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San Francisco first Critical Mass as a challenge to pro-automobile urban planning, USA

Car and oil industries helped to shape the city of San Francisco around the private vehicles. Within this context, in the early 1990s a world famous form of cycling protests appeared: The “Critical Mass”.


This is a conflict on the use of urban space and on the means of urban transport. By 1930 in San Francisco, car based transportation benefitted from giant public expenditures, even when they were being used by a relatively small minority of population. The investment on car infrastructure was far greater than the investment made in public transportation. Also, the electric street cars were left aside and the streets where they operated taken by the private vehicles [4]. One graduate student Miller McClintock became a prominent traffic researcher, in 1925 in his thesis: “street traffic control” he wrote that “widening streets would merely attract more vehicles to them”, “the automobile is a waste of space compared to the streetcar” and describe the automobile as “the greatest public destroyer of human life” [4]. But two years later his perspective radically changed after being hired by Studebaker’s Vice President (automobile manufacturer) to head up the new “Albert Russel Erskine Bureau for Street Traffic Research”. After these two years he wrote an article called “Curing the Ills of San Francisco Traffic”: “… it is recognized that an ultimate requirement for the solution of street and highway congestion is to be found in the creation of more ample street area” [4]. He became one of the most recognized authorities on traffic planning, now with a pro-automobile vision. By that time, Ford was already a growing business with an office in one of the most famous squares. A fair made in New York city in 1934 “the world of tomorrow” built by General Motors, exhibited a vision of “San Francisco in 1999”, to redesign San Francisco as a Corbusian city, with elevated roadways and highways. In the spring of 1937, Shell oil company combined McClintock`s traffic expertise with the stage designer Norman Bed Geddes to build a scale model of “the automobile city of tomorrow”.  The City of Tomorrow, a model created in 1937 to promote Shell Oil Company’s new “motor-digestible”

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:San Francisco first Critical Mass as a challenge to pro-automobile urban planning, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:California
Location of conflict:San Francisco
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Infrastructure and Built Environment
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Urban development conflicts
Specific commodities:Land
Ecosystem Services
Disproportionate use of urban space by cars. The commodity casing the conflict is cars, and urban planning at the service of the cars.
Project Details and Actors
Project details

By 1996, the Critical Mass of San Francisco reached 2,000 people. And in July 1997 reached 5,000 people off course; it was not anymore a bicycle ride of 60 people. It has been accused of creating traffic congestion. The answer for these critics is now a famous phrase: “Critical Mass isn’t blocking traffic, but we are traffic”. A criticism of the perception of the cars as owners of the public road.

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Type of populationUrban
Start of the conflict:25/09/1992
Company names or state enterprises:Shell Oil Company from United States of America
Studebaker from United States of America - McClintock financing
General Motors (GM) from United States of America
Relevant government actors:o San Francisco Police Department
o Department of Parking and Traffic
o SF Bicycle Advisory Committee
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:o
o SF Bike Coalition:
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Informal workers
Local ejos
Social movements
Recreational users
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Land occupation
Media based activism/alternative media
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
A good example of non-violent direct action
Environmental ImpactsPotential: Other Environmental impacts, Air pollution, Noise pollution
Other Environmental impactsUrban land use at the service of motor vehicles
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood
Potential: Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusProposed (exploration phase)
Conflict outcome / response:Strengthening of participation
Proposal and development of alternatives:Xerography
Critical Mass Alliances with other cities
The critical Mass has been adapted for different purposes: "Clitoral Mass" a feminist ride. ""World Naked Bike ride". And each city has adapted the concept of critical mass to its needs.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:This movement has trascended generations and countries keeping the name of "critical mass", to enforce cyclists rights. Its open re-interpretation and non hierarchical structure makes it open to all.
The riding itself is a reivindication of the bicycle, an anarchic type of using the streets that have been non designed by bicycles. And the main role, might be in posing questions on urban planning and the oil industry by the ones who are riding, and also the pedestrians, while drivers of motor vehicles are watching (and welcome to join).
Nevertheless, it has received critics about non being succesful in involving the working class in bicycles, that are being riding in the streets for decades.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

[10] How to make a critical mass
[click to view]

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[2] Furness, Z. (2007). Critical Mass, Urban Space and Vélomobility. Mobilities, 2(2), 299–319
[click to view]

[9] Furness, Z. (2010). One less car.

[15] Cabezas, D. (2016). La revolución silenciosa. Barcelona: UOC.

[1] How to make a critical mass. Lessons and Ideas from the San Francisco Experience
[click to view]

[4] Automobiles Take Over San Francisco Streets
[click to view]

[5] Highway revolts in the United States
[click to view]

[7] Critical Mass definition. Wikipedia
[click to view]

[11] Critical Mass essays, flyers, images from San Francisco, 1992-1998. (and a few from the 21st Century), by Chris Carlsson, Jim Swanson, Hugh D'Andrade and friends
[click to view]

[click to view]

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Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[3] San Francisco Critical Mass FAQ
[click to view]

[6]We are traffic documentary
[click to view]

[8] Ted White's documentary : Return Of The Scorcher
[click to view]

20 years of San Francisco critical mass
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Sandra La Rota, Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona.
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2850
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