Critical Mass Rocks the Bay: there's a bike party every week

Critical mass bike rides around the San Francisco Bay Area have been expanding dramatically this spring — perhaps serving as a barometer of popular concern over climate change — or maybe just reflecting that people want to have fun at the best party on wheels in the galaxy! There are now critical mass rides almost every Friday of the month for folks in the Bay Area — the first Friday in Oakland (gather at 14th & Broadway), the second Friday in Berkeley (downtown BART), the third Friday in Walnut Creek (at WC BART) and the last Friday in San Francisco (Justin Herman Plaza at Embarcadero BART). All of the rides are gathering by 6 p.m. and leave around 6:15. In months with five Fridays, there used to be Emeryville critical Mass (Macarthur BART), but it just got moved to the last Saturday of the month at 5 pm. One participant suggested that soon, there could be a critical mass ride every day of the month! Hell yeah! See you there?

I’ve been riding on as many critical masses as I can because no matter how I’m feeling when the ride starts, I’m totally exuberant and inspired by the end. The rides are such a perfect response to so many of the scourges of modernity. We replace the noise, pollution and danger of car-filled streets with joyful, zero-emissions bikes. Critical mass rides are leader-less, spontaneous, un-organized, free and participatory in sharp contrast to the daily reality of hierarchy, managed lives, alienation and the commodification of everything.

The April Oakland mass was the biggest ride yet in Oakland. There were two sound systems, circus bikes, a few police cars, and a mixed age and race group of riders — everyone from cyclists with spandex and fancy bikes to crusty punks riding 35 year old Schwinns. Someone brought a bike trailer with their 6-year-old kid and two huge pink boxes of vegan doughnuts. At an intersection mid-way through the ride, doughnut guy got off his bike and handed out free doughnuts to everyone. I got a chocolate one — yummy — thanks! On the San Francisco ride, there is a “cookie guy” who hands out free cookies at several points during the ride and on the April Berkeley ride, Wynd had a bike basket full of vegan cookies.

What if more and more people started bringing food and drinks to the rides and handing it out for free? That would help deal with the attrition rate the ride seems to suffer as people get hungry at around 7:30. Visualize a full-scale gift economy on wheels that might develop: free clothes, books and zines, haircuts while riding a tandem, free skool classes and backrubs on trailers carrying massage tables! If you’ve been to the massive San Francisco mass and seen all the unusual bike vehicles and crazy costumes, you’ll know what I mean . . .

Speaking of the San Francisco ride, it is still — as far as I know — the largest and most amazing critical mass bike ride in the universe. I try to take visitors to the ride and they always leave transformed. If you haven’t been for a while, give it a spin — it will cheer you up.

On the March ride, a huge group rode to the Southern reaches of the city towards Daly City to a neighborhood I had never visited before. Then we rode fast along Allegheny to get back to downtown. The road was very smoothly paved and gently curvy like a roller coaster — 3 lanes wide and designed for fast car travel so there were no stop signs or lights. It was amazing to be in a group of hundreds of bikes flying along this road together! I clocked our top speed at 28 miles an hour — that is fast for a bike!

I left at 8:30 before an incident at 9 p.m. when there were only 30 cyclists left (out of maybe 1,000 at the start of the ride) in which an impatient mini-van driver drove at high speed through the crowd and hit and threw a cyclist, running over and crushing the bike, and then fled. Riders gave chase, surrounding the vehicle at a red light and then, unfortunately, a cyclist broke the back window of the mini-van. Unknown to the cyclists, there were 5 kids in the mini-van. This incident received incredible hype in the media which made it sound like rabid bicyclists were attacking innocent citizens and trying to hurt their children for no reason.

It sucks that the window got broken — someone over-reacted in anger and fear after they saw a fellow cyclists intentionally hit by an irate car driver. Video of the incident shows that the windows were tinted so there was no way to see the kids. The incident was used to smear critical mass when bicyclists know that in most road incidents between cars and bikes, it is the bicyclists who are at risk. The reason people love critical mass is that for a few hours, we can ride in relative safety because of our numbers. When we ride to work or to the store, we’re isolated and vulnerable. Some car drivers are very disrespectful of our choice to bike and of our lives — cutting us off, bumping us, pushing us off the side of the road, yelling insults or throwing stuff.

Critical mass has learned to react calmly to most incidents of car/bike conflict — emphasizing dialogue, de-escalation and mutual respect — and videotaping when incidents occur. The ride works best that way — our goal in riding on the mass is to ride our bikes, not get into shouting matches with drivers. It is usually best to avoid a fight, smile, wave and keep riding.

I also rode on the March Emeryville critical mass ride. It was small and needs more support! Emeryville is a fake city — an almost perfect representation of un-restrained capitalist development in which commerce and cars have swallowed human needs. Even with our small numbers, it was intoxicating to ride through the fake shopping mall “main street” lined with chain stores yelling “stop buying — you don’t need that stuff!” People in the stores looked at us like we were space aliens — not only were we not shopping, we weren’t even in cars! The city is a maze of freeway-like roads and massive parking lots with knots of irate, impatient drivers — totally unfriendly to bikes. How can Emeryville exist a mile from Berkeley and escape frequent protests and disruptions? I don’t know, but at the moment, Emeryville critical mass is our best chance to shake up Emeryville. The next three Emeryville rides are May 26, June 30 and July 28 — write these dates in your calendar and see you there if you live in the Bay Area!