Archive for the ‘Shift Happens book’ Category

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!!

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.


Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20

July 16th, 2012 by ccarlsson

Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20 is a new book published to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass, which falls this September 28, two decades after the event started in San Francisco and spread around the world.

"Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20" cover

Pre-order a copy here.

Here are some excerpts from the introductory essay that I wrote called “Ruminations of an Accidental Diplomat”:

Realizing that 20th anniversary of Critical Mass was less than a year away, late last year we put out an international call for thoughtful analyses. We wanted to go deeper and further than the 10th anniversary book had done. Shift Happens! is the result, and we are extremely happy with the quality and breadth of the writing we received. Several dozen contributors and a wide range of experiences across the Critical Mass world fill these pages, where the original concept is still recognizable but has also mutated and shifted over time and space in fascinating ways…

Critical Mass was born 20 years ago among dozens of people in San Francisco and has reproduced itself in over 350 cities around the world thanks to the diligent efforts of countless thousands across the planet. Often just a few people start riding together and it attracts others to join, gaining momentum steadily until it bursts onto a city’s political and social landscape. Moreover, the concept of riding together en masse is open-ended enough that people have adapted it in many ways during the past decades, from altering the structure of formal recreational riding to using “Critical Mass-style” rides to bring attention to a wide range of political campaigns and issues.

And as we learn from some of the essays in this new collection, mass bike rides weren’t invented in 1992. They took place in different parts of the world years before we started in San Francisco, notably in Bilbao, Spain and Helsinki, Finland where our writers describe earlier rides. Chinese cities were full of bicycles as primary transportation for decades; observing traffic patterns in 1991 Shanghai from a hotel window, New Yorker George Bliss described how bicycles would pile up at the side of a flow of traffic until they reached “critical mass” and broke through to create their own traffic stream—this is where our name came from. Not far from where I lived as a boy in North Oakland, early ecological activists staged an annual mass bike ride called “Smog-Free Locomotion Day” on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue from 1969-71. In the deep social genes of San Francisco itself, mass bike rides of 5,000-8,000 cyclists jammed muddy, rutted streets a century earlier, in 1896, to demand “Good Roads” and asphalt (unknowingly setting the stage for the next vehicle of speed, convenience, and personal freedom that soon followed: the automobile). My mother was born and raised in Copenhagen where I visited as a small boy and then again in 1977 as a young adult—the sensible organization of public streets with space dedicated to bicycle transit was self-evidently preferable to the freeways and rigid, car-dominated street grids of my California childhood. (more…)

Buy Some Art & Books and Support CM20 Celebrations

July 16th, 2012 by hughillustration

Our little group of Critical Mass enthusiasts took it on ourselves to plan a bunch of activities to mark the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass in September 2012. We’re selling posters and books that we still have in abundance, and will use the funds to support similar ongoing projects.

We have just dropped the prices on posters to $10 each or all 3 for $20, and we’re selling “Shift Happens” for $15, a 25% discount from cover price.

Click on the Add to Cart link below to buy online and have it shipped.

You can also buy the book at the following San Francisco locations:

“Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20” Book
AK Press
Alexander Book Co (Downtown/SOMA)
City Lights (North Beach)
Green Arcade (Mid-Market)
Modern Times (in the Mission)


Buy Online

“Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20,” edited by Chris Carlsson, LisaRuth Elliott & Adriana Camarena, with essays, photos and art from around the world. Buy it here for $15 plus shipping, 25% off the normal price of $20.
Note: Orders of more than one book may require additional postage. Please order, you will be charged for the cost of shipping the first book, and we will notify you of any additional costs. ALSO: If you are ordering from outside the U.S. the postage has become ridiculously expensive. For example, one copy of Shift Happens! to Brazil = $20 in postage alone!… so check with us about the total price before ordering.

Shift Happens (25% off)

Mona Caron’s CM20 standard poster, 12 x 24 on glossy stock, offset litho: $10

If you are ordering from outside the U.S. the postage has become ridiculously expensive. Please add $10 for any poster orders outside the U.S. to cover postage.

Hugh D’Andrade’s CM20 poster, 12 x 24 on glossy stock, offset litho: $10
If you are ordering from outside the U.S. the postage has become ridiculously expensive. Please add $10 for any poster orders outside the U.S. to cover postage.

Jim Swanson’s CM20 poster, 15.5 x 13 on glossy stock, offset litho: $10
If you are ordering from outside the U.S. the postage has become ridiculously expensive. Please add $10 for any poster orders outside the U.S. to cover postage.

Get All Three Posters for $20!

If you are ordering from outside the U.S. the postage has become ridiculously expensive. Please add $10 for any poster orders outside the U.S. to cover postage.