Critical Mass

by Jacob Schneider on February 24, 2006

Fourteen years ago, Chris Carlsson and a few dozen of his cycling friends decided to take back the streets of San Francisco from cars in a spontaneous demonstration of the might of bikes. They enjoyed the ride so much that they decided to make it a monthly tradition. 162 months later, Critical Mass—as the motley collection of bike commuters, recreational cyclists, and the occasional hooligan is known—is a Bay Area landmark. Several hundred cyclists routinely participate in the controversial ride, which never has a set route or theme. The concept is so popular that similar rides have spread to at least 300 cities throughout the world by word of mouth. “With in three months of the first ride here, there was a ride in Poznan, Poland,” said Carlsson.

But the road hasn’t always been smooth for the Critical Mass riders, as Carlsson and fellow cycling enthusiasts recalled at a film screening Thursday night at Soma’s Varnish Fine Art. The even featured a set of three films by filmmaker Ted White, a past Critical Mass participant. “We Are Traffic” was filmed in the late 1990s from within Critical Mass rides, chronicling a period of tension between cyclists and police officers. Additionally, in “Return of the Scorcher,” White documents the role of bikes in several cultures throughout the world, including the Netherlands and China.

The event was the first film screening by Green Planet Films, an alternative online DVD rental service specializing in independent environmental films.

Local cyclists credited the awareness raised by Critical Mass rides for recent improvements to cycling infrastructure throughout the Bay Area.

“We’ve achieved a critical mass of places to bike to and lanes to bike in,” said Gregory Sutter, who’s participated in Critical Mass rides since 1998. “If you only have 55 mile-per-hour, two-lane roads, no one’s going to bike.”

Carlsson said the increase in bike lanes and respect from motorists was hard fought. Because of the free-form nature of the rides, which are led by whoever rides at the front of the pack, they have often drawn the ire of authorities.

“Every Critical Mass has had to contend with harassment from the police,” he said. “The question is when are they going to realize that the cheapest thing to do is nothing.”

However, he added that the purpose of the event is to build a community of bikers and a safe place to ride. He also said that the most rewarding moments in his long Critical Mass career are those in which cyclists have a chance to raise awareness among drivers.

“About a year into the experience, I was going down the street early in the ride,” he said. “I saw a total stranger straddling her bike and explaining it to a bystander. That’s what Critical Mass is all about.”

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