Critical Mass celebrates 30th anniversary with bike ride through San Francisco

Critical Mass, a monthly street demonstration in San Francisco that was rooted in controversy, celebrated its 30th anniversary Friday night.

At its peak, it drew thousands of people and caused traffic jams and headaches for commuters. But the event has evolved over time.

The tone and turnout are very different in recent years compared to the past.

The mood now upbeat and some said Critical Mass has changed San Francisco for the better.    

"Happy 30th anniversary," one bicyclist yelled out during a champagne toast celebrating this milestone. A bicycle ride that kicks in gear on the last Friday of every month at San Francisco's Embarcadero. 

Advocates describe it as a joyous mass seizure of the streets by bicyclists to raise awareness and improve safety. It's a leaderless ride without a route.  

Bicyclist Fennel Doyle said she's seen a difference over the15 years she's participated in Critical Mass,"Seeing many more families on bikes."

On this night, the tone and turnout in sharp contrast to the past. More than 100 people participated for this milestone celebration.  

In decades past, the event some describe as a movement, drew thousands of riders.

They blocked traffic during the evening commute as was the norm then. 
It led to confrontations with drivers.  

Police arrested bicyclists.

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One advocate said the conflict and controversy brought change.

"That change has led to the visibility of biking.  And that has led to biking as something that is important to San Francisco. 
In my opinion, it makes San Francisco a better place to have more people biking," said Janice Li, former advocacy director with San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.    

Now, bicyclists said they're focused on community and camaraderie. Strides have been made; an increase in people riding and protected bike lanes. 
But it's not the end of the road for the event or its goals.

"I would like to see fewer cars parked in the bike lanes. I'm tired of having to navigate through and around them," said Malinda Walker.  

"It's an expression of power. It's an expression of freedom. It's an expression of belonging," said Li.  

The born in San Francisco event inspired similar rides across the country and the world. This anniversary ride appeared to be less about nostalgia and more about bicyclists' enthusiastic embrace of the freedom that comes with being able to ride safely on city streets.    

Amber Lee is a reporter with KTVU. Email Amber at or text/leave message at 510-599-3922. Follow her on Facebook @AmberKTVU,  Instagram @AmberKTVU  or Twitter @AmberKTVU