norms of a placid democratic society can have any justification: "Critical Mass doesn’t make demands! No one is in charge! The participants don’t all behave like obedient schoolchildren! They are destroying the cause of bicycling for the law-abiding cyclists!" And so on.

In February and March, Critical Mass bicyclists rode for two to three hours through San Francisco streets, enjoying the city in ways unplanned by traffic engineers, police, and city bureaucrats. It’s a remarkable reinvention of urban life in an organized coincidence that is mostly spontaneous in spite of its predictability — surprising every time and inspiring most of the time.

Critical Massers are engaged in that most rare of activities: an act of collective imagination and invention that is considerably greater than the sum of its parts.

For those motorists or bicyclists who think Critical Mass is about a fight between cars and bikes, think again! We are all in this together, and a monthly demonstration of how much better life could be is an invitation to everyone to try something different. There is a well-defined etiquette among Critical Mass riders that encourages riders to thank stuck drivers for their patience, promotes an atmosphere of friendly camaraderie on all sides, and invites the curious to join us next month at the foot of Market Street (April 27, 6 p.m.) on a bicycle for an experience that just might change your life. *

The Committee for Full Enjoyment

The Committee for Full Enjoyment (www.fullenjoyment.com) is an ad hoc group of San Franciscans dedicated to a richer life.