What is Critical Mass all about?

Critical Mass is a cycling event typically held on the last Friday of every month in over 300 cities around the world. The ride was originally founded in 1992 in San Francisco. The purpose of Critical Mass is not usually formalized beyond the direct action of meeting at a set location and time and traveling as a group through city or town streets on bikes. Some bigger scale events as in Budapest, Hungary, have an activist group formed around it, organizing the rides and communicating the desires and problems of the cyclists to the city council.
Critical Mass rides have been perceived as protest. A 2006 New Yorker magazine article described Critical Mass' activity in New York City as "monthly political-protest rides", and characterized Critical Mass as a part of a social movement; and the UK e-zine Urban75, which advertises as well as publishes photographs of the Critical Mass event in London, describes this as "the monthly protest by cyclists reclaiming the streets of London." Critical Mass participants have insisted that these events should be viewed as "celebrations" and spontaneous gatherings, and not as protests or organized demonstrations. This stance allows Critical Mass to argue a legal position that its events can occur without advance notification of local police.

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History

Critical Mass-like bike tours with hundreds of participants took place in Stockholm, Sweden in the early 1970s. But the first ride within the present wave took place on Friday, September 25, 1992 at 6 pm in San Francisco. At that time, the event was known as Commute Clot and was composed of a couple of dozen cyclists who had received flyers on Market Street. Shortly after this, some participants in that ride went to a local bicycle shop for a screening of Ted White's documentary Return of the Scorcher, about bike culture overseas. In that film, American human powered vehicle and pedicab designer George Bliss noted that, in China, both motorists and bicyclists had an "understood" method of negotiating intersections without signals. Traffic would queue up at these intersections until the backlog reached a "critical mass", at which point that mass would move through the intersection. This term from the footage of the movie, was applied to the name of the ride, and the name caught on, replacing "Commute Clot" by the time of the second event. By the time of the fourth ride, the number of cyclists had increased to around 100 and participation continued to grow dramatically, reaching about 1,000 riders, on average. The name was soon adopted as a generic label by participants in similar but independent mass rides that were either initiated in various locations around the world at around the same time, or had already existed before 1992 under other names. It is estimated that there are Critical Mass-type rides in more than 325 cities to date. The term "masser" is sometimes applied to a frequent participant.

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Who's in Charge?

Critical Mass has a decentralized (rather than hierarchical) structure. Critical Mass is sometimes called an "organized coincidence", with no leadership or membership. The routes of some rides are decided spontaneously by whoever is currently at the front of the ride, while others are decided prior to the ride by a popular vote of suggested routes often drawn up on photocopied fliers. The term xerocracy was coined to describe a process by which the route for a Critical Mass can be decided: anyone who has an opinion makes their own map and distributes it to the cyclists participating in the Mass. Still other rides decide the route by consensus. The disorganized nature of the event allows it to largely escape clampdown by authorities who may view the rides as forms of parades or organized protest. Additionally, the movement is free from the structural costs associated with a centralized, hierarchical organization. In order for the event to function, the only requirement is a sufficient turn-out to create a "critical mass" of riders dense enough to occupy a piece of road to the exclusion of drivers of motorized vehicles. Authorities in New York, California and Oregon have expressed concern with the difficulty of coordinating with the riders, due to the lack of leadership.

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Hitting the Streets

Because Critical Mass takes place without an official route or sanction, participants in some cities have sometimes practiced a tactic known as "corking" in order to maintain the cohesion of the group. This tactic consists of a few riders blocking traffic from side roads so that the mass can freely proceed through red lights without interruption. Corking allows the mass to engage in a variety of activities, such as forming a cyclone, lifting their bikes in a tradition known as a "Bike Lift" (in Chicago this is referred to as a Chicago hold-up), or to perform a "die-in" where riders lie on the ground with their bikes to symbolise cyclist deaths and injuries caused by automobiles, very popular in Montreal. The "Corks" sometimes take advantage of their time corking to distribute fliers. The practice of corking roads in order to pass through red lights as a group is in contravention of traffic laws in some jurisdictions and is sometimes criticized to be contrary to Critical Mass' claim that "we are traffic", since ordinary traffic does not have the right to go through intersections once the traffic signal has changed to red. However, groups of cyclists are allowed to pass signals as a group at least in Germany and Austria. In Britain the London Critical Mass has been defined as a procession in 2008 Law Lords ruling and therefore if the front of the procession goes through a green light then the rest can legally ignore traffic signals in following the rest of the procession. Corking has sometimes led to hostility between motorists and riders, even erupting into violence and arrests of motorists and cyclists alike during Critical Mass rides.

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