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The Night That Changed San Francisco Cycling Forever

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Police officers throw bicycles into the back of a truck in downtown San Francisco.
Police confiscate bicycles and arrest bikers during a Critical Mass ride, July 25, 1997. (Lance Iversen/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Read a transcript of this episode.

Look around San Francisco’s streets today, and you’ll see all sorts of infrastructure designed to make bicycling in the city safer. Lime-green bike lanes crisscross the city’s roads, barriers discourage drivers from entering bike lanes, and designated routes and slow streets let riders get away from cars more easily. In 2021, San Franciscans made 4.7 million trips on bicycles, and the city boasts more than 463 miles of bike lanes, paths and trails.

But just 30 years ago, none of this existed. There were just a few bike lanes, no slow streets and not nearly as many people on bikes.

“There was literally no place where the bicycle was accepted to be on the road. Every square inch of the width of Market Street was full with motorized vehicles, buses or streetcars,” said Chris Carlsson, author and historian.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Carlsson would commute down Market Street to an office on Rincon Hill, right by the Bay Bridge.

“There was a lot of abuse hurled at you, verbally mostly. But there would also occasionally be the aggressive motorist who would actually try to cut you off or bump you off the road,” said Carlsson.

Other cyclists who rode during that time remember the situation similarly.

“You weren’t allowed to bicycle in San Francisco in the early ’90s,” said Hugh D’Andrade, a friend and collaborator of Carlsson’s. “I mean, you certainly could do it, it was legal, but you were taking your life into your own hands.”

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One night, on the last Friday of the month in September of 1992, Carlsson and a group of friends decided to take action. They planned to gather at Embarcadero Plaza, right by the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco, and ride home together. They called the ride “The Commute Clot.”

“We were asserting our right to the streets, essentially. One of the slogans that came out that period was that we’re not blocking traffic, we are traffic. So if you’re sick of being treated like crap on the streets of the city, show up for this thing and ride home in a group. About 50 people showed up,” said Carlsson.

They ended up riding southwest along Market Street to Zeitgeist, a bar in the mission. Carlsson said the experience was euphoric. The group made plans to do another Commute Clot the next month.

This was the beginning of what became known as Critical Mass — a group bicycling event that is often referred to as an “organized coincidence” or a “leaderless phenomenon.” That’s because for the last 30 years the ride has met at Embarcadero Plaza on the last Friday of every month and flooded the city with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of cyclists riding together in one or sometimes multiple dense packs, despite the fact that it has no leadership, no formal organization and no planned route. It’s also spread outside of San Francisco. Chris Carlsson estimates more than 350 cities across the world hold Critical Mass rides.

The ride also played a pivotal role in the evolution of the city’s robust bicycle network. But Critical Mass didn’t do it alone. In the early ’90s, right when Critical Mass was getting its start, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition also was forming.

Working together, separately

Today the bicycle coalition is a political organizing powerhouse that advocates for safer cycling and alternative transportation policy in San Francisco. But back then, it was a nascent nonprofit meeting in the back of a Chinese restaurant called The Pot and Pan in the Inner Sunset.

“The people who made decisions were whoever showed up,” said Dave Snyder, who was elected as the coalition’s first executive director in 1991. “They elected me executive director with a salary of $0 to help get the organization started.”

Critical Mass and the bicycle coalition have similar goals: raising awareness and making the streets safer for people on bicycles. But they couldn’t be more different in how they work toward that. While Critical Mass is simply an event — a raw, unmediated expression of the frustration cyclists feel at being second-class citizens on the city’s streets — the bicycle coalition is a more policy-focused group with its eyes set on changing things from within City Hall.

“I think the bicycle coalition has always been a mainstream group representing the average person who would like to ride a bike on the streets but can’t because they’re not safe enough,” said Snyder.

Chris Carlsson went to one of the early bicycle coalition meetings in August 1992, and tried to get them to endorse his idea for the Commute Clot.

“We decided that we would not endorse it, but we would tell people about it. That it wasn’t something that we [could] control, but that it was an important cultural event. So we would make sure everybody knew about it, but that would be the extent of our involvement,” said Snyder. “When you’re a nonprofit that has a legal responsibility, you don’t want to take any responsibility for a ride that you can’t control.”

A group of cyclists happily riding through San Francisco streets together.
Critical Mass participants bike from Justin Herman Plaza to Candlestick Park in one of the earliest bicycle rides on the city’s streets, May 27, 1994. (Photo By Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Even though the coalition said no, Critical Mass began picking up steam. By the mid-’90s, thousands of people would participate in Critical Mass rides every month. Carlsson says one reason for the growth of the ride was that anyone could make the ride what they wanted it to be.

“So you didn’t have to adopt a dogma, either political or religious. You could just come and you really only needed to be interested in riding your bike,” said Carlsson. “Then you have the actual euphoric experience of riding through the streets in a group of bicycles. It changes the auditory environment, it changes the olfactory environment, everything is different. It’s really a surprise the first time you do it.”

Tension grows

But the cold reality of being stopped by those bikes in Friday rush-hour traffic as Critical Mass passed by was not as serene an experience for people in cars and buses. Imagine trying to drive home on a Friday night, and in addition to the normal traffic, thousands of bicyclists are streaming in front of you. You’re stopped at an intersection and watching as the traffic light goes from green to red to green again, and you don’t go anywhere.

Critical Mass rides sometimes involve a practice called “corking,” where a group of riders stand at an intersection and block traffic while the rest of the ride passes. Depending on the size of the ride, drivers can be held up for around 15 or 20 minutes. In the early days of Critical Mass, the San Francisco Police Department would actually assist the ride in blocking traffic while the bicyclists passed.

As Critical Mass grew in size through the years, so did the amount of time drivers were obligated to wait for the mass. People got frustrated. Drivers would try to push through the mass, screaming at cyclists while they attempted to inch their car through the intersections. Cyclists would respond by yelling back, or pounding on a car hood. Sometimes these interactions became physically violent.

Critical Mass soon gained a reputation for being aggressive and antagonistic. Carlsson says he thinks the ride was often portrayed unfairly in the media.

“The idea that we went out attacking cars … that never happens in Critical Mass. People might respond to a car that is trying to run them over by hitting them, or smashing windows on some occasions. That’s happened. But not unprovoked. It’s always been because a motorist loses it and decides they can just ram through the bikes with their car,” said Carlsson.

The cyclists thought of themselves as part of traffic, not causing it. The thinking: When traffic is caused by cars, it’s normal. When it’s caused by bicycles, it’s treated as something to be stopped. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but what about all the other times you’re inconvenienced and you just think that’s normal?” said Carlsson.

Carlsson pushes back against the idea that Critical Mass was about a sort of class war between people on bikes and people in cars. Rather, he says, it was intended to be celebratory and invitational. They wanted people in the cars to join them.

“People in their cars are just like us. We’re just like them. We’re in a car on another day, we just don’t want to admit it,” said Carlsson.

Cutting a deal

Things took a turn when Willie Brown was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1996.

“I became mayor, and I said, ‘That is not subject to acceptance, period. You violate the law by running red lights, disrupting the streets. You are subject to be prosecuted,'” said Brown in an interview with KQED in January 2023. “So I went to war with them.”

Brown wanted Critical Mass to leave at a later time and follow a police-approved route.

“They disrupted the whole goddamn town,” Brown recalled.

He tasked City Supervisor Michael Yaki with trying to bring Critical Mass to heel. The bicycle coalition took notice.

Dave Snyder, then executive director of the bicycle coalition, got a call from a friend who worked in public relations.

“He said, ‘Hey, Dave, they’re talking about Critical Mass and bicyclists in the paper every day, and they never mentioned the Bicycle Coalition.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, isn’t that great?’ And there was silence on the other end. He goes, ‘No, no, that’s not great. You need help.’ And he worked with us to talk about how we could take advantage of all this attention to promote our agenda,” recalled Snyder.

Since Critical Mass didn’t have any formal leadership, Supervisor Yaki reached out to the next logical choice: the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

For years, the coalition had been pressing for bike lanes on some of the city’s biggest thoroughfares, but Snyder said the plan was just gathering dust. All of a sudden, they had leverage, and hearings on those bike lanes were on the table.

In exchange for holding hearings on building some of the first bike lanes in the city, Supervisor Yaki asked the bicycle coalition to make sure Critical Mass would leave later and follow a police-approved route.

“The bicycle coalition people said, ‘Well, yeah, we can tell them that, but they’re not gonna listen,’” said Snyder. “And I think they thought we were being coy, that we were telling him that because we wanted to keep an official arm’s-length distance. But we weren’t being coy. They did not listen to us, and we knew that would be the case.”

Cyclists ride through the streets as part of a Critical Mass event on July 25, 1997. (Courtesy of Ted White)

The city didn’t realize that nobody, not even the bike coalition, had power over the mass. But the coalition did get their meetings, and those bike lanes eventually did get built.

Snyder was surprised. “One of the aides to Willie Brown was talking with me about the hearings that they were holding, and I asked her, ‘So what’s changed? Two years ago, I couldn’t get a hearing on any of this stuff,’” said Snyder. “And she just laughed and she said, ‘5,000 people in the streets, Dave. That’s what changed.’”

Carlsson remembers when Yaki announced that the city had reached a deal with the Bicycle Coalition. “It just meant nothing to us. We knew you’re gonna have no effect on anything other than potentially producing some serious chaos. And there was major chaos that night,” said Carlsson.

It set the stage for the most chaotic and violent night in San Francisco Critical Mass history.

July ’97

On July 25, 1997, it’s estimated that 5,000 cyclists showed up at Embarcadero Plaza for the ride. Besides the unusually large number of riders, something else was different that night: The police had set up a public-address system. Police Capt. Dennis Martel spoke to the crowd, trying to project his voice above a chorus of boos from the cyclists, imploring them to follow the police-approved route, which was published in newspapers days before.

Then-Mayor Willie Brown also addressed the crowd. He, too, was met with jeers. Suffice to say, nobody followed the police-approved route that night. The cyclists felt indignant that the police were trying to co-opt their ride.

An African American man wearing a suit and black fedora makes an announcement into a microphone.
San Francisco’s then-mayor, Willie Brown, addresses a a crowd of thousands of cyclists on July 25, 1997. (Courtesy of Ted White)

“All the bicyclists are booing [Brown] and he is really pissed. You could tell he’s really pissed. And he walks off the little stage they have and apparently he tells the cops, ‘Shut it down.’ And so they tried and they couldn’t because there was just too many cyclists and everybody just went in every direction,” remembered Carlsson.

Dave Snyder recalls the night as being utterly wild.

“Five thousand people divided into 10 groups of 500 on average. Massive clogs of bicycles were all over downtown. It completely messed with traffic in downtown San Francisco for a couple of hours on that Friday,” recalled Snyder.

Footage of the night from the bicycle documentary We Are Traffic shows police mounted on motorcycles declaring the event an unlawful assembly and threatening to ticket and arrest cyclists and impound their bikes.

A San Francisco Chronicle article describing the night of July 25, 1997, reads sort of like a war report:

At 8:35 p.m. at Sacramento and Montgomery streets, police formed a skirmish line of a dozen officers with a backup of several dozen more. As the first of the cyclists were put into arrest wagons, a crowd of more than 150 bikers chanted, ‘Let them go.’

At Fifth and Howard, a rider said that a motorist deliberately swerved into him, flattening the rear wheel of his bike. At the same corner, police said a cyclist reached into the driver’s side of a stopped vehicle and socked the man behind the wheel.

Near Civic Center, an officer ticketed cyclist John Bruno for running a red light — and then warned him, ‘If I were you, I’d get out of here. It’s out of control.’

A San Francisco police officer kneels on the neck of a cyclist while making an arrest during a Critical Mass event on July 25, 1997. (Courtesy of Ted White)

One scene from that night includes a police officer kneeling on the neck of a woman, as the crowd shouts for them to stop.

At another intersection, the police encircled about 100 cyclists and conducted a mass arrest. People were booked on charges of failure to disperse, unlawful assembly and blocking traffic, but none of them were convicted. One cyclist who was arrested that night later sued and won against the city for illegally declaring an unlawful assembly and arbitrarily arresting the cyclists.

When the dust settled, it was clear that San Francisco’s cycling community was demanding change — and they would not be ignored or suppressed any longer.

Reimagining San Francisco’s streets

Even though the bicycle coalition worked hard to distance itself from Critical Mass, it ended up being one of the greatest beneficiaries from the chaos of July 1997.

“A few months after the July 1997 ride, I was in the elevator with Willie Brown in City Hall and I said, ‘Mr. Mayor, our membership has grown 50% since you cracked down on Critical Mass. I haven’t had a chance to thank you for that! Thank you, Mr. Mayor.’ And he laughed and said, ‘You’re welcome.’”

The events of July 25, 1997, drew attention to the issues the coalition had been fighting for for years, and showed there was a large, passionate electorate that wanted safer streets in the city.

“It just drew attention to the issue like nothing else could,” said Snyder.

It was the start of the reimagining of San Francisco’s streets.

Bicyclists zoom by in bikes lanes going both directions along San Francisco's Embarcadero at sunset.
San Francisco’s Critical Mass, a mass bicycle ride that takes place on the last Friday of each month, celebrates its 30th anniversary on Sept. 30, 2022, in San Francisco. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

“Valencia Street was the first example where the city traffic engineers took out a traffic lane to put in a bike lane and traffic wasn’t completely messed up. They called it the ‘Valencia epiphany.’ Truly, within the [San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency], that’s what they called it. With the support of the bicycle coalition and some key members of the Board of Supervisors, they started doing it all over the city,” said Snyder.

Paradoxically, the decentralized, brash and confrontational Critical Mass gave rise to the political organizing machine that is the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition we know today, and the maze of bike lanes that snake their way around the city.

“That wouldn’t have been possible if you hadn’t had a mass seizure in the streets by bicyclists for years and years on end every last Friday of the month. And it started in San Francisco and it’s grown throughout the world,” said Carlsson.

Today, Critical Mass in San Francisco is far less well-attended, even for the 30th anniversary ride, where hundreds, not thousands, of people showed up. It still has no leaders, and many of the original riders stopped going years ago. Carlsson calls it a zombie ride — it just exists on its own.

A man with a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and a suit sits astride his custom bicycle constructed of a playground-style spring horse mounted to a BMX bike.
Cyclist Slim Buick sits astride his custom bike on the 30th anniversary of Critical Mass on Sept. 30, 2022, in San Francisco. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

Group rides today

Since Carlsson and his friends rode home together in 1992, there has been an explosion of group rides in the Bay Area. East Bay Bike Party and San José Bike Party are similar to Critical Mass, only with more rules. The bike party stops at red lights, posts their route beforehand, and have designated stopping and regrouping areas so people can meet back up with the ride if they get separated. These regrouping areas are also often sites for dance parties among the thumping sound systems and flashing lights people adorn their bikes with.

In Richmond, Rich City Rides is focused on promoting healthy and active lifestyles in the city through cycling. They’re also working to bring everyone to an activity that is often seen as being overwhelmingly white and male.

A group of people pose with their bicycles, one person holds theirs aloft.
Riders gather at the Richmond BART Plaza for a ride commemorating the third anniversary of a bike lane pilot on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, organized by Rich City Rides. (Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman/KQED)

“We focus intentionally on making sure that minorities are welcome and feel comfortable when they are at our space or at our activities in general,” said Dani Lanis, project manager with Rich City Rides. “There’s no aggression whatsoever. In fact, it’s all about inclusion, inclusivity and making sure that everybody feels comfortable, including kids.”

Rich City Rides also hosts a Black wellness hub, which has talking circles for the community, like Black Men Tea Talk Tuesday and Black Women Wellness Wednesday.

Lanis says that Rich City Rides will tailor their route according to the needs of the slowest or least experienced person on the ride. “We have little ones with us often, and so we could have a whole plan for where to ride on a day, and five minutes before we take off, if a bunch of 7-year-olds show up, we will totally change the route because all of our routes are dictated on who is the slowest person in the ride.”

At a recent ride celebrating the third anniversary of a bike-lane pilot program on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, Candace Peters of Oakland said it’s exactly that type of atmosphere that brought her out for her first ride across the bridge.

“This group doing it brought me out and motivated me to do it, so I probably wouldn’t do it by myself. I feel like I won’t get lost, I feel like I won’t get confused, I feel like if anything goes wrong, I can have help. I can kind of see what it’s like, and so when I want to do it by myself, I’m already aware of what I’m getting into and what I need to do and how to get there and how to get back,” said Peters.

Gesturing toward a bubble machine mounted onto the rack of a nearby bicycle, she added, “Bubbles make bike rides more fun.”

Cycling in the Bay Area today

Recent events thrust the issues Critical Mass originally organized around back into the spotlight. Earlier this month, people in cars intentionally attacked cyclists in a string of incidents over a single weekend. People in cars would open their doors into cyclists while they were riding, causing them to crash. Two people were seriously injured. Many of these people were on their way to or leaving the East Bay Bike Party. The Oaklandside reported there were 16 incidents of people being attacked that weekend, and that over 800 people turned out for a solidarity ride the following weekend.

This has led people in the Bay Area cycling community to renew calls for more protections for cyclists — like protected bike lanes — continuing the work that Critical Mass and the bicycle coalition started 30 years ago.

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