Critical Mass: Social Change on Two Wheels

The average American drives about 12,000 miles and consumes around 800 gallons of gas each year. The Bureau of Transportation reports that there are 107 million U.S. households with an average of 1.9 cars, trucks or sport utility vehicles and 1.8 drivers. This equals 204 million vehicles and 191 million drivers. Of the 60,000 people surveyed by the Transportation Department, 91 percent commute to work using their own cars or trucks. These statistics translate into an alarming American dependence on foreign oil, an ever-weakening national economy, the impending threat of drilling in wildlife preserves and air pollution.

Enter one of the oldest means of getting from point A to B: the bicycle. Now, imagine not just one, but many of them. In fact, while you’re at it, imagine a whole “critical mass” of bicycles riding down the street at once, taking up as much space as a lane of cars. This is exactly what several bicyclists-turned-activists in San Francisco imagined over twelve years ago. And then they decided to make it happen. As Chris Carlsson, one of those original riders, puts it, the group simply wanted "to ride home together, displace cars from the streets, and alter the use of public space." Little did they know they would also be starting a global movement.

Today, Critical Mass has become a monthly phenomenon that takes place in over 300 cities worldwide. And whether or not it is merely another way to get home, or an active act of protest, depends on whom you speak to.

Participant Beth Wacks told WireTap that she feels that the need for Critical Mass events is "definitely more urgent now because of America's oil dependency and the war in Iraq," which she believes is in part "a manifestation of cars being given priority over people in our society." Speaking about America's dependence on automobiles, Wacks emphasized that, "people need to realize that the way we're living now isn't sustainable." Critical Mass is one positive way for activists to sound this alarm to drivers.

A grassroots effort that has no central leadership, a Critical Mass event consists of cyclists getting together, via word-of-mouth and fliering (and most recently Internet webrings, listservs and bike forums), to ride the city streets "home" together. While this doesn't sound like a typical radical protest, it's very effective at getting attention, although not always positive, and raising awareness. This is because cyclists in Critical Mass events also usually stop rush hour traffic for 5-20 minutes at a time. Riders often employ "corking" techniques (or using individual riders to block off intersections) to allow bikers – sometimes numbering in the thousands – through traffic.

Corkers will often hold up signs that read things like, "Honk if you love bicycles," but drivers are not always appeased. It is not unusual for a Critical Mass event to inspire violence and litigation. In fact, sometimes it sparks international controversy. Participants have been wrongfully arrested in San Francisco (in July of 1997) and Los Angeles (in August of 2000.) Another widely discussed occurrence of violence took place in the spring of 1993 when "a motorist attempted to drive through a pack of cyclists," injuring many riders and resulting in damage to the driver's car.

In August of 2004, the protest aspect of critical mass was brought to a new level when some 5,000 byciclists showed up to a Manhattan version of the event that served to kick off the week of marching and direct action in opposition to the RNC. A 45-block long brigade of cyclists, skaters and pedestrians, the ride lasted about 2 hours and culminated in a rally that caused as many as 250 arrests.

Despite some opposition, Critical Mass has gained large-scale, positive notoriety with the distribution of several documentaries such as “We Are Traffic” and “July 25th: The Secret Is Out.” The Rio de Janeiro contingent is 7,000 strong and even has their own corporate sponsor: Diet Coke. Although corporate sponsorship seems antithetical or, at the very least, contrary to the philosophies behind a leaderless protest movement, it does show evidence of the amount of well-deserved attention and positive response this radical re-conceptualization of travel is getting.

It's not surprising to learn that Critical Mass events became a regular phenomenon in the U.S. cities that the League of American Bicyclists honors as "bicycle-friendly communities," where traffic laws are bike friendly (offering bikes the right-of-way over cars), "safe accommodation[s] and facilities for bicyclists" (such as bike-riding lanes) are prevalent, and "bicycling for fun, fitness and entertainment" are encouraged. These cities include places like Berkeley, Calif., with its "Bicycle Boulevards" running throughout the town, and Eugene, Ore., a city that "enjoys levels of bicycle use that are well above the national average." What is surprising is the success of Critical Mass events in large, not-so-bike-friendly cities such as Baltimore and New York. Of course, the concept of success is relative. If you're part of a decentralized, youthful protest movement attempting to take over the taxi-infested, angry streets of New York, a successful ride can result in a civil rights lawsuit against the NYPD.

For many young bicycle lovers, Critical Mass puts a name to what they're already doing – riding their bikes for a fun, cheap, and healthful way to get around. Critical Mass also offers a creative outlet for artists, who design costumes and customized bikes for the rides. Many, like Baltimore participant Russell Deocampo, 27, use the ride to show off bikes they’ve rebuilt using old and broken-down bikes. Deocampo describes the rides as laid-back events, where the riders "usually end up at a bar afterward" discussing, among other things, the events of the ride. The festive, parade-like atmosphere that many Critical Mass events may be one reason the movement has grown so steadily over the last decade.

Lisa Santos is a young Critical Mass rider who works at Light Street Cycles, a mid-Atlantic bicycle shop and advocacy group where cyclists meet to organize Critical Mass events. She says she first joined Critical Mass because, "It's just not safe to ride a bike in the street unless there are a lot of you; plus, it's a lot of fun." She continues riding in Critical Mass gatherings for "environmental reasons" and in an effort to help make America more beautiful. Other nations, she points out, have accepted bicycling as a typical part of life.

"Have you ever seen pictures of a parking lot in Holland?," Santos asks. "[In Holland] there'll be like one car and fifty bikes. I just wish America could look more like that."

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