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: February 28th, 2020, 5:30pm, at Justin Herman Plaza (foot of Market Street).

Transformations: Bicicletada in São Paulo (Shift Happens! excerpted)

September 19th, 2012 by LisaRuth

Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20 takes a ride through 31 cities.  We’re profiling them all here! For some macro- and micro-views of the effects of Critical Mass in São Paulo, Thiago Benicchio and Tatiana Achcar take us through that car-congested city.

Thiago Benicchio’s “Critical Mass is Dead. Long Live Critical Mass!” gives a great account of the rise and fall of Critical Mass in São Paulo:

Critical Mass, called Bicicletada in Brazil, has been going for a decade, but was never that big in São Paulo, except for on annual World Carfree Days. In São Paulo, Critical Mass was the “Big Bang” for all the public and private initiatives concerning urban cycling, and also a significant inspiration to many other cities in Brazil. From the idea that regular people do use bicycles to move around, to the recent public spaces opened by the city, it’s undeniable that this small and creative crowd was responsible for starting real changes in a car-centric city with 12 million inhabitants. On the other hand, São Paulo’s Bicicletada wasted a lot of its power as a social movement, and in recent years suffered from the boredom of becoming just another bicycle ride without any deeper political, cultural, or artistic expression (even those related strictly to bicycles).

The Internet was a very important tool for the growth of Bicicletada in a huge city that’s also short of public spaces. Articles, photos, and videos published first on the Indymedia website, and later on corporate social media sites … helped to spread the idea. …When I joined Bicicletada, I started a blog called Apocalipse Motorizado, with a monthly report advertising the ride, and following up with multimedia coverage of the rides.

The Internet, of course, is just a medium used to spread ideas; the noted websites were in fact supported by dozens of citizens taking pictures, shooting videos, or writing articles about the monthly rides on social networks and in email groups. The street actions and the strong group of people willing to participate and promote Bicicletada every month were the main reasons for its growth and importance.

Whether in New York City or San Francisco, the moment when Critical Mass lost its early aura perhaps was due to police repression. In São Paulo the moment in which the Bicicletada substantially lost its transformative potential perhaps took place in 2007, and has very different roots. As traffic congestion continuously worsened, especially in the expanded center of the city, the little ant-like work done by some dozens of individuals during Critical Mass and on our blogs and social networks caused the number of bicycle riders to grow substantially, at least among middle-class people…

For the reasons behind the “death” of Critical Mass in São Paulo, pick up a copy!

And Tatiana Achcar recounts her personal journey of “Inventing an Autonomina,” or how she created an autonomous life through getting on a bike and participating in São Paulo’s Bicicletada—to start…

On the first bike trip I took through the center of Brazil, a truck driver, from way up on his enormous truck, shouted rather loudly as he passed our group: “Buy a car!” That phrase somewhere between a joke and an expression of disgust, made me think that the man simply couldn’t imagine how we were enjoying ourselves tremendously in the process of transporting ourselves with our own bodies.

I was caught up in the sense of freedom on two wheels and my bicycle took over larger and larger parts of my life. But I have to admit that the daily struggles of being a cyclist in São Paulo were depressing. I felt very insecure, like an alien, and I didn’t know how to behave in traffic or how to ride safely. A bike activist friend, Eduardo Green, took me along and I discovered the Bicicletada and joined the group, rather small at the time. I didn’t understand exactly what it was: A ride? A protest? With what purpose and what destination? There was a spirit of resistance there and the slogan menos carro, mais bicicleta (“less cars, more bikes”), shouted along the huge avenues, was proof of that. Through this crowd I also discovered some anarchist collectives that I found interesting… São Paulo had become too small for me. I needed to carve out a sense of autonomy and see the world. By undertaking a journey, I recalibrated my life forever. I packed my bags, gave up my apartment, and left. Thus began an intense and unforgettable series of firsts.

Find out where Tatiana traveled to and the discoveries she made along the way when you order your copy of Shift Happens!


September 16th, 2012 by ccarlsson

Both submissions to Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20 from Rome—from the Network of People’s Bike Kitchens of Rome and by Rotafixa—speak from the difficulties of confronting the seemingly fixed car culture in that city of world wonders. To add to the wonders, they’ve inserted Critical Mass into the mix.  And Marco Pierfranceschi, in “Critical Mass Meets Italian Cycle Touring” recounts how applying a Critical Mass style of organizing to Italian Cycle Touring transformed it and increased the participation and fun immensely (no excerpt of this piece included, sorry!).

“Let’s take back Rome!: Critical Mass, Ciemmona and CiclOfficine Popolari in Rome” gives us a look at the origins of the People’s Bike Kitchens:

Before 2002 [when Critical Mass Rome began], bicycles in Rome were found only in basements and garages, and as decorative objects. Urban cyclists were rare animals: poor, unlucky, unimaginable relatives of the sport cyclist, the kind only normally seen on Sundays on Roman boulevards.

In this urban landscape, with an average of one car per inhabitant, Critical Mass Rome reclaimed the right to be part of traffic and to go beyond that. To be effective in pushing people to use the bike everyday, it was necessary to create support centers aimed at giving information on the use and maintenance of the bicycle in an unfriendly city like Rome. This meant also creating a social space where people could teach each other how to repair bikes used as means of transportation, by sharing mechanical knowledge.

In 2003 to fulfill this need, two “bike kitchens” were created inside two squatted social centers. …The bike kitchens immediately produced a new political voice in Rome, critiquing transportation models based on the dictatorship of automobiles. These groups used the bike on a daily basis as a form of direct action. A new political subject appeared in Roman demonstrations and social movement spaces: the biker activist—always with one pant leg rolled up and one down, and black grease on her/his hands.

Social centers started organizing events with the bicycle as a lifestyle theme. The bike kitchens became places where everyone could learn and contribute her/his capabilities, whether using the welder or becoming metal parts fetishists. The first monster bikes were created including two-story bikes, recumbents, long johns, rickshaws, and carts. The explosion of creativity took place on a foundation of everyday bicycling, leading to the formation of a community of cyclists and mechanics. It started to spread like wildfire, shaping a new kind of political awareness. The community centered around this daily struggle—but also with a monthly celebration in the Critical Mass ride—became more participatory, fun, and effective. Soon two bike kitchens were insufficient to satisfy the growing demand to learn to fix, disassemble, grease, polish, and improve bikes. In 2004, some Don Quixote mechanics opened another kitchen in the social center Angelo Mai next to the Coliseum. Rome, by then, had bike kitchens covering all the main areas, providing a self-made infrastructure for urban bikers’ safety and service, making cyclists more aware of their presence and strength in numbers.

Rotafixa muses about “Political Critical Mass in Rome”:

Critical Mass in Rome created a new way of acting politically. In less than a decade, it taught us to resist the hegemonic politics that have dominated Italy for decades. With Critical Mass we (re)discovered a way to relate to the world around us, and rediscovered the point of connection among all human beings. We even became reacquainted with the key to what makes us human, things like the opposable thumb, nomadism, communication, and an ability to connect the individual and the collective. Our species has these qualities, which are especially effective if used together.

During the last few decades we haven’t been living well. We depend too much on cars, and those who want to move by other means are struggling, especially bicyclists. Critical Mass emerged out of this need, establishing that roads are not just for motorists, but are actually much better without cars.

Not know where the Critical Mass rides go has a deeper resonance; humans don’t know where our species is going either! Supporting each other, sharing an intention, joining something we have only heard of, perhaps going because your beloved mentioned the idea to you. This “thing” called Critical Mass embodies many different motivations. it is so refreshing to become part of a community of people you don’t know, and find that group acting together effectively. In Critical Mass we share an intention to engage in the simple act of riding bicycles through the city streets, once a month. These meetings nourish a dream some of us cultivate in solitude: What if we were a really huge mass of bikers? The dream comes true in Critical Mass.

São Paulo has also had to fight against an über car-centric attitude in that city.  Read about what the bicycle movement has done to break through, and how one individual’s move toward autonomy came through Critical Mass and biking in our next installment!

We just sent off books today to all who have ordered them online!  Buy one from us and get your very own copy soon too!

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.