San Francisco Critical Mass Incident Illustrates the Problem With Modern Traffic

Many of you who are long time members of the cycling culture may be aware of a movement called Critical Mass. If you're not, you can read the wikipedia definition of the movement/phenomenon (linked to the left), but basically it's a bike ride, held on the last Friday of each month, that uses its size to take over the road from other forms of transportation, namely cars.

As you can imagine, this ride is very controversial, but it's hard to stop because there is no set organization or membership involved. Everyone who wants to participate simply shows up at the prescribed place and time, and they go and ride. That's it.

The motto of this ride is simple: "We aren't blocking traffic; we are traffic." But to a nation that is still under the impression that automobiles rule the streets, this is a problem. So Critical Mass tends to get a hard time in the mainstream press. But it also brings a lot of issues about the use of streets to the forefront: are streets simply places for cars to drive, and everyone else can use them at their own risk? Or are they commons, places for all to use no matter what mode of transportation you use?

Being of the latter mindset, I tend to be a fan of Critical Mass and the forced realization that traffic is about more than just cars.

Well, Critical Mass is getting a hard look in San Francisco, where it originated, after an incident at the end-of-March ride. Apparently, a family from out of town was driving into town to celebrate a birthday when they ran into the end, more or less, of the monthly ride. Apparently the driver, Susan Ferrando, revved her engine in annoyance at the riders not letting her pass, and then swerved out and hit a cyclist. She then attempted to drive off, but other cyclists surrounded her car to foil her escape while 911 was called. One of the riders apparently broke the rear window of her car.

Ferrando then told the press and anyone who would listen that she only bumped someone and that's why she was trying to drive off. She made the whole thing sound like the cyclists' fault.

There are two people at fault in this particular case, without looking at the bigger picture of the Critical Mass ride itself: Ferrando, for attempting a hit and run, and the cyclist who smashed her window. Both should be in jail.

Some may argue that Critical Mass is at fault for this incident - that the mob mentality that arises from such an event led to the incident getting out of control. I see it differently.

Modern automobile traffic IS the mob mentality. It's a perpetuated cycle of "strongest rules" and the idea that if everyone does something wrong, then that makes it right. That's why police don't stop people for speeding, failure to use turn signals, etc. EVERYONE does it. In fact, you can get ticketed for NOT speeding, because you're not "following the flow of traffic."

Critical Mass, on the other hand, is simply a case of the cyclists showing the motorists how it feels.

My point: traffic, and the insatiable need that people have to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, is the problem. The officials of this and every city that has traffic issues like ours (and that seems to be most of them) should be doing everything they can to slow traffic down, and to discourage the use of private automobiles.

Cars are the problem here, not the victim. When people die in car-related accidents, it's looked at as a necessary evil to keep people moving. But sit back and think about that: your son, daughter, mother, father, cousin, etc. dies in a car accident. But instead of taking action to fix the problem so that it doesn't happen any more, city officials shrug it off and find the blame with your relative - they did something wrong that got them killed.

I say the system got them killed, because the system is flawed both in practice and in intention.


  1. I am a fellow cyclist... but in no way do I support CM. The atmosphere and the attitude that CM generates is the same as rude drivers on a busy city street. In no way does it generate and effective message to any one driving a car that cyclists should be respected. Put yourself in the position of a car and then being rudely cut off by a another car. Your response is not polite or courtious, CM has the same effect, not the desired respect. If cyclist want to be respected we need to voice our needs, obey laws, and act with intelligence. The hooliganism of CM defeats any positive stigma attached bicycles. Sorry for the rant, but i just wanted to pass on my experience, both as a cyclists viewing CM and a cager driving through a demonstration.

  2. I can see and understand your point and opinion here. In fact, you and I are in complete agreement about what Critical Mass is, I think: bicyclists acting like motorists in traffic. I think that where we differ is whether that's a good thing.

    To my view, it is a good thing. Motorists need to learn several things: first, that they don't own the road. There are many other forms of transportation that need to be considered. Second, that their regular behavior on the road is detrimental and only increases the problems that exist.

    However, you do bring up a very interesting point: that of attitude. Cyclists who participate in CM may see themselves as simply showing motorists how it feels to be relegated to second-class status on the road, but motorists most certainly aren't going to see it that way.

    I think it's safe to say that motorist see bicycles in general as an annoyance on their "turf," and a ride like Critical Mass as an outright invasion of their turf. We've all had "Get on the sidewalk" or such comments yelled at us while riding, and that shows the attitude they have - bicycles don't belong on the road.

    The question is this, though: is Critical Mass hurting or helping this attitude? One can certainly argue that the progress San Francisco has made is in part due to events like Critical Mass showing just how much motorists do rule the road, and also just how bad a thing this is. One can also argue that Critical Mass does what you say - "defeats any positive stigma attached bicycles."

    I think both are probably true, depending on the audience. But I think personally that the positives of CM outweigh the negatives.

    I look at it this way, in a city where Critical Mass does not take place (at least, as far as I've been able to ascertain): would the presence of more cyclists point out the detrimental effects of too many cars?

    I personally ride my bike just as I would my car - where I want, when I want. I have no problem taking the lane when I feel it's necessary. I don't particularly care if someone has to wait a few seconds to go around me for traffic to clear in the oncoming lane if they think I'm going too slow. The law does not prohibit me from any of these things. In fact, the wording of the law implies that these things are expected.

    But as a cyclist in Columbus, a city with far fewer cyclists than San Francisco and other cities with flourishing CM rides, I have few supporters in my efforts. An event like Critical Mass would do much to point out just how many cyclists are out there and want the city's planning for traffic to cater to their needs as well as those of motorists.

    Civil disobedience is and has always been a way to get things done. The Civil Rights movement didn't get anywhere until minorities started to assert themselves, and I see Critical Mass as another form of this form of assertion.


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