Critical Mass June 2010. Photo by flickr/roy_
June 2010 Critical Mass, San Diego. Photo by flickr/roy_

The question about critical mass comes up more and more often in San Diego: is it effective, and does it accomplish anything? I would say that it has, in some way, accomplished something. It has brought cycling to the forefront. Where things were an anomaly, that is, us crazy bike riders all out in traffic, we are now recognized, of course in concert with other’s efforts. The police, who were often anti-cyclist, or in some cases, rationally ignorant of our status, now pay attention. And, critical mass has actually bridged gaps and built new niches.

The problem now however is its extreme size. With this size comes the potential to fizzle and attract the negative aspects of mob mentality. Privately I lean toward wanting critical mass to fizzle away because any crowd this large is going to attract extremists of many types. Both publicly and privately, critical mass appears to be drawing the ire of many here in San Diego. It seems that the local news, participants of social media such as yelp.com, facebook.com  and myspace.com all have groups opposed to the idea of critical mass. It seems that even private groups are beginning to take shape and demand what critical mass is loathe to produce: organization and direction. It could be said, that it’s time to take critical mass to near Absolute Zero and give it a some direction.

Why? The break over of harm versus good has been breached.

I for one do not concern myself with the “delay” of people in cars. For one, it’s a short delay, two it’s Friday night and most are not in a death struggle to get to work, three..the choice to drive in traffic is a choice. Many things cause delays such as a parade, a dui accident, or a group bicycle ride. A delay is a delay is a delay. The delay of a car is probably the same, in context, to the delay I have while riding when someone decides to park in the bike lane, or attempts to squeeze to make a right turn and inevitably gets stuck. I also don’t buy into the idea that those among us who ride critical mass are holding up people and thus make all cyclists look bad. When a group of people is downgraded in rights and treatment due to the actions of others, the problem is NOT the people, but rather it is those who cast judgment and perception.

So what actually is the harm being caused by critical mass in San Diego? I suspect it is a lack of ability to stay cohesive and the violent antics of individuals who use the group as a mask to behave in a way that is…wrong. Coupled with the lack of will power to control/confront those that do this. I’m not talking about a yelling match, nor delays. It’s the spitting, kicking and physical confrontations that have to stop. When someone is at the fountain talking “U lock justice bitches”, they need to be singled out and sent packing. With the advent of nearly everyone having some form of digital documentation at hand; this is no longer “a story”, but it becomes one when irrational individuals take out their anger on cyclists on the streets.

I can tell the difference between someone who didn’t see me, and someone who cut me off on purpose. So can most others. But, put in context of a crowd, you then run into a whole new dynamic. This creates a martyr syndrome. This puts a single person as the spokesperson to the crowd, even if the crowd wasn’t involved in that selection. If you have to ride critical mass with a mask, if you have to ride it with a u-lock for empowerment, if you have to ride in a pack so you can descend like wolves; you need to get the fuck out of critical mass.

People have, over time, attempted to slow the mass, coral it into a peaceful ride and sway it into a productive direction. It was and is highly successful in San Francisco. The problem in San Diego is too many people holding onto an anarchist point of view. We don’t want anarchy on the streets but it’s what we have now. And if you hold fast to the ideal that it’s all about the individual, you’ll stand alone in court, right? If you grip to the idea it’s “not meant to be organized”, you’ll lay under the car and not ask for help, right? Organizing critical mass is not the death of it, it’s part of what you’re looking for. It’s the evolving, the growing, the changing of something. The quest for organized and respected rules and rights for the cyclist. The ability to co-exist on streets with cars. The ability to ask for and get help from law enforcement if we request it. Others are simply fatalistic. “We can’t organize” or “it’s to hard”. If you’re not willing to put in work, then perhaps you don’t belong?

So, let it fizzle or keep it alive? It’s time now to get past the anger of years of being second hand citizens and now to focus the desires of a demonstrated core of 500 cyclist into productive grounds. That, or find a new party to play out. Bike riding is fun. It should remain so. But, it takes work. It takes work to make it more available to others, to defend what it has a right to, and it takes work to make it better. The core five hundred of critical mass seem to have a certain amount of energy and dedication. That core could put the energy into the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, or to sit on the floor at city council meetings, or attend the next trial for a hit and run driver. If one ride bikes to those events and see how effective it is. Either make CM better, or redirect it to better ends.

I’ve experienced critical mass for eight years now in this city. I know what it is. I was there it when the “mass” was twenty people. I was there when the mass grew to two hundred people. I was there when the mass was redirected to the sewers to listen to concerts. I was there when the police decided to lay down people like it was a political convention. What is frustrating for me is to see so much wasted potential. It doesn’t have to even exist anymore, except that it seems the only common place we all meet to congregate as cyclists. But I think it’s time to move on from the mass.