Author Archive

Edges to these wheels, reporting from Critical Mass in Manchester and London (Shift Happens! excerpts)

September 14th, 2012 by LisaRuth

Vanessa Bear reports from her active involvement in creating cycling culture in “Pedaling with Ghosts of the Industrial Revolution in Manchester, England”:

It’s where the industrial revolution began, where the computer was invented, where people first danced to house music in the UK. Zooming past chrome and glass modern buildings that sit next to crumbling mills, riding over cobblestones that lead to highways, it’s clear that Manchester is a city that embraces change. One of the main changes that’s occurred over the past 10 years being the huge increase in bicycles used as transportation. Many would say that’s mostly due to Critical Mass.

The first Critical Mass bike ride in Manchester was inspired by reports in the radical press of those happening in San Francisco. It was organized as part of an anti-roads and G8 protest. However, this was only a one-off event and it wasn’t until 2004 that Critical Mass in Manchester became a regular monthly sight on our city’s roads.

In 2005 a group of cyclists rode around the UK to spread news and information about the upcoming G8 protests taking place in Scotland. There were about 70 people riding together, stopping off at cities to do workshops and to meet like-minded people around the country. The workshops were inspiring but the most inspiring thing of all was that this was when Critical Mass in Manchester started to be noticed. The G8 bike ride came along on our Critical Mass increasing our numbers to over 150 people that month and creating such an incredible spectacle that everyone wanted to  know what i was and when the next one would be. To get more people cycling, we just need more people cycling!

Before Critical Mass there was no real bike culture in our city, no place where we could meet. …Hardly anyone used a bike for transport and it was alienating to do so. Now with the increased fashion to ride we have countless bikes on the roads. However, Critical Mass has definitely helped that process here as well as creating a place for us to meet and share our experiences. Many people riding a bike said they were inspired to do so when they saw the monthly throng of cheerful, carnival-like riders going past them whilst they were standing at a bus stop. It has also inspired amazing community bike projects such as Pedal MCR, a community bike co-op that recycles bikes, has a drop-in tool club for the community, provides Earn-a-Bike programs, and much more.

Des Kay has also been closely involved in the presence of Critical Mass in London, even spearheading a court case to stop the Metropolitan Police from making Critical Mass illegal. Given the decision made by the House of Lords, the recent arrests at the start of the Olympics seem even more wrong. He gives us a taste of “London Critical Mass”:

The largest London Mass was in the middle of 2008 to oppose police controlling the event. They wanted to bind us to all sorts of bureaucracy, such as sending them a route map (!) and a list of organisers (!). A month earlier we were handed letters purporting that our london Friday night get-together was unlawful. They eventually cottoned on to the joys of joining us on bicycles and their support and cooperation continued until the legality was questioned.

…The court case was taken to the highest courts in the land …and we initially won, then lost on appeal, and finally on October 20, 2008, the case went to the House of Lords where it was heard by five Law Lords. Their decision was that, “the appeal is allowed and Critical Mass is a commonly or customarily held procession without organizers and therefore does not need to inform the police of each ride.” Once that precedent was set, no mass bike ride in the country has had any interference. The police must believe that after 18 years, we’re grown up enough to go out on our own.

At 18, London Critical Mass has matured toward a more relaxed and laid-back kind of affair. We haven’t lost that radical edge, but we now are more aware of the power we had ego command the roads we choose to cycle along.

Stay tuned for Roman wheels spinning into your screens tomorrow! In the meantime, think about buying the book, available through us!

A tragedy’s aftermath: Porto Alegre, Brazil Critical Mass as described in Shift Happens!

September 11th, 2012 by LisaRuth

If you’re paying attention to Critical Mass or bicycling in the world, you probably heard about the horrific events in Porto Alegre, Brazil in February 2011 when a car drove deliberately into a Critical Mass ride, injuring many. We’ll let you read about the details of that day in the new 20th Anniversary book Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20, but what we want to showcase today is the inspiring coming together of community following the tragedy.

Marcelo Kalil, in “Critical Mass Porto Alegre” gives us his first hand view of the open meeting called by the cyclists in the aftermath:

There wasn’t enough space for everyone in Cidade da Bicicleta [a bicycle community center recently inaugurated-ed.]. There were over 200 people in there—many of them hadn’t been on Critical Mass but wanted to do something about it—so we had to hold the meeting in the backyard. And there were so many bicycles you barely had room to even get to the backyard. Everybody spoke in turn and after many hours we reached a decision: we would march on the following Tuesday asking for more humane cities and for the end of impunity for traffic crimes—because homicides where the car is used as a weapon are not treated as seriously as when other weapons are used. The protesters would meet at the same place Critical Mass gathered, would continue to the exact site of the incident to perform a die-in, then they would go to City Hall.

On Tuesday, when we go tot Zumbi dos Palmares Square, there were already a couple hundred people. … Someone printed 200 posters with, “It was not an accident,” written on it, and below a drawing of a half black car, half pistol. There was a samba group playing Carnaval marches with thematic lyrics. And the crowd was growing and growing. There were dozens of reporters and police officers, but mostly it was ordinary people, by foot, by bike, skateboards, with their faces painted, holding signs. Someone had built a cage with PVC pipes around his bike and a girl built a cardboard shield for hers.

The march started and we filled the streets. People stood watching on the sidewalks shouting words of support. Some of them joined us and the march kept growing. Soon we got to the site where Critical Mass was hit, we laid down on the asphalt, we screamed, we cried. It was a magic moment, we were back in that place full of awful memories but we had brought in reinforcements: thousands of people who came to show us solidarity and support. We got up, we kept on. About 4,000 people were marching in the streets, singing along with the samba band who improvised the lyrics and created new songs every few minutes. After all the suffering, I was overflowing with joy once again.

On the following days and weeks we received solidarity from all over the world….The following Critical Mass was one of a kind: there were people coming from different parts of Brazil, such as São Paulo and Curitiba, to ride with Porto Alegre’s Critical Mass. It was a huge ride by our standards. I believe there were more than 500 bicyclists, almost all of them people who had heard of Critical Mass for the first time in the news after the murder attempt. And it was beautiful, there were people in windows of buildings and sidewalks showing their support. Whenever we stopped at a red light everybody started clapping their hands in synchrony. The Mass was more alive and stronger than ever!

Eventually life got back to normal. The meetings with the City Hall and [government] were a fiasco—almost all of our demands and suggestions were completely ignored. The ones that were initially accepted were later dismissed…

I believe our strength is in the streets, not in politicians and their meetings. We do our politics in the streets.

We look forward to welcoming many Brazilians for San Francisco’s 20th Anniversary ride and the week of events leading up to it. Next we “visit” the UK and hear from rides in Manchester and London.

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!