Biking in San Francisco and public space conceptions, early 90s

The results of many months of research on San Francisco’s early 90s biking cultures and jumbled writing was boiled down to a short paper and presentation for the 2008 American Association of Geographers meeting. I was on a panel about “Urban know-how: Practice, Politics and Performance.” Since a couple of people have gotten in touch about this work, I thought I’d post the abstract in case anyone else out there is interested. I can email you my text. I am aiming to shape it up into something I might submit to a journal at the end of this summer. Abstract:

Every last Friday of each month for the last fifteen years, during rush hours, a pack of bicyclists has momentarily seized control of San Francisco’s streets. Many motorists are (still) caught off guard. The unsanctioned event has no obvious leader, nor a set route. Riding against the grain of the car-based systems of the city, participants hoot and holler, many times in costumes or, occasionally, in no clothes at all. The strategy is viral, as its adoption in hundreds of cities shows. “Critical Mass,” as it is popularly called, has been almost universally described in the media and the academia as a “movement” about delineating an urban space infused with greater biking rights and safety, while improving the environment. But the motivations and aesthetics of Critical Mass at its inception in 1992 reached much wider and deeper. This paper deals with the unique contours of a San Francisco urban culture in the 80s and 90s, in part interested in “temporary autonomy”, which could give rise to something like Critical Mass and in contrast to the shared global values that propelled Critical Mass to other cities. In other words, why did Critical Mass belong to San Francisco and why did it happen when it did? I will explain that Critical Mass started as part of a confluence of many disparate demands for public space in the city. It emerged from other flourishes in the making of new imaginative spaces for social justice causes, bike messenger labor, free speech and formless fun.

I should mention too that the final talk I gave focused mostly on the bike messengers and their claims for rights, and thus spaces to protest and to work. The bike messenger aspect situates Critical Mass in San Francisco’s early-90s milieu, which I think helps recover something out of the cacophony of today’s global phenomenon. Where Critical Mass has gone fifteen years later is a matter of much debate, but its history reveals some unexpected connections between local society and popular space ideas.


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