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: June 26th, 2020, 5:30pm, at Justin Herman Plaza (foot of Market Street).

Bicicrítica and Beyond: Critical Mass in Madrid (Shift Happens! excerpts)

November 13th, 2013 by LisaRuth

Dozens of European cities have a long legacy of cycling for everyday transportation. Madrid is not one of these cities. But it IS one of the many European urban centers that has adopted the basic framework of Critical Mass, and the popularity of these rides—known to Madrileños as Bicicrítica—has propelled more riders through the town’s “gray breath of traffic” and into a dynamic building of bicycles AND bicycle culture. Through Elisabeth Lorenzi’s words—or Eli as we know her—we can see past the once solitary daily experience of cycling through Madrid she has experienced in her contribution to Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20 in “‘Alegria Entre Tus Piernas’: To Conquer Madrid’s Streets.”

Bicicrítica encompasses a great many perspectives, motivations, practices, and influences, and affinity with el movimiento de okupación (the squatting or Okupation Movement) is one of them. One of the greatest strengths of the Okupation Movement has been its role as an integrator of different citizen movements and initatives, including unique activist practices that were pioneered by Bicicrítica. Based on Critical Mass practices, do-it-yourself (DIY) bicycle workshops have emerged in autonomous and okupied spaces.

Bicicrítica, the best example of citizen mobilation, is not an isolated movement. It is a discourse and praxis connected to other movements and broader discourses, which has led to its rapid growth, since often the activists of related movements take the intitiative to promote Bicicrítica. But Critical Mass also embodies the desire for immediate and sustainable access to a better quality of life.

As the problem of mobility in cities—and the bicycle as a tool for improving this situation—becomes more important in the discourse and practices of many centros sociales okupados, they help sustain the growth and maintenance of bicycle-related actions. These DIY workshops, which are connected to each other through common initiatives related to bicycling in Madrid, in turn open a window on connections among social centers, other movements, and the general citizenry.

Bicicrítica offers an exceptional environment for socializing and empowerment around the bicycle, but it only happens once a month. The monthly gathering becomes a cultural stew where new initiatives and social opportunities emerge, whether for activism, pragmatic organizing, or pleasure. … But it has been the DIY workshop activists who have done the most to diffuse bicycling broadly and promote Bicicrítica, as they now offer weekly and daily activities related to the bicycle. The DIY bike workshops are housed in autonomous spaces, and when participating in them, visitors and activists merge urbanism, transit, political mobilization, and technological skill-sharing.

In 2009, I witnessed the emergence and development of eight DIY bicycle workshops. In general terms, these places offer support to bicyclists to fix or reinvent some aspect of their bike, construct a new one from loose parts, and facilitate the lending of rebuilt bicycles. Tools, recycled parts, and people with a passion for mechanics are the basic infrastructure of these workshops, where not only is it important to know about mechanics, but also to have personal initiative, creativity, and a cooperative spirit.

To learn a lot more about the interplay between Madrid’s social centers and Bicicrítica—and about the birth of the intergalactic Criticona—check out our newly added links page and pick up your copy of Shift Happens! today by ordering from us online. We return next time with more inspiring Critical Mass stories from Spain!!

Massive Critical Mass in Budapest (Shift Happens! excerpted)

November 9th, 2013 by LisaRuth

In September 2012, to accompany the release of Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20, we published excerpts of Critical Mass history and its effects from several cities. We’re picking it back up again, because there is so much more to highlight (17 more towns and cities!), and also because book co-editors Chris Carlsson and LisaRuth Elliott will be appearing in a fun evening about the book at San Francisco’s Booksmith next week. On Friday, November 15, The Literary Foolery Cabaret will highlight Shift Happens! along with treating attendees to music, storytelling, and a unicycle duo! Check out the evening of “booze, books, bicycles, and burlesque” if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Today we showcase the most massive Critical Mass on the planet. Budapest boasts numbers of up to 80,000 bicyclists in their twice-a-year Critical Mass rides, active since 2004. Two articles — from Justin Hyatt and Kükü and the Critical Mass Budapest Community — chart the surprising rise (even to them) in popularity of the rides and the lasting effects on the city as well as on bicycling in general.

In “We Have Changed Our City Forever,” Kükü and the Critical Mass Budapest Community outline the beginnings of how “in less than five years a tiny subculture event blossomed into the largest civil movement in Hungary”:

The predecessor of Critical Mass Budapest was a regular ride organized by a group called Friends of Urban Cycling. It was much like the international Critical Mass, and ran for several years with 50-300 participants. At the same time the bike messenger community in Budapest often gathered for more hardcore rides, sometimes spontaneously or organized for special occasions.

However, the history of Critical Mass Budapest began only in 2004 when the mayor moved Carfree Day to the weekend in order to avoid interruption of car traffic. At that point some of us decided to organize a Critical Mass ride on this internationally-recognized September 22 date [of Carfree Day] as a protest. … Three weeks before the ride, approximately 30 messengers and their friends gathered at a park. … The idea was to recruit not merely participants, but organizers. “Critical Mass—The real Carfree Day,” read the slogan on the leaflets. We invited everyone for a huge demonstration hoping for 500 participants (that was the highest number we could imagine).

Justin Hyatt tells some more of the history of Critical Mass Budapest in “Positive Symbols and High Optimism in Budapest,” and how it has diverged from experiences in other cities:

The year that saw the axles greased and the tire rubber screeching en masse was the phenomenal year of 2004. An unheard of Critical Mass ride took place that numbered 4,000 people. … Every Spring and Fall season a new ride was organized. … 4,000 cyclists turned into 10,000 the following spring. That was doubled again in the fall to 20,000. … Eventually all the major and some minor towns in Hungary put on their own rides. Towns whose names you would never be able to pronounce and places hardly a speck on the map achieved ridership to rival the giants. … If numbers are a measure, the pinnacle of achievement in the history of Critical Mass Budapest was Earth Day in 2008 with 80,000 gleeful cyclists along for the ride. There has never been a larger ride that goes by the name of Critical Mass in the history of the world.

While holding firm to the notion that there must be something special to the spicy paprika that Hungarians eat, here are a few leading reasons:

First, it must be understood that these are rides that happen twice a year, not every month. There is therefore ample time to build up momentum and make a big splash of an event, something that would be a lot trickier were they held every month.

The rides are also registered ahead of time with the police and follow a given route, and thus hit a different note than the usual spontaneity and brazen independence of Critical Mass rides elsewhere.

The general consensus is that providing a legal basis for the movement has been an important compromise. … People rightly point to the fact that the average Hungarian is fearful of breaking the law or engaging in civil disobedience. Since the rides have been legal and also maintained a strict neutrality regarding party politics, the doors have been opened widely to the masses. It is a family event, an activist event, and an occasion where the citys head mayor or Ambassador of the Netherlands might just show up (and have, in fact).

Critical Mass has provided ordinary Budapest citizens with the opportunity to join a fun and dynamic movement that is free of the usual humdrum of everyday politics, and connect with others to take a stand for one very positive symbol: the bicycle. Many also quickly recognized a powerful message that is inherent in the Critical Mass rides: Ride your bike—it is cheap, it is fun, and it doesn’t pollute. Budapest has long been one of the most polluted cities in Europe.

Kükü and the Critical Mass Budapest Community talk a bit more about the impacts of and evolution beyond the rides:

In the early days we did not have any definite goal, but as time went on we realized that we are one of the most progressive communities in town and it would be a giant mistake not to engage in outlining our needs and standing up for our wishes. With our small community behind us we started to collect demands online, and took our neat little wish list to the City Hall. As the demonstrations grew bigger and bigger, the town began building some new bicycle lanes and the two-wheel symbol suddenly appeared in political campaigns. But political support was not strong enough and only resulted in 30-40 km of badly-designed and poorly-constructed bicycle roads, mostly at the expense of pedestrians. But we were too smart and enthusiastic to stop, so we reconsidered our goals and instead of politicians, we took aim at the people of Budapest. By this time a very strong net of cool activists started to take shape, and we have slowly become the largest civil movement in Budapest, without any official organization, strict hierarchy, office, or expenses.

The city cannot keep up with the bike boom and is now facing a strange phenomenon: as cyclists have no dedicated space, they have simply begun to flood the streets and ride anywhere they can. In the beginning this led to numerous conflicts with motorists, but soon it brought a drastic drop in accidents, which fell to about 10% of their previous level; this in turn caused a further decline of the fear that inhibits people from riding bikes in traffic. There’s something really unique going on in Budapest: the city is becoming bicycle-friendly despite the circumstances, without substantial investments.

We’ve moved past the never-ending growth as the agent of change. Now the everyday sense of enormous numbers of cyclists is the demonstration itself, spreading cycling like a virus to workplaces and schools. … The unbelievable truth is that we have managed to change our city forever.

To learn more about the various ways the Budapest bicycle movement has matured, and how cycling enthusiasm has reached out past the city to the world, get your own copy of Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20, either at the event next week, or online. You can also download it to your Kindle.

Lost Etiquette, Growing Incoherence

August 31st, 2013 by ccarlsson



The white bike installed at 6th and Folsom, about 5:30 pm. The black car turning right is where the truck killed Amelie Le Moullac a week ago…


closeup on the sign.

closeup on the sign.

It’s not exactly a revelation to speak about how poorly we Critical Massers have managed to transmit our culture to the new generation(s) over the past decade and a half. Last night’s Aug. 30 2013 ride was a good case in point. Whoever got in front at the beginning didn’t do too badly in terms of pacing and direction, heading straight up Market Street (not so clever) and turning left at 5th Street as we wiggled towards 6th and Folsom. At 6th and Folsom many people wanted to stop and pay tribute to Amelie Le Moullac, but when I got there (I was about 80% back from the front) the ride had already sped by and headed east on Folsom. From then on it was a race, nobody at the front holding the pace to something reasonable, and the ride splintered repeatedly, finally just a few hundred making it all the way to Golden Gate Park. I myself had to sprint up 3rd Street after getting stuck at King when the back of the ride was blocked by cross traffic for the long light sequence there near the I-280 offramp, and it took a while to catch the ride. Many people behind me never made it.


Folsom passing 3rd Street, about 2/3 of the Mass already past.

How hard is it to remember to stop semi-often at the front and wait for folks to “mass up”? Circling, while annoying, can be a useful way to do this, but just stopping through a whole light change sequence can make all the difference for a fun, convivial, social ride.

Parents corner!... several folks who had kids along this month were suddenly all in th same area...

Parents corner!… several folks who had kids along this month were suddenly all in th same area…

Nearly everyone was aware of the tragic death of Amelie Le Moullac, run over when a truck turned into her at 7 in the morning. The following SFBC event, tarnished by the idiotic cop Sgt. Richard Ernst who deliberately blocked the bike lane with his cruiser and refused to move until the SFBC leaders would acknowledge that the woman caused her own death (!!), made many more folks aware.

It was an odd end of August anyway, what with the days-old rollout of the new SF Bikeshare program, which has not much to do with sharing, and a lot to do with overpriced, badly designed bicycles that seem designed to fail as a system (0nly 700 bikes for the whole Bay Area?!? $22 for three days of access?!? rising charges after  30 minutes?!? how about $3/day for full access?), and the closing of the Bay Bridge to connect the new eastern span to the island and toll plaza. And of course, tens of thousands are out of town at the Playa for Burning Man…

Selling is not sharing! Whether this program, Lyft or Uber, Airbnb, or what have you, these are neoliberal commodifications of the "Idea" of sharing, using the feel-good sensibility the concept legitimately creates to sell these awkward and inadequate part-time commodities... yuck!

Selling is not sharing! Whether this program, Lyft or Uber, Airbnb, or what have you, these are neoliberal commodifications of the “Idea” of sharing, using the feel-good sensibility the concept legitimately creates to sell these awkward and inadequate part-time commodities… yuck!

The mostly closed Bay Bridge overhead as we took a turn along the waterfront...

The mostly closed Bay Bridge overhead as we took a turn along the waterfront…


Coming out of the (sadly, inevitable) Broadway Tunnel we turned left on Polk...

Coming out of the (sadly, inevitable) Broadway Tunnel we turned left on Polk…

Generally, Critical Mass is an ongoing opportunity to do something quite different in our lives, but most months, and this one in particular, we collectively and unconsciously recreate a lot of what’s worst about our selfish, inconsiderate, boorish culture, everyone for themselves, and a shocking lack of empathy and solidarity in the execution of this whole event. People, we could do a LOT better, without even trying very hard… for starters, let’s remember to stick together in a mass, watch out for each other, help stragglers keep up, tell the racers to go off on their own if they’re so bent on going that fast, and don’t sheepishly follow along! Take responsibility for your own experience! and each other’s!

Racing down Folsom nearing the waterfront, the ride was already very scattered...

Racing down Folsom nearing the waterfront, the ride was already very scattered…

Later the folks who managed to stick together made it all the way along Geary to Divisadero and went south on Divis...

Later the folks who managed to stick together made it all the way along Geary to Divisadero and went south on Divis…


Bike lift on Masonic at Fell before we rolled into the park.

Bike lift on Masonic at Fell before we rolled into the park.


What is Relevance?

July 26th, 2013 by ccarlsson
June 2013 Critical Mass on Larkin in Civic Center.

June 2013 Critical Mass on Larkin in Civic Center.

It’s the last Friday of July, 2013, and of course San Francisco’s Critical Mass will be rolling around 6:30 or so from Justin “Pee-Wee” Herman Plaza, as it has for the past 20 and a half years. I’m not going today, but it’s not because I don’t generally still show up and usually enjoy myself, but because I’m doing something else at the same time that I bought tickets for.

As it happens this is the same week that Joe Eskenazi’s article “Critical Mass Goes Round and Round” appeared in the SF Weakly. I’ve had a few friends wonder what my take on it is, since he attempts to summarize the political impact of 20 years of Critical Mass in the context of bicycling politics and city transit priorities more generally. I’m also quoted in the piece a few times, a product of an hour I spent speaking with Joe a month ago or so.

Another "circling up" at Mission and South Van Ness in June 2013.

Another “circling up” at Mission and South Van Ness in June 2013.

I don’t love having a complex set of ideas and experiences reduced to a few out-of-context soundbites that just serve to reinforce my apparent disconnectedness from what matters in terms of the realpolitik of San Francisco. But that’s what mainstream journalism, even or especially in an alt-weekly, will do. Overall I don’t think he did a bad job of capturing the current malaise that besets Critical Mass (a malaise that is only visible to those of us who have long harbored more ambitious hopes for radical social change), and I think he was spot-on in highlighting the severe limits of the narrow corporatist agenda of the SF Bicycle Coalition, both in terms of its self-proclaimed successes and in terms of the actual state of things on the ground in San Francisco for bicyclists.

Parents still bring kids to the ride regularly.

Parents still bring kids to the ride regularly.

Critical Mass, of course, is not an organization, and thus has no agenda, and never did. One of the originating impulses for it was the experience many of us had of so commonly being treated as second-class citizens on the roads by motorists and by the shape of the infrastructure itself. Eskenazi suggests that our early years’ “success” was to insinuate into the DNA of the city’s people the awareness that cyclists are here and deserve accommodation. I think that’s basically true. But for me, Critical Mass was always about a lot more than mere bicycling. As he rather drippingly notes, I lament that the SFBC and its gov’t allies “have no particular problem with wage labor,” and they are narrowly focused on simply “getting more people on bicycles.” Bicycling is great for all kinds of intrinsic reasons, but bicycling per se is simply not enough.

Indeed, the bicycle for me was always a transportation choice that was obviously superior to other choices, but insofar as we gathered en (Critical M)asse, it quickly became obvious that much more is at stake. Our paucity of public space and opportunity to gather and meet and discuss anything publicly without being subjected to the endless imperative to buy something immediately rose to the foreground as an important element of why Critical Mass mattered.

Fell street in June 2013

Fell street in June 2013

In our book “Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20” we gathered essays from two dozen contributors spread across the world’s cities showing how Critical Mass spread far and wide and repeatedly changed those cities where it appeared in similar ways. As Eskenazi notes, I wrote in my opening essay in that volume that I’d seen a kind of “life cycle” of Critical Mass in different places, usually involving the hopeful, utopian, and open-ended experience that has captivated so many of us lasting about 5 years, give or take. After that the animating spirits of that “golden era” often turn to other ways to pursue their hopes and goals, whether by launching more mainstream advocacy organizations, turning to other activities entirely such as urban agriculture or free software (just as often, of course, activists from those arenas had joined with other cyclists to spur on Critical Mass from its inception, whether in Brazil or Mexico or Italy or Hungary), or beginning DIY skill-sharing “bike kitchens.”

The spate of horizontalist social movements that are continuing to erupt suddenly across the planet, most recently in Brazil, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Egypt, often find Critical Mass cyclists at the heart of those upheavals. This is not to credit CM with being the necessary precursor or essential causal agent, just to note that our shared experiences in making Critical Mass in over 400 cities around the world during the last two decades has already profoundly affected how we think about and engage in politics, civil society, urban planning, and much more.

The fact that San Francisco’s ride is so predictable and often boring, lacking in any internal political discussions, publications, social dialogues, or anything close to what made it so vital in its first five years, doesn’t make meaningless or irrelevant. It is still a gathering point, a place where people meet, where ideas can hatch, and month after month, it’s a training ground for spontaneous self-organization. Though it can seem very trite and repetitive and is too often directed by racers or the cops, it is still the case that every month something completely unexpected COULD happen, and for people on their first or early ride, it can still impart that euphoria we all know so well. I still experience it from time to time and I’ve been riding for 20 years!

Critical Mass doesn’t have to answer to anyone’s measurement about efficaciousness. It is not an instrumentalized experience designed to “achieve” something. It is real life, open and flexible, and as a persistent reality on the last Friday of every month, it is always there to be reclaimed, repurposed, and reanimated by anyone who cares to make the effort. I’m glad it’s still going. It’s not something we do to score political points or to gain any particular demands. It’s an expression of life itself, and it is still a chance to taste however fleetingly a brief moment of another way of life, one not dominated by the frenzied rush to and fro from work and home, not reduced to buying and selling, an experience that is valuable for living it, and smelling it, and sharing it… and nothing more.

Passing the library in early evening sunshine in June 2013.

Passing the library in early evening sunshine in June 2013.

At the Wave Organ in May 2013.

At the Wave Organ in May 2013.