Critical Mass (cycling)
Critical Mass is a cycling event typically held on the last Friday of every month; its purpose 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.
Critical Mass has been described as "monthly political-protest rides", and characterized as being part of a social movement. It has been described as a "monthly protest by cyclists reclaiming the streets." 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.
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. The term "masser" is sometimes applied to a frequent participant.
Fred Nemo, a member of the Portland-based band Hazel, documented on his website how people from San Francisco played a role in getting Critical Mass started in Oregon, accompanied by cops on bicycles:
Sometime in August of '93 Sara [ of Citybikes ] spots dozens of flyers around town that go something like "Tired of being run off the road by cars? Of riding alone, afraid, intimidated? Come to a Critical Mass planning meeting..." ...On the appointed day, I accompany her down to the Howling Frog Cafe, ... noting the 20 or so cyclists of widely varying aspect, mostly listening to some folks from San Francisco rant about cars.
The afternoon of the last Friday in September finds over a hundred cyclists congregating in the South Park Blocks by Portland State... The combination of camaraderie and the feeling of utter safety is a potent mixture, and seems to inspire a cosmic unity of movement among our diverse crowd of bikers. It seems even the couple of bicycle cops escorting us feel it. And when John Benenate up ahead, in his scarily low-to-the-ground paraplegic's recumbent, goes sailing through a red light with a whoop and a holler and the cops blithely ignore it, it seems a revolutionary moment.
The feature documentary film Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland (2014) shows the history of police spying that drew heavy-handed enforcement on this ride for the next fifteen years, when it was thoroughly dismantled. 
Organization and tactics
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.
Critical Mass rides vary greatly in many respects, including frequency and number of participants. For example, many small cities have monthly Critical Mass rides with fewer than twenty riders which offer safety in numbers to cyclists in those locales, while on the opposite extreme, in what have been the largest events using the name Critical Mass, cyclists in Budapest, Hungary hold only two rides each year on April 22 (Earth Day) and September 22 (International Car Free Day). The "Budapest style" attracts tens of thousands of riders. The April 20, 2008 Budapest ride participation was estimated at 80,000 riders. In Vienna, close to Budapest, a Critical Mass Ride has been held every month since 2006 and attracts up to 1,000 or more riders.
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. 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.
Other bicycling groups
Similar organizations and movements
The Critical Mass rides have inspired a number of other bicycle movements, that range from political movements to the "Critical Tits" ride during the yearly Burning Man festival. In Chicago, a movement has grown out of the Critical Mass community to promote winter cycling via the bikewinter campaign. The extensive news coverage of San Francisco's July 1997 ride spawned an international celebration of bicycling, called Bike Summer. Kidical Mass originated in Oregon, and encourages bicycle riding for children and families. Critical Sass is an all-female version of the ride in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that takes place the second Friday of every month. The Tweed Run (a various other vintage bike rides) is a well dressed mass which takes place annually in a number of cities across the world. Examples of Critical Mass rides for political movements includes the Free Tibet Rides (May 2008): Free Tibet Critical Mass in Columbia, Missouri, "Tibetan Freedom Bike Rally" in San Francisco (Aug 2008), and in "Bike Ride for Tibet" in London (Aug 2008).
San Jose is the home to the San Jose Bike Party. Bike Party rides on the third Friday of the month with a different starting point and route each time. During the Winter and Fall months, rides are typically done through downtown and the southside of San Jose, while the summer months typically consist of rides in north San Jose and the surrounding peninsula communities. Rides are typically 20 – 25 miles in length and usually have 2,500 – 3,500 riders, with a peak of 4,300 in October 2009. The ride aims to build a community of cyclists and prove that bikes can co-exist with cars. It is different than Critical Mass in that it rides after rush hour and obeys all traffic laws and has a pre-determined route.
San Luis Obispo, CA is the home of the "Bikes are happening..." meetup. Bikes are happening... starts at Mission Plaza at 9:30PM on the first Thursday of the month. The ride consists of a continuous half mile loop through downtown San Luis Obispo. Since there is no permit for the ride, riders are asked to follow three rules: have fun, respect the community, and obey all traffic laws.
In San Francisco, an event known as "Critical Manners" was created as a response to Critical Mass. Critical Manners rides through the city on the second Friday of the month, with riders encouraged to obey all traffic laws such as stopping at red lights and signaling. Tucson, Arizona holds the Tuesday Night Community Bike Ride as their alternative to Critical Mass. The weekly ride encourages bicycle commuting and motor vehicle awareness in a peaceful and friendly way.
In 2007 there were conversations about starting Critical Manners in Portland, Oregon. According to the Critical Mass book, a similar project known as Courteous Mass is described as "an alternative to Critical Mass."
An alternative ride named RideCivil formed in Seattle in late 2007. Rides are on the second Friday of every month, and focus on encouraging civility between motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.
On August 14, 2009 there was a Critical Manners ride in Vancouver, British Columbia. The ride consisted of between 70–100 cyclists riding through the downtown core, making all attempts to follow the rules of the road (stopping at red lights / stop signs, using hand signals to turn, using the right-most lane or bike lane when applicable). The event generated some coverage in the local media and was generally deemed a success by the participants, although there were some criticisms. The ride only survived one outing.
Conflicts involving Critical Mass
Critical Mass rides have generated controversy and public opposition. The group has often protested in high profile events, ranging from major political events to the Olympics. Some critics claim that Critical Mass is a deliberate attempt to obstruct traffic and disrupt normal city functions, asserting that individuals taking part refuse to obey traffic laws. Participants are sometimes called "massholes".
Some bicycling advocacy groups have expressed concern that the nature of Critical Mass and altercations with motorists could weaken public support for bicyclists. Though it does not condone incidents of violence and rudeness, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition credits Critical Mass with spotlighting bicycle issues and aiding their efforts in advocating for cyclists.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Critical Mass (bicycling event).|
- criticalmass.wikia.com, a Wiki focused on Critical Mass
- Still We Ride The IMDb page on a documentary about a 2004 police crackdown on Critical Mass