Usually the members of the Critical Mass group get cut off, bullied and shoved onto the sidewalk by cars, like most urban cyclists trying to use the street for their daily commutes. Once a month, however, cyclists join forces to reclaim the streets from the cars, if only for an hour or two.
On the first Friday of the month in 349 cities worldwide, fed-up cyclists travel en masse through city streets to build community morale and shift the balance of power on the road in their favor. They move as though they aren’t a pack of vehicles but one segmented vehicle, like a truck with 30 trailers attached to the back. The mass blocks off entire lanes to motor traffic and refuses to be divided. Once one bicycle makes it through an intersection, the convoy doesn’t stop until every bicycle has made it through – even if the light changes midway.
The members of Critical Mass see their rides as a kind of political action. Steeped in environmentalism and counterculture, members use the rides to protest “landfills of junked cars, pollution from oil, wars over control of oil, thousands of deaths yearly from accidents, alienation from less human contact, violence and noise pollution,” as one of its flyers puts it.
“We want to be visible, to be respected, to take direct action against the cars in the city,” said Jane Smith*, a GW student who has been involved in Critical Mass in D.C. and Boston for the past three years.
When asked how she deals with pushy cars that don’t want to let the convoy though or try to shove them over into the shoulder, she said, “I take them head on.”
Not every member of Critical Mass is as ardent about the group’s reputation of having a confrontational nature. Some even baulk at calling it a protest.
“(Critical Mass) isn’t really a protest, but a celebratory event, more about reclaiming space, getting the word out…getting people to make more radical choices,” said Aaron James, a 30-year-old computer technician and member of the D.C. chapter of Critical Mass.
“We just want to create a positive environment for biking and provide another way to meet people. We’re doing it for ourselves as much as anyone else,” James said.
Critical Mass professes to be non-hierarchical and anarchistic, without leaders or set ideals. It doesn’t have a manifesto, elections or officers. There is no one official Web site; there are hundreds of local ones and several international sites instead. Each site may cater to the feel of the local chapter, but on some level they retain the same methodology and goal: fewer cars on the road and more respect for cyclists. Most rides distribute literature, urging people to use their cars less and respect cyclists on the road.
Critical Mass has been confronting cars in this fashion since 1992, beginning in San Francisco and spreading across the globe via the net and word of mouth.
“Some people really just enjoy (confronting the cars), that’s half the reason to do it,” Smith said.
The term “critical mass,” as it applies to bicycling, comes from a scene in Return of the Scorcher, a 1992 short documentary on cycling. The term refers to a cycling phenomenon in China.
“One person would be out on her bike and trying to cross the street, but the cars wouldn’t stop for her. So she’d wait until 50 other cyclists needed to cross and they’d all rush out together,” Smith said. Critical Mass feeds on that sense of frustration, the helplessness of that first biker. It is because of this universal frustration among cyclists that the group has managed to spread across six continents, despite claiming to be a totally anarchistic organization without leaders or any sort of hierarchy.
“I’ve never seen a flyer for it…you find out about it through friends…you pretty much have to know somebody. Anybody could join, I guess, but it’s kind of clique-ish. It’s good to know somebody…it’s kind of a boys club really,” Smith said.
James maintains, however, that Critical Mass has stayed true to its anarchist roots, saying that members take turns planning bike routes and that D.C. Critical Mass is in the midst of a period of “amazing diversification.”
The group spreads by word of mouth, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had help. Many originators of the first Critical Mass group, started in San Francisco in 1992, are still active today in their own communities and in starting new chapters of the group. Most notably Chris Carlsson, the group’s unofficial founder, recently published a collection of essays and interviews about Critical Mass and went on a speaking tour to promote the book and the group.
The D.C. chapter, active since winter 2000, meets on the first Friday of every month at 6 p.m. in Dupont Circle. A typical ride will include 15 to 40 riders, with numbers increasing during fair weather. Rides usually last one to two hours. Loaner bikes are available for those who need them.
James said riders do not need to be in prime physical condition.
“We make a real effort to stay together, both because it’s safer for the riders and the cars to have one mass on the road instead of two.”
Confrontations with the police are an inevitable part of Critical Mass. According to James, an earlier incarnation of the D.C. chapter of Critical Mass disbanded under police pressure, although tensions between the two have eased a bit since.
“The police are ill-informed,” James said, adding that cyclists are safer in the streets than they are on the sidewalk.
While Smith said everything the group does is legal, James says that the group has been known to bend a few rules in order to ensure the safety of riders.
“We take everything on a case by case basis,” James said. “It’s more important to get home safe…we’re not the problem though, it’s the cars. People don’t realize the kind of power being in a car gives them.”
Is cycling like this actually safe? According to Phil Kelly, bicycle enthusiast and employee of Revolutions Cycles in Arlington who is familiar with Critical Mass, the answer is clear.
“No, absolutely not, there’s no way that that’s safe” Kelly said. “Sure, it’s perfectly safe to bike along side the road with all the proper safety gear…but not into traffic like that.”
But Critical Mass members say they feel safe on their rides.
“Its normal to feel a little threatened at times, but there’s really nothing to worry about,” Smith said.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.