Bicycling Over the Rainbow: Redesigning Cities — and Beyond

Critical Mass is nearly three years old. In terms of sheer numbers it is still growing, but the more profound goals associated with a developing political culture are substantially unmet. As a founder of CM and someone who has been on each and every ride in San Francisco I’d like to blurt a bit:

The growing pains we’ve experienced during the last six months, while not much fun, are in any case inevitable as an event takes on a life of its own. The July ride, nearing 3,000 riders, was an impressive display of statistical growth, but conversely it was what I’ve dubbed the Stepford Wives ride: it was characterized by an unusual zombie-like silence and lack of energy which underscored the basic anonymity in which even we regulars found ourselves engulfed.

Of course when we started out with 45 bicyclists in September 1992, I fantasized about Critical Mass becoming a big mass event, but it was never an important goal. Far more important to me was the lived experience of new communities, new friends, new social spaces, and most importantly, a new political space. Now that CM is so big, those of us who seek communitarian and utopian moments will have to make a greater effort to make them happen and can count less on the spontaneous combustion that has been a hallmark of the Critical Mass experience in the past.

I and a bunch of others informally planned routes and published most of the maps, Missives, and many other xerocratic documents, stickers, etc., during the first two years. A couple of dozen people found their way into the process, which was amorphous and a bit clique-y but emphatically open. (We did jealously guard the secrecy of the process from those who might have shared it with the police, since it was and is our feeling that police involvement would inevitably destroy the free-spirited quality of the event.)

My guess is that the silent majority of riders for the most part would be happier if the police stayed home and don’t want to deal with police one way or the other — they neither want to fight the cops nor submit to them. In general we’ve always sought to ignore the police, since we are merely using the city’s roads to go where we’re going, just like any other commuter or traveler. Our flouting of traffic norms (essentially red lights and stop signs) was designed to ensure the safety of the mass of bicyclists AND that of the isolated motorist who unexpectedly and suddenly finds herself surrounded by hundreds of boisterous bicyclists in what can be an intimidating experience. We also run lights and stop signs to keep moving and bring the minor traffic delay to an end that much sooner, since individual motorists are not our enemy.

The tension provided by police attention has been an attraction to some Massers and a disincentive to others. In any case it, and our varied responses to it, have shaped our political culture. I, for one, hate it when the police cheerfully welcome us to our own event, as though they thought it up and were providing it to us as a service! Their presence insults me, but the police are not the issue. If I let my opposition to state authority tilt my CM participation towards engaging in antagonistic encounters with the police, they win! The police crave recognition, and the one thing that really gets their goat is to be ignored. I’ve seen this again and again during the years of Critical Masses — the police go out of their way to attack anyone who attempts to cork or establish dialogues with motorists or in various ways break out of the acceptable norm of a police-sanctioned and -controlled parade. (There is at least one individual who is seeking order, predictability and legal standing for Critical Mass, cooperation with the police, and a trajectory towards a bicycling Bay to Breakers, which may grow into a mega-event with refreshments, commercial sponsors, and entertainment at the end!)

To avoid the inevitable progression into an oversized, predictable and dull parade we might consider our original pretense: that we are merely RIDING HOME TOGETHER and break into 5 or 7 alternate groups heading for different neighborhoods at a designated midpoint, like the Civic Center or Market and Van Ness. I am already tired of the apparent attempt to visit every hilltop in town, and have never been interested in 17-mile endurance rides. This brings us to what must be a profound divergence among Critical Mass participants: are you participating to have a bike ride or a social experience? Most of us want both, I’m sure, but most of us can probably identify our primary motivation as one or the other. I want the social experience and I don’t need the bike ride to be really long or necessarily go to obscure parts of the city. I actually liked the early days when we looped through downtown and ended up at a bar, Dolores Park or Golden Gate Park for hanging out. I think those who want to take really long rides should do so, but there’s no particular reason to impose that on Critical Mass, certainly not every time.

We conceived Critical Mass to be a new kind of political space, not about PROTESTING but about CELEBRATING our vision of preferable alternatives, most obviously in this case bicycling over the car culture. Importantly we wanted to build on the strong roots of humor, disdain for authority, decentralization, and self-direction that characterize our local political cultural history. Critical Mass descends from the anti-nuke movement as much as it does from the bicycling initiatives of the past. It is as much street theater as it is a (semi-)functional commute, or at least it has been at its best. It is inherently anti-corporate even though there are more uncritical supporters of the American Empire and its monied interests riding along than there are blazing subversives, which is just another of the many pleasant ironies of Critical Mass.

The Bicycle itself embodies the counter-technological tradition that is the flipside of America’s infatuation with technological fixes. Like the pro-solar movement in the 1970s, today’s bike advocates tend to view the bicycle as something that is inherently superior, that brings about social changes all by itself, endowing it with causal qualities that ought to be reserved for human beings. I am a daily bike commuter, have been for most of the past 20 years, and am very fond of bicycling in cities. I greatly appreciate the bicycle for its functionality in short-circuiting dominant social relations, but let’s not forget that it is merely another tool, and has no will of its own. When I bicycle around town I see things happening and can stop and explore them in depth with no hassles. I also see my friends and acquaintances and can stop and speak with them directly. This, combined with the absence of mass media pumping into my brain in the isolation of my car, sets up organic links and direct channels of human experience and communication. These links are potentially quite subversive to the dominant way of life in modern America, which is one of the reasons I like bicycling.

But bicycling is not an end in itself, just like Critical Mass is really about a lot more than just bicycling. Our embrace of bicycling doesn’t eliminate an enormous social edifice dedicated to supporting the privately owned car and oil industries. Similarly, the infrastructural design of our cities and communities is slow to change in the face of our preferential choice of bicycling. Finally, we won’t see any real change if we continue to act as isolated consumer/commuters, and in part Critical Mass allows us to begin coming together. But Critical Mass is far from enough, and until we begin challenging a whole range of technological choices at their roots, our and the planetary ecology are likely to continue worsening. Our capitalist society doesn’t really care what we buy or which toys we like to play with, as long as we keep working within a system that systematically excludes us from decisions about the shape of our lives or the technologies we must choose.

The space we’ve opened up in Critical Mass is a good beginning. Out of it must grow the organic communities that can envision and then fight for a radically different organization of life itself! We will never shop our way to a liberated society. So questions of utopia lurk beneath the Critical Mass experience. what kind of life would you like to live, if you could choose? What of all the work that this society imposes on us, is work worth doing? What kind of technologies do we need? What direction do we want science to go (e.g. do we want to dedicate millions to military defense and a space program, or shall science address the basic research associated with redesigning cities, transit and energy systems, etc.)? Why do we live in a democracy in which serious questions such as these are never discussed, and if they are, only in remote academic journals and around the occasional kitchen table? Why is politics primarily a detached and meaningless ritual of popularity and money?

In general our culture is quite retarded when it comes to politics: genuine arguments are greeted with horror and discomfort because the antagonists aren’t being nice. Substantive disagreements regularly descend into personality squabbles wherein the real issues are quickly lost beneath the heated rhetoric of personal contempt. Most people seem to think politics is about elections and governments rather than the day-to-day compromises we have to make with each other to live. By that way of thinking, many Critical Massers on both sides of the question have concluded that Critical Mass is apolitical either because it eschews demands, lobbying, and policy declarations, or because it is celebratory and fun and not confrontational and angry.

Critical Mass is one of the MOST POLITICAL events of this depressing decade; its lack of formal leaders or agenda has opened it up for everyone to claim it for their own demands and desires. It has no further purpose than its continued existence, which in itself is an affirmation of communities that are otherwise invisible and easily ignored. How the newly self-discovered communities within Critical Mass evolve into more contestational political movements remains to be seen, and is a challenge that faces us all. Maybe some folks will begin direct action campaigns around open space, transit corridors, park and wildlife corridors, etc.? Perhaps others will band together at work to demand that their employer dedicate 10% of their hours to work in the city helping build an ecologically sound urban alternative? Clearly, the daunting task of remaking city life on a humane and ecological basis is going to take a serious challenge to the status quo, one unlikely to emerge from existing entities that claim to be political. So take heart my friends, be patient but not lazy, wait but don’t dawdle, act with intelligence, an open mind, and good will, and reject the easy ideological clichés. Life is very different these days, but not nearly as different as we would like it to be, and certainly not different in the ways that would make for an equitable, enjoyable, ecological and fulfilling human life for all of us.

Chris Carlsson ccarlsson@igc.org