Critical mess

Starting in the early 1990s, on the last Friday of every month, bicyclists in San Francisco take to the road in the evening to flex their muscles — and to prove to cars that massed bicycles can create gridlock. (I always liken it to the fact that enough mosquitoes can kill a horse by draining it of all blood.) I was living in San Francisco during both my pregnancies and had this terrible fear that I’d go into labor on a Critical Mass evening, blocking my access to the hospital. As it happened, I avoided that outcome, but it was a worry that I always thought should have been unnecessary. That is, I don’t think a City should allow its streets to be rendered impassable on a monthly basis because of mob activity.

It turns out that I wasn’t so far afield in my worries about the mob mentality (as opposed to the bicyclist joie de vivre) behind Critical Mass. This past Friday, it turned into a terrorist attack on a family in a minivan:

It was supposed to be a birthday night out for the kids in San Francisco, but instead turned into a Critical Mass horror show — complete with a pummeled car, a smashed rear window and little children screaming in terror.

The spontaneous Critical Mass bike rides, in which thousands of free-spirited cyclists roam the city, have been a fixture on the last Friday night of the month since the early 1990s. But even bike-weary cops, who have seen their share of traffic disturbances and minor skirmishes, weren’t prepared for what happened during the latest exercise of pedal power.

Here’s the story:

Susan Ferrando, her husband, their two children and three preteens had come to San Francisco from Redwood City to celebrate the birthday of Ferrando’s 11-year-old daughter. They went to Japantown, where they enjoyed shopping and taking in the blooming cherry blossoms.

Things took a turn for the worse at about 9 p.m., when the family was leaving Japantown — just as the party of about 3,000 bikers was winding down its monthly red-lights-be-damned ride through the city.

Suddenly, Ferrando said, her car was surrounded by hundreds of cyclists.

Not being from San Francisco, Ferrando thought she might have inadvertently crossed paths with a bicycle race and couldn’t figure out why the police, who she had just passed, hadn’t warned her.

Confusion, however, quickly turned to terror, she said, when the swarming cyclists began wildly circling around and then running into the sides of her Toyota van.

Filled with panic, Ferrando said, she started inching forward until coming to a stop at Post and Gough streets, where she was surrounded by bikers on all sides.

A biker in front blocked her as another biker began pounding on the windshield. Another was pounding on her window. Another pounded the other side.

“It seemed like they were using their bikes as weapons,” Ferrando said. One of the bikers then threw his bike — shattering the rear window and terrifying the young girls inside.

All the while, Ferrando was screaming, “There are children in this car! There are children in this car!”

She had the presence of mind to dial 911 on her cell phone — and within minutes, the squad of motorcycle cops who were assigned to keep an eye on the ride descended on the scene.

Horrible as all of the above is, there’s actually more, which you can read here. By the way, I can virtually guarantee you that the same people involved in this incident are the people you’ll see at the types of rallies recorded here.

Hat tip: Michelle Malkin

UPDATE: The Chronicle has more on the story today, showing the bicyclists doing what looks like factual retrofitting (see my comment in the comment section below).

UPDATE II: John’s comment was so interesting, I followed up on it. The following are a few examples of “advisories” and “suggestions” from websites supportive of the critical mass phenom.

One site has detailed strategies for dealing with cars, none of which involve actually following the rules of the road, some of which are illegal, and all of which have the potential, when mixed with the cares that have a right to be on the road can end up being obstructionist and threatening:


When bicyclists take to the streets en masse, there will be a certain percentage of motorists who will not be amused. These motorists—a minority, to be sure—will have a hard time seeing a group of bicyclists as legitimate traffic, and may insist on forcing their way through the crowd. The interference of these frustrated individuals, trapped as they are in their cars, are a CONSTANT problem for Critical Mass. Tactics have to be developed, understood, and implemented by as many people as possible in order to ensure that this problem does not become too much of a drag on an otherwise fun and good-natured ride. Here are the ones we’ve found work.


Think of Critical Mass as a density. It works by forming a mass of bicyclists so dense and tight that it simply displaces cars. Anytime the ride begins to spread too thin, with areas large enough for a car to drive into, you have a potential trouble spot developing.

The simplest and easiest way to deal with this problem is to encourage people to be aware of what’s going on around them, and to act when they see things go awry. If a gap large enough for a car develops, someone needs to ride into it and call over a friend. If the head of the ride moves too fast and the Mass becomes too thin, someone in front needs to call out for people to slow down, and for the ride to regroup. The same goes for those at the tail of the ride, who may be riding so slow that the ride, again, spreads too thin. Diagrams on the route sheet pointing out trouble areas and regrouping points are a great way to bring all this across.

Density is vital in ensuring safety and a solid image of bicycling as practical, safe and fun for the ride’s participants. When Critical Mass is still passing through an intersection after the light has turned red, in rush hour traffic, it is important to justify the long wait for cross traffic by maintaining a steady mass of bicyclists riding through the intersection.


Corks are the diplomats of the ride. Their title comes from their function. Here’s how they work: one or two bicyclists block each lane of oncoming traffic as the ride goes through an intersection, making sure that even if a gap large enough for a car to drive through should develop, cars are stopped where they are. This tactic is especially effective if the cork takes a friendly, non-antagonistic stance with motorists, even holding up signs that say “thanks for waiting” and “honk if you like bikes!” Corks need to protect the rear of the ride, too, from cars turning into it. Of course, no one needs to be officially designated as a cork, and people will largely take on this role of their own initiative.

Red Lights

Should Critical Mass obey the same traffic laws that motorized traffic follows? Yes and no. For the most part, traffic laws were made for cars, as anyone who routinely bicycles through stop signs can attest, and they certainly weren’t written with large groups of bicyclists in mind. So the answer to this question is obvious: Critical Mass should bend or ignore existing traffic laws where the group’s safety and effectiveness will be served, and follow the law where it serves our interests and needs.

Red lights are a perfect example of this principle. When the head of the ride reaches a red light, it only makes sense to stop. This way, a) no one endangers themselves by riding into oncoming traffic, b) we allow motorists the simple courtesy of their right of way, and c) we give ourselves an opportunity to stop, regroup and form a solid Mass. But if, as Critical Mass passes through an intersection, the light changes, it does not make sense to break into two groups, and the ride should just continue through the intersection, shielded from the waiting cars by corks. (Yes, from a safety and legal point of view, it makes perfect sense for those who miss the light to stop, just as cars would. The practical effect of this “the law doesn’t apply to us” attitude is gridlock on a frightening scale, not to mention a vast increase in pollution from the idling cars stuck in this mess. –Ed.)

Breaking Mass

When the Mass thins out too much to justify holding an intersection through a red light, it can be useful for someone to yell out “BREAK MASS!” The first section of Critical Mass would continue through the intersection and the second part would wait for the light to turn green. If all goes well, the two groups will be reunited at the next light. This tactic is most often used when the Mass gets larger and less cohesive. (Emphasis mine.)

A Berkeley site shows, in charmingly optimistic fashion, the anarchist side of critical mass (ignoring the ugly side of anarchism):

Anarchism and Critical Mass

You certainly don’t have to be an anarchist to participate in Critical Mass, but like so many other things in life (from going on a picnic to making love), anarchist principles are in effect.

Anarchism is the belief that people are fundamentally good, and fully capable of organizing themselves to allow maximum freedom without oppression and exploitation. Critical Mass is considered an anarchistic event in that there are no designated leaders or hierarchy, and because people spontaneously self-organize to protect and facilitate the ride.

Bicycling already appeals to the anarchistic sense in that it is more free and natural (like hang gliding or sailing) than driving a motor vehicle, and because each individual does ahz own work for travel in a way that essentially does not oppress others or the environment. Motor vehicles are fundamentally oppressive in numerous ways: from the noise, pollution, and danger that they inflict upon the commons, to the intense exploitation of labor and environmental resources that they require, to the anger and violence they engender.

Because Anarchism is the most credible and natural way to ethically organize a society, those who choose to be oppressors (who profit from exploiting workers and the environment) have always used their worst repression for Anarchists, and subsequently use predictable public relations strategies to demonize anything that liberates people via demonstrating anarchism in action.

This manifests itself with relation to Critical Mass in a number of ways. For one, there is no end to the frustrated reactionaries who claim that Critical Mass causes traffic havoc by disobeying traffic laws. This is most ironic as a critical mass of motorcars causes traffic havoc and indeed, mayhem and murder, everyday, and those participants routinely disobey traffic laws. Further, the traffic laws and traffic infrastructure (lights, lanes, parking, bridges, etc) are set up almost exclusively for the benefit of motorcars over bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. The idea that streets are solely for maximizing motorcar traffic is rooted in fascism. Why can’t the commons be used for the many wonderful ways of people, as well? Even as Anarchists are falsely characterized as terrorists, more people are run down by cars than are killed by firearms, and the number one reason people say they aren’t walking and biking more is fear of cars. And let’s not even discuss foreign policy.

And one site, in a single paragraph, makes us all aware of the Utopian idiocy powering the whole Critical Mass movement:

We know that you aren’t responsible for the organization of our cities around motorized traffic, and if we’ve contributed to your delay, WE’RE SORRY! But maybe you can take this opportunity to reflect on what a world without cars would be like. Or better yet, join us next time!

A world without cars (and feel free to join in): a world without access to medical care (leaving all women, like me, afraid to die in childbirth, as I would have with my second had I not had swift access to a hospital); a world without easy access to food; a world with less food altogether; a world of inbreeding and parochialism; and a world of minimal education. There’s a reason why, in every place in the world that has been exposed to cars, and that has achieved even the minimal economic wherewithal get cars, cars have instantly blossomed and multiplied. As anyone who has lived an old-fashioned, limited agrarian life knows, cars are a good thing and one of the blessings of the modern era. I’d love future cars to be less polluting, but I shudder at the thought of a world without them.

UPDATE III: Thomas Lifson, in a post about Critical Mass that is kind enough to link to me, makes a good point: although the bikers’ behavior was extreme, it wasn’t anomalous. They routinely harass drivers. | digg it