Friday 31 October 2008

I feel afraid, I get harrassed. I'm not welcome there.

The title is a comment from someone involved in Critical Mass in San Francisco and reflects the lack of subjective safety experienced by that cyclist on the streets of San Francisco other than on Critical Mass day. The interview is a part of Ted White's 1999 film "We Are Traffic", which I have just re-watched.

It's interesting to watch this film again. The protesters are a product of their situation. I can understand them wanting their one day each month of dominating streets that are normally not pleasant to cycle on. They also make some very good points about wanting to rebuild community on the streets. There is a lot of good intention there. However, while they've made a leap of imagination in their environment, they still have relatively low aspirations. One of the interviewees says about cycling as transport "Not everybody can make that decision... it's really absurd to assume that they can." The problem in front of them is so big that even the protesters are aiming low (over here cycling crosses all demographic boundaries. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, male and female. Virtually everyone cycles. Not for all their journeys, but for a great number of them.)

I'm not a fan of "critical mass." It takes a confrontational line which unfortunately has resulted in alienation and conflict and while the views expressed in the video were generally very positive, I perceive that the confrontation has become the aim for some participants. Ultimately I feel it has amounted to very little. Most importantly, it's actually failed to create a true "critical mass." While the amount of shouting and hooting by those involved makes it sound huge, and the film is shot in such a way that there appear to be a huge number of cyclists, one of the riders in the film lets slip how many there are. He says that he counted and that there are 190-200 cyclists on the demonstration. He says "This is a big ride."

Critical mass in San Francisco has grown and now attracts an average of around 1000 participants (wikipedia). However, for a special event this is still not a largenumber given the population. San Francisco's population is over 3 million. 7 million if you include the metropolitan area.

Over here in the small city of Assen there are just 65000 people. However, between themthey make an average of more than 70000 cycle journeys every day. Critical mass is an event which really doesn't have a place in the Netherlands. There have been occasional events calling themselves "critical mass", but they're protesting about other things.

What we can never know is what might have happened in the 16 years that critical mass has been taking place in cities around the world if the participants had put their energies into taking note of where the truly successful cycling cultures are (i.e. here) and tried to replicate that success in their own countries. A thousand people spending a couple of hours once a month for 16 years amounts to over 40 man-years of effort.

For me, "We are traffic" is an interesting glimpse of another world. It's a well made film, but is limited simply because critical mass as a movement isn't offering much. However, 7 years earlier, Ted White made another film which I think is timeless and wonderful:

The conflict of the later film is missing and interviewees in this film are all glowing with enthusiasm about cycling.

The name "Critical Mass" came from "Return of the Scorcher", another Ted White film dating from 1992. It was used to describe when a group of Chinese cyclists forced their way into traffic in the film. You can see at this point that cycling is already under stress in China in the early 1990s. Once cyclists are forced to be in conflict with vehicles, the feelings expressed in the title of this blog post come to the fore. For many people this is a reason to want to be in a car. What's more, bicycles have in some instances been banned from streets. Cycling has unfortunately declined sharply in China since the film was made, but it was inevitable given what has happened in China.

"Return of the Scorcher" also visits the Netherlands. Amongst the interviews we hear a beautiful story from an old Dutch couple about their honeymoon by bicycle during the second world war (you can hear this interview at 19:30 in the video above). The Dutch cycling culture is far more healthy than the Chinese. Cycling here has increased since the film was made. The difference between this country and China is that the Dutch cyclists are being looked after in the way that infrastructure is designed. They are not expected to compete with cars on an unequal basis.

The equivalent scene of lots of cyclists crossing the roads at once in the Netherlands would be not of people having to get in the way of cars and cause them to stop, as in the Chinese example, but of the simultaneous green junctions which allow cyclists priority over all other traffic. Not only does this remove conflict on the streets, but as cyclists get a green light twice as often as drivers, it also increases the convenience of cyclists relative to drivers.

Perhaps the world would be a different place now if the name of the cycling protest had been taken from a different part of this film. One which presented cyclists in a less pressured situation, and within a country where cycling was being promoted. Perhaps if more notice had been taken of Michael Replogle's comment 22 minutes into the film that "Infrastructure tells you what to do. The way we design our streets tells you how to behave in those streets. It tells you about modes of travel to use and how to use them," then the result might have been different. Perhaps then we would see different patterns emerging in those nations where "critical mass" takes place, but where a true critical mass of cyclists still has not appeared.

Cycling needs to be for everyone, not just for a counter cultural minority.

To see infrastructure which really encourages cycling as a means of transport, come and visit us here in Assen. "We Are Traffic" is also watchable online. Also, both films are available to buy. Also note that I'm aware of the limitations regarding my crude man-years calculation.


Anonymous said...

I can understand the interviewee's comment about "Not everybody can make that decision".

An alarming number of people live in inefficient neighborhoods far far away from work and businesses. They have willingly chained themselves to the car and are themselves responsible for not being able to make the decision of cycling. The interviewee is merely stating the obvious.

The choice that you make in riding the bicycle is the choice that millions of Americans make in driving their cars. They achieve a similar sense of freedom as you do, only in an oxymoron sort of way.

I do agree that a critical mass is negative in its execution. Is it necessary? Think about it as a constant protest.

David Hembrow said...

Actually, I have sympathy with people who have taken those decisions.

I don't think most people think of the consequences of what they do. They simple go along with what other people do, and what their environment encourages.

In "Return of the Scorcher," Michael Replogle's comments that "Infrastructure tells you what to do."

He's right. Dutch people tend to plan their lives to use local shops and include bicycles as a means of transport because this what the infrastructure (and society) here tells them to do. Most of them haven't thought deeply about it either.

The same people reacting to conditions in the US will quite possibly live many miles from work and shops and now be suffering as are the family who feature in this TV programme

"There, but for the grace of God, go I."

I grew up in the car dominated societies of New Zealand and the UK. If I'd not somehow latched on to the idea that cycling was a good way of getting about, I could be in the same situation as that unfortunate family.

20 years ago an employer tried to get us to move to the US. I went and looked. House prices near where my work would be were absurd, and the only way of living somewhere nice would have been to live in just the sort of place you're talking about.

I said no. In different circumstances I might have said yes.

Anonymous said...


Well saved. I cant imagine living in suburbia, chained to the car like a house arrest ankle bracelet!

David Hembrow said...

I know exactly what you mean. However, we actually do live in suburbia here.

However, this is a Dutch version of suburbia. It's only about 2 km to the city centre and we've a choice of very pleasant routes.

Anonymous said...

I have never attended a critical mass ride. My feelings are more ambivalent about them. They may be confrontational. But isn't it essentially just another form of civil disobedience? Do you think civil disobedience has a place in bringing change?

Anonymous said...


If you adopt me, I'd happily move to the Netherlands. My parents may have an issue though but we can work through that rationally, cant we?

Anneke said...

Like David said, and I said before, Dutch people don't take the bike to make a point or anything, they (me included) never even think twice about getting on their bikes. It's just as natural, I imagine, as getting in a car is for Americans. Because there are bikepaths, bike crossings, traffic lights and things like that it's often just the easiest and safest way to travel, whatever your destination.

I wondered for some time about what a "critical mass" could be. And then I thought, why would they have to protest to ride their bikes? It made no sense to me, until I realised that not every country is like the Netherlands. :D

I've said that before, but it's true. If bicycling is just so ingrained in your consience you never even consider that it might be different elsewhere, and I imagine that that's the way many American motorists feel.

David Hembrow said...

Cyclingred, I think there is nothing wrong with non violent protest and civil disobedience.

However, protest should have an aim and work towards that aim. In the case of Critical Mass, I don't think that is happening.

I have nothing against the massers, but what is it for ?

If they simply want to have a monthly party on the streets and make a bit of noise, then they can then say they've achieved their aim.

If on the other hand what they want is to improve the lot of cyclists, and see more people cycling on the streets, then I think they've failed.

For a significant change to happen I think a change of tactics is also required. i.e. their time could be better spent doing other things.

Anonymous said...

David, thank you for this post. I've touched on the subject (how the movement is basically counter productive) on several blogs of Critical Mass riders, but never got through. And I understand.

You've laid it out perfectly, so I'll think I'll finally embark on this too and reference to your post on my blog.

Kevin Love said...

Last night I rode with CM in Toronto. Its not a protest here. When the mayor participates in an event, and the police block car traffic on side streets to facilitate it, it is fair to say that it is not a protest. Young mothers with their babies ride, children, old people, everyone.

Or if it is a protest, then the Queen's Birthday parade is also a protest. :)

Its just people celebrating Toronto's bicycle culture. Including a major win at Toronto City Council this week for bicycle infrastructure network expansion.

It is also the only recreational cycling that I ever do. Everything else is cycling to work, church, errands, etc.

I've got to have some fun in my life sometimes!

Harry Lieben said...

I agree with David that CM is probably not working as well as the organizers would like. Cyclists had better get organized and make sure that they are involved when new infrastructure is being planned or old roads renewed. Who else but an experienced cyclist can inform a city council better on how to build a safe and convenient infrastructure for other cyclists. The "Fietsersbond" (Cycling Union) in Holland is doing a very good job at this.

Anneke said...

@ Harry. Ah, but Dutch cyclists are not all members of the union. In fact I don't think I know anyone who is (and I also don't know anyone who doesn't bike, but that's another story). biking is just not part of a movement at all.

David Hembrow said...

I'm a member. The "Vogelvrije Fietser" (Fietsersbond magazine) is amongst the things on my reading list which helps me learn Dutch !

Adrienne Johnson said...

How about a San Franciscan getting in on this subject?

1st- SF does not have 3 million people in it . In 2007 we had about 770,000 (see wikipedia for San Francisco Population). Despite the big rep, we are truly a tiny place (49 square miles).

2nd- San Francisco is quite odd in that we have self contained suburbias within the city. The Sunset district in the western part of town is block after block after block of nothing but houses. Quite isolated and difficult to get in and out of.

3rd- Things in SF are very different in a lot of ways than what they were in 1999. Many things in the City were violent and charged that year, not just Critical Mass. Much of it was a result of huge demographic changes caused by waves of people moving here after making a ton of internet money and pricing the traditional working class San Franciscan out (this has caused a huge amount of frustration and conflict here).

No matter what anyone may think of Critical Mass (or Critical Mess as it can frequently be), SF has changed its idea of bicycling greatly as a result of it. When families bring their kids to ride in CM, when hundreds of people come from out of town each month to participate (you should see them pile out of the underground with their bikes) and when the locals decide to go with it instead of against it, then progress has been made.

I ride the streets of SF with my three kids in tow almost everyday. It is a challenge, but every time I do it, someone comes to talk to me about it and decides to give it a try. My bike commute is 21 miles round trip (+ 7 miles of cross bay train ride)and I am not unusual.

1999 was a long time ago. Things are changing. This year's Halloween CM was a non-event for the City. Nothing happened except a bunch of people put on silly clothes and rode around together. It didn't even make the news. And more and more people are riding. The bike shops sell out of everything. It is hard to find something to lock your bike up to in some places because the spots are taken by other bikes.

Someone asked what CM is for- visibility. When cyclists mass, they finally get seen and they can't be run off the road or yelled down or driven away. Because of that, we are finally getting some infrastructure- slowly, but it is happening.

Sorry that was so long.

David Hembrow said...

Adrienne, thank you for posting from San Francisco.

I'm sorry about the confusion about the population of San Francisco. 3 million is the figure given by Wikipedia as the "Urban" population, while your figure is the "City" population.

I last visited the city a little over 15 years ago. It's a great place, but I have to say it didn't look like somewhere particularly friendly to cyclists. I am glad to hear that progress is being made.

As for the rate of progress, CM has been going on for over 15 years now, and SF still has very limited cycling.

By comparison, the Fietsersbond had existed for 15 years when the video shown in this blog post was made in 1990.

Serious progress had been made since 1975, leading to conditions in that video which still don't exist in most of the world and a cycling rate nationally vastly higher than that which exists in any English speaking country even 18 years later. What's more, the video lays out aims for further improvement, all of which would appear to be being met.

Draw your own conclusion about which is the most effective strategy.