What is Critical Mass?

Critical Mass is a mass bicycle ride that takes place on the last Friday of each month in cities around the world. Everyone is invited! No one is in charge! Bring your bike!

Next San Francisco Critical Mass: December 29th, 2017, 5:30pm, at Justin Herman Plaza (foot of Market Street).

Taking a bike across Europe, Critical Mass style (Shift Happens! excerpts)

September 10th, 2012 by LisaRuth

The Critical Mass model of a mass ride has been used as an inspiration to go in directions the monthly ride never imagined it would. Alissa Starodub and Robbie take us across the borders of many countries and take on international issues through two-wheeled activism. In today’s installment of excerpts from Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20, we go to both Ecotopia and to Palestine.

Alissa Starodub’s “Take a Bike to Ecotopia (Take a Car to Hell)” gives a personal look at international activists coming together on bikes against climate change and for social and environmental issues:

Imagine you go on a Critical Mass in your local town, you ride a route around the city center and then the bike tour just continues. All the cyclists just keep going to the next town, form a Critical Mass there shouting, “Two wheels are enough!” and “System Change not Climate Change!” and then move on to the north or to the south … whatever has been decided. With all the other cyclists you camp on a field somewhere along the way and continue the next morning.  You won’t come home for the next few months, maybe years, because you finally broke free from your daily routine, or whatever prevents you from going on the journey, and now are reclaiming the streets for non-polluting cyclists everywhere in the world.

Now imagine it’s true. There is a version of an almost never ending Critical Mass—or at least some kind of ride that goes through different countries and lasts for months. It is called Ecotopia Biketour.

The first action I performed joining the Ecotopia Biketour was dumpster diving at a Dutch discount supermarket to get some more ingredients for the common dinner. In rich countries up to 30% of the food produced and imported ends up unconsumed in a dumpster. Most of it is still very enjoyable; sometimes the eat-by date hasn’t arrived yet. Mass consumption, overproduction, and a really bad pricing policy that aims to produce more at cheaper costs creates a very environmentally unfriendly thing. So I learned to perceive dumpster diving for food as a political action.

The cyclists with banners on their bikes and leaves in their hair who picked me up introduced me to the whole Ecotopia Biketour community. We reached an organic goat farm in the afternoon of my first day. Twenty people arrived bit by bit to the garden where we were camping. Later on some of us would sleep smoothly on soft hay bales in the neighboring barn. Cyclists exchanged stories from their ride and collected firewood to feed the rocket stove which would heat our delicious vegan curry dinner.

On the way from Holland to Belgium and then Germany we met up with various local environmental NGOs, participated in a demonstration in Brussels, some of us gave many interviews to local media, we attended a permaculture festival, organized a Critical Mass in Gent and joined one in Cologne, cycled through the heaviest rain that I have ever seen, some of us lost our shoes and decided that we didn’t need new ones for the moment, some of us slept in a tree house one night.

My head is stuffed with pictures of all the nice people that we met who shared our interest in cycling and environmentalism…

Robbie’s “International Solidarity: The Bicycle as Creative Response” reflects on the motivations for a cross-Europe bicycle ride in support of Palestinians living under a military occupation:

When we take part in Critical Mass rides, we remind ourselves not only how we can re-imagine our urban landscapes away from the dominance of the motor car, but also how we can use our bikes as a form of collective action. Over recent years, many mobilisations and protests such as the anti-capitalist demos against the G20 in London in April 2009 have had a Critical Mass contingent as part of the plans. The concept of longer distance solidarity rides has also been used in Europe and elsewhere with groups such as Bicycology riding from Southern England to Gleneagles in Scotland for the G8 counter-summit in 2005.

After a few months of planning and preparation in March 2011, a group of 20 cyclists set off from London to make a 7,000 km journey across Europe and the Middle East within a loose target of 100 days. Having stopped in several communities along the way, the “PEDAL—100 Days to Palestine” riders arrived in the West Bank in July 2011.

The bicycle was not simply our mode of transport. If resistance is art, then the bike was our form! We saw the rid as a creative response to the Palestinian Civil Society’s 2005 joint call for a programme of Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions against Israeli companies and institutions complicit in ongoing human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza. Just as we might distribute a flyer, poster our streets, blockade an arms factory, or organise a mass boycott—so too could we use the bicycle as a spectacle through which to talk about the realities of Palestinian life under Occupation—and how we can oppose it.

In several places we organised Critical Mass rides in order to meet people, find out more about various sites of contention within different communities, and to listen to the stories of people who lived there.

To find out where PEDAL’s Critical Mass rides took place, and what issues were hot, pick up a copy of Shift Happens! to be found in bookstores around the Bay Area this week. Or you can order online from us directly!  Hope to see you at a few border crossing events during the week lead up to the 20th Anniversary ride on 28 September! Tomorrow join the conversation for Porto Alegre’s dramatic Critical Mass story.

Sharing the Joys of Cycling in Chicago and Baton Rouge (Shift Happens! excerpts)

September 9th, 2012 by LisaRuth

There’s this funny thing about a good idea, people pick up on it and it spreads!  Part of the fun of a book like Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20 (available for purchase now, either as standard book, or as a Kindle book) is seeing just how similar Critical Mass rides can develop and feel, yet how each place lends its own personality and character, and how the ride adapts.  We’d like to share some excerpts from Daniel S. Libman and Moshe Cohen’s essays in the book, about their rides in Chicago and Baton Rouge.

Daniel S. Libman elegantly explains why “We ARE Traffic” in Chicago:

The power of the Chicago Critical Mass only becomes apparent once the ride is over. While it’s happening it’s all energy — electric and social and inclusive. People are kind to one another the way they are on vacation. Even most of the motorists seem to be at least experiencing the ride as novel, if not fun. “What’s the cause?” a woman in a Volvo shouts out her window on a recent ride. “Friday!” I answer. She makes an incredulous face. “Seriously,” she calls out, “Are you raising awareness for something?”

I’ve biked too far past her to continue the conversion, and my answer wouldn’t have satisfied anyway. “Yes,” I should have said, “We are raising awareness. For something.”

It is a radical notion that the bicycles get to decide how quickly or slowly the traffic moves. When I try to explain the appeal of a Critical Mass ride I invariably begin with its polar opposite: me alone on my bike in the corn fields. I live in a rural part of Illinois and have to drive two hours just to get to the starting point of the Chicago rides. Aware as I am of the absurdity in this, there is simply nothing I can do about it. I work 90 miles west of Chicago and if I want to participate I have to get there. I can’t be a one man Critical Mass in my farming community — that would be me just going out for a bike ride, and I do this with mind-numbing regularity as it is.

Critical Mass…gives motorists an opportunity to think more about the guy on the bicycle. What we’re really doing, regardless of how much fun we’re having, is creating moments (long moment, perhaps) for drivers to think about the other. Little children love stuffed animals because the teddy bears they hold are cuddly, loveable versions of something which terrifies them. Critical Mass is the raging grizzly version of that defenseless dude on the bicycle you cut off on your way to work this morning. It only works if we do it together, which is why I make the drive to get there.

My favorite rides are the ones that end up by Buckingham Fountain. The bikes circle triumphantly, the clipped-in riders de-clip and drag their shoes on the new cobblestones, their cleats throwing sparks which shoot like geysers from their soles. You can stay back with the evening tourists and just watch the display, amazed at the sight like it’s a giant, living Fourth of July pinwheel. And when this spectacle is finished, the bicyclists all disappear from the main arteries and are absorbed back into the bloodstream of the city, going off their separate ways.

In “Building a Biking Community with Critical Mass Baton Rouge” Moshe Cohen shares about a (last Fri)day in the life and the cross-pollination of disparate biking groups in that Louisiana college town:

Critical Mass Baton Rouge meets the last Friday of every month at 5:30 p.m. in front of the Louisiana State University clock tower on the parade grounds.

New riders show up minutes before five thirty, giving them plenty of time to meet new friends as the mass slowly builds. BMXers do tricks on the oversized steps. Members of the LSU Cycling team race home to drop off their school stuff and switch rides. Local musicians amongst the ridership put on impromptu concerts. Mountain bikers with water packs and fingerless gloves show off the new coating of dirt they picked up at the local trails last weekend. Cruisers show up with reggae-blasting boom boxes in their baskets. Members of the Baton Rouge Advocates for Safe Streets (BRASS) discuss the latest bike news. Local bike shop mechanics struggle to close shop so they can make it by six. Everyone waits until the last minute to get their bikes ready for Mass.

By design this ride is a positive party on wheels with cheering, waving, and smiling. This tricks new cyclists into learning routes and destinations across the city while arming them with the courage to take on the streets by themselves… The parade culture of Louisiana means that pedestrians, neighbors on their porches, and yes, even drivers are more apt to smile, wave, and applaud than get angry.

Several progressive hubs emerged on campus (LSU) for groups to share their projects and gain support. At the Hill Farm Community Organic Garden, rows of strawberries, tomatoes, and mustard greens were usually lined with bikes as well. Weekly community gardening days spurred ad hoc debates on how to spread the love of cycling. These set the precedent for the pre- and post-Mass discussions on how the ride could be improved and how a coherent message could be spread to more people. Despite the multitude of more minor messages that its members brought to the group, the main one was always: “Come ride with us!”

The is the legacy of Critical Mass Baton Rouge: all of the different bike-related projects that grow out of having some loosely affiliated community. Bicyclists are like blades of grass: the intertwining of roots creates a safer firmament on which to build. On its own, Critical Mass can only do so much to make the streets safer for cyclists throughout the month. Yet by bringing everyone together, new ideas can be incubated on what can be done to share the joys of bicycling with the rest of the world.

What happens when Critical Mass literally crosses borders? Find our tomorrow in our next installment from Shift Happens! featuring rides across Europe and to Palestine. And check out our week of activities planned from 24-28 September to usher in the 20th Anniversary ride!

Milan Night and Day!

September 9th, 2012 by ccarlsson

Hi SFO, here Milano. We are proud to tell you that we are never tired….and after the synchronical critical mass with the one in San Francisco (that as said before will be a group of about 30 to 50 people and will not gather families) we will meet in a huge critical mass (hundreds???? we hope) for everybody, Saturday afternoon at 15:00 from piazza Graziano Predielis (ex piazza Mercanti).

We will be a river and we will be able to stop the traffic, as we did for the critical mass protest for Cop9, Cop 15, the summer swimsuit critical mass, the guerrilla gardennig critical mass, every winter for San Lazzaro…

Even the usual Thursday evening mass will celebrate the 20 years! So we will have three day of celebrations….we really never have enough!

This is just to let you know that in case someone of you wants to try exotical experiences, or need to fly away from San Francisco for puzzling reasons, he will find a home here in Milano…..

And now for some non-commercial links between people around the globe…

September 8th, 2012 by LisaRuth

For our second installment* of excerpts from Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20, as we count down to the 20th Anniversary Ride on 28 September and the week of events from 24-28 September to celebrate, we travel to Paris, the city that Italian Giuso Ciclocuoco now calls home. His contributions to bike culture and getting more cyclists on the streets have been many, and I’ll let him tell you about them: (from “The Great European Bike Love Link”)

Since my first participation in the Critical Mass movement, I saw the great potential hidden beneath the practices of self-organization, do-it-yourself, and most of all, free and non-commercial links between fellow people around the globe. This was to become my personal motivation throughout all these years: share love and knowledge, cook food for enormous numbers of cyclists, and most of all, recycle bikes.

The French Velorution [what Critical Mass is called in France-ed.] needed a little boosting.  As you might know, Paris has a great bike culture, and bike lanes are growing everywhere, but less than 100 people were riding together monthly. So in May 2009, in Rome for the Ciemmona [the "big CM", a yearly anniversary ride], some Parisians told me we could and should do this in Paris, too. I thought it was a great idea.

So in July 2010, we did it. We invited everyone to Paris, and held a four-day experience that was really marvelous and unexpected even for Parisians. Bike games, bike jousts, movies shows in an artistic squat, big masses around the Eiffel Tower, you name it, we were doing it. More than a thousand people showed up, and for the Velorution, that is quite impressive!

What all these huge Critical Masses around Europe made clear to me was that we had something in common, all of us, and that we had to share experiences, in order to create a European culture of Bike Utopia. And that’s precisely my goal now. My involvement in Critical Mass led me to accept an even bigger challenge: the construction of community bike workshops.

In France in 2006, there were something like ten bike workshops…Today there are 50 self-organized workshops. Some are co-ops, some are associations, some are in squats. They have around 30,000 participants each year, and have created 35 full-time, self-organized jobs, and with more than minimal wages.

In Paris I started a bike workshop with some friends called cyclofficine (“the bike pharmacy”, an infection from Italian bike culture). We provide support to those banlieues (suburbs) you probably saw burning some years ago. We donate bikes, sell some in public auctions, and provide information on self-repair.

If you’re curious to hear more about the cyclofficine and Giuso’s description of mega-Critical Masses in Spain, Italy, and France, plus his reflections on the bike-share program in Paris, buy a copy of Shift Happens! for yourself–either as an old-fashioned book or the Kindle version.

Our excerpt journey will take us to Chicago and Baton Rouge tomorrow.

*Check out excerpts from SF authors posted yesterday.