Reclaiming the Road for Cyclists
Critical Mass—part social gathering, part collective action—is difficult to define, even amongst participants. There is no formal structure organizing the movement, and no uniform message, except perhaps an implicit critique of car culture and a transportation system that privileges those who drive over those who ride. But as Tom Gomes of Dash Bike Shop on Broadway put it, it’s basically just “a big group bike ride.”
"The first one [in Providence] that I can remember being called a ‘Critical Mass’ happened in either the summer of 2000 or 2001," Gomes said. "It was a bunch of people who were at the time getting together and forming a small bicycle co-op or collective. We didn't really organize one.” Instead, he says, they put up flyers advertising a group bike ride through the streets of Providence, listing only a meet-up place, and the route would be decided on the spot.
Soon after, Critical Mass became a monthly event for the Providence cycling community. At an event in June 2001, for example, about 70 riders—or ‘massers’ as participants call themselves—snaked their way from the State House lawn, through downtown traffic, and up to the Westside via Atwells Ave, eventually ending at an art opening at AS220’s Broad Street Studio in South Providence.
Bicyclists who participate see cycling as a form of urban expressionism, choosing to get from A to B in a more environmentally and economically sustainable fashion. As Gomes puts it, “It’s a fun community activity to raise a little bit of awareness to drivers and the public about riding bikes as a means of transportation. Just letting people know that bikes are on the road and are a viable form of transportation.”
Critical Mass, now a global phenomenon, began with the efforts of a few dozen cyclists in San Francisco in 1992. At the time, they referred to themselves by the highly descriptive but considerably less sexy name ‘Commute Clot.’ But by their second ride, the name had been changed to ‘Critical Mass,’ which has its roots in a method used by Chinese cyclists to negotiate signal-less crossings: crowding together at an intersection until they achieve a “critical mass” capable of stopping car traffic.
As the events in San Francisco gained media attention, the idea of mass bike rides that inverted the usual power dynamic of the road—cyclists deferring to the speed and might of the car—proliferated across the country and around the globe. There is no central organization, but many cities have homegrown chapters, with websites, email lists, and flyers that regularly advertise scheduled rides. What early organizers had described as an “unorganized coincidence” developed into a language and an ethic of its own, voiced by posters emblazoned with slogans like “Ride daily, celebrate monthly,” “Free of emissions, free parking, free feeling,” and, most powerfully, “We’re not blocking traffic—we are traffic!”
Varying in popularity and frequency from place to place and season to season, some rides barely attracted enough “mass” to hold a lane of traffic, while others have had the strength in numbers to take over entire stretches of road. In Budapest, for example, a twice-yearly Critical Mass attracts tens of thousands of cyclists.
By no means has Critical Mass been a ho mogenous movement. Many self-identified “massers” have dispelled media characterizations of the events as protests, or parts of a social movement. And as one might imagine, the fundamental idea of Critical Mass—the possibility for a collective effort to disrupt the flow of otherwise unstoppable power—is not always conducive to avoiding conflict.
There is debate amongst massers about the desirability of more confrontational approaches to dealing with motorists. While some prefer to strictly adhere to the motto of "We're not blocking traffic," others have sought to intimidate drivers or to otherwise take back the streets for bikes by whatever means necessary. A source who chose to remain anonymous described a ride he participated in a couple years ago in Boston that started off peacefully, but after verbal harassment by an SUV driver, ended with riders using their U-locks to smash its windows.
Critical Mass riders often engage in unlawful traffic maneuvers for the sake of maintaining ride cohesion, the maintenance of “mass” being necessary to preserve each cyclist’s safety. For example, some massers briefly block intersections with stationary cyclists while riders in the rear catch up—a tactic called “corking.” In some cities like Montreal and Seattle, where militant Critical Mass rides have inspired several confrontations with drivers and authorities, alternative rides have sprung up, with names like Critical Manners, Courteous Mass, and Ridecivil. These rides seek to promote cycling as a legitimate mode of transport by encouraging harmonious interactions between commuters and strict adherence to traffic laws
The occasional volatility of the rides, their tendency to obstruct motor vehicle traffic, and, perhaps, their success as a carnavalesque spectacle have provoked significant police scrutiny at times. At a Critical Mass during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, more than 260 riders of the total 5,000 were arrested at random, most on charges of disorderly conduct, despite the fact that the mass was reportedly peaceful apart from the usual traffic violations (which should only have warranted tickets).
During the summer of 2004, Critical Mass participants in Kowloon, Hong Kong refused to obtain the police permission required for “public processions.” In their defense, Kowloon’s massers claimed during interviews with the press that there was no one organizer or organization behind the event, and that turnout couldn’t be determined in advance. “We don’t have any slogan or any specified agenda,” one cyclist told the South China Morning Post.
The Providence rides have not been immune to the ongoing debate about acquiescence versus antagonism. While many massers in Providence initially preferred non-confrontational riding, others were all about causing a disturbance, and forcing people to be aware that way. Gomes is unconvinced that mass rides could ever get away from that. With any ride, he noted, “There will be people with different agendas and different reasons for doing it.”
Gomes’ own motivations are idealistic, but not necessarily in the political sense. He views Critical Mass as a “way to get together with a lot more people”, beyond your familiar acquaintances, since it doesn't “really matter what type of biking you’re into,” he says
The last Critical Mass that Gomes participated in was about five years ago around Halloween, and, he said, “It wasn't very well attended. Since Providence is such a small city there wasn't much associated with them and they became less eventful as they did them more frequently.” He added that if the events had been a little better advertised, it might have improved turnout.
Next Friday, Providence critical massers hope to make a comeback. On October 7 (Saturday, if it rains) they will be gathering at Burnside Park in Kennedy Plaza at 6PM. All Providence residents with two wheels at their disposal are welcome to join them. So put down your books, your pens, pencils and paintbrushes, try to get off work early, call the babysitter, grab some friends, some cycles, and let’s ride. Who knows what route the heterogeneous mass will take.