Critical Mass (cycling)
Critical Mass is a form of direct action in which people meet at a set location and time and travel as a group through their neighbourhoods on bikes. The idea is for people to group together to make it safe for each other to ride bicycles through their streets, based on the old mantra: there's safety in numbers. A Critical Mass is a traffic jam on bikes – though often cheerier. Where usually motor vehicles have right of way, taking space away from those who want to walk or cycle, during a Critical Mass bikes take the priority and the space back from the motor traffic.
Critical Mass events highlight the numbers of people want to use their bike on the streets, but are usually unable to do so without risking their safety. They are a call to action to councils, governments and road planners to properly and thoughtfully design in the safety of all road users, including those who would prefer to walk and cycle, instead of prioritising motor traffic above all else.
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. Though they are sometimes described as political, they are not necessarily. Extinction Rebellion, an explicitly apolitical, non-partisan group, use them as part of their non-violent direct action rebellions in the face of the climate emergency.
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 in the Netherlands and China in comparison with that of the United States. 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.
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. Joel Pomerantz, the writer, rider and co-founder of Critical Mass who popularized corking in San Francisco, explained in his 1992 instructional flyer that he sees the ride as a single vehicle for safety purposes, similar to a longer, articulated bus. He argued that it enhances both traffic flow overall and safety to keep the ride together as in a funeral procession, which he viewed Critical as, metaphorically, for the death of car culture and crash victims. Frustrated car drivers inhibited by the ride have sometimes reacted in hostile ways toward riders, even erupting into violence and arrests of motorists and cyclists alike during Critical Mass rides. Pomerantz's flyers have also proposed that drivers should only be as mad as they are at any traffic jam, most of which they accept as normal.
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. The movement gained momentum in North America and Europe and set a record in September 2019, when 1100 riders took part in Dortmund, Germany. Critical Sass was an all-female version of the ride in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that took place the second Friday of every month. The Tweed Run (along with 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 San Jose Bike Party. Bike Party rides on the third Friday of the month with a different starting point and route each time. Rides are typically 15–25 miles in length and usually 1000-2000 riders in Summer. 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, California, is the home of the "Bikes are happening..." meetup. Bikes are happening... starts at Mission Plaza at 9:30 pm 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.
A huge bicycle demonstration is the "Fahrrad-Sternfahrt" in Berlin, Germany, since 1976. Each year in June and usually have 150.000–250.000 riders. Together the 19 rides are more than 600 miles long including two sections of motorway.
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.
In Kathmandu, Nepal, it has been organised since April 2013. In general cyclists gather at Kathmandu Durbar Square, Basantapur and ride round the city before grouping together again. Sometimes there are people organizing awareness programmes in this gathering. People who really love cycling and feel awareness about own health, environment they doing Critical Mass Gathering even after the heavy Nepal Earthquake 2015 with slogan "Quake or Shake, Sunny or Rainy, we have to flow with time for next smile..."
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.
Some bicycling advocacy groups have expressed concern that the nature of Critical Mass and altercations with motorists could weaken public support for cyclists. 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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