"What’s this all about?" ask amused and bemused
pedestrians on Market Street as hundreds of noisy, high-spirited bicyclists ride
past, yelling and ringing their bells. There are a wide variety of answers: "It’s
about banning cars." "It’s about having fun in the street." "It’s about a more
social way of life." "It’s about asserting our right to the road". "It’s about
solidarity." Critical Mass is many things to many people, and while many concepts
expressed may evoke memories of past political protests, Critical Mass is foremost
a celebration, not a protest.
Critical Mass got started in September 1992
in San Francisco as a way to bring these various populations together in a festive
re-claiming of public space. The idea was initially conceived by one person, who
bounced the idea off other cyclists. San Francisco’s prominent bicycle messenger
community was enlisted primarily through word of mouth, while commuters were reached
by someone standing in the middle of the financial district passing out flyers.
Beginning rather under a less catchy name—the
Commute Clot—the ride drew an initial crowd of 60 cyclists, and these numbers
doubled for several months following. Critical Mass has continued and grown in
San Francisco, drawing about 700+ from month to month, with an October 1993 high
of 1000+, but it has spread to other cities as well. With independent rides springing
up all over the place (list of cities), Critical Mass has begun to take on the
character of a large scale, decentralized grassroots movement!
Ultimately, Critical Mass is just a bunch of
cyclists riding around together, going from one point to another. (Someone coined
the descriptive phrase "organized coincidence.") But the incredible thing is that,
in attempting this simple task, so many important and interesting questions come
up. Why is there so little open space in our cities where people can relax and
interact, free from the incessant buying and selling of ordinary life? Why are
people compelled to organize their lives around having a car? What would an alternative
future look like?
In writing this pamphlet, we have not set out
to answer these questions. Instead, we are using our familiarity with only one
of the many Critical Mass rides (San Francisco’s) to help accelerate the spread
of Critical Mass to other cities, and share ideas tactics, solutions, etc. We
hope that a small, inexpensive and easily reproduced pamphlet would go a long
way toward providing interested parties with the information and materials they
need to set up their own ride.
It is important to emphasize, however, that
no two rides will be identical, and while Critical Mass may be a common approach
to a common problem, different contexts will produce different dynamics, pressures,
etc. This pamphlet, then, is in no way intended as an "official blueprint" or
strict set of guidelines set forth by some all-knowing committee. Rather, it is
simply the brainchild of a small handful of Critical Mass enthusiasts in the Bay
Area, and it will inevitably reflect our experiences, prejudices and beliefs.
It should be relatively easy to set up a Critical
Mass ride. Whether they are commuters, couriers, or ride just for the fun of it,
every city has a population of bicyclists that are marginalized and threatened
by the current transportation system. Perhaps more importantly, these groups are
just the tip of the iceberg. Poor air quality, environmental degradation and the
general decay of living conditions due to over-reliance on motorized traffic in
urban areas are felt by everyone. There is a potential mass base for change in
all these scattered, isolated groups, and a Critical Mass ride can serve as a
rallying point to bring them together.
In San Francisco the organization of the event
has been as much a part of its success as anything else. Organizational politics,
with its official leaders, demands, etc., has been eschewed in favor of a more
decentralized system. There is no one in charge. Ideas are spread, routes shared,
and consensus sought through the ubiquitous copy machines on every job or at copy
shops in every neighborhood—a "Xerocracy", in which anyone is free to make copies
of their ideas and pass them around. Leaflets, flyers, stickers and ‘zines all
circulate madly both before, during and after the ride, rendering leaders unnecessary
by ensuring that strategies and tactics are understood by as many people as posssible.
Xerocracy promotes freedom and undercuts hierarchy
because the mission is not set by a few in charge, but rather is broadly defined
by its participants. The ride is not narrowly seen as an attempt to lobby for
more bike lanes (although that goal exists) or to protest this or that aspect
of the social order (although such sentiments are often expressed). Rather, each
person is free to invent his or her own reasons for participating and is also
free to share those ideas with others. Some people are there to promote human
powered transportation as a viable alternative, others seek the respect of motorists
and city planners and some take part simply because they like riding bikes and
feeling a sense of community with all the other cyclists on the Critical Mass
This "organic system" doesn’t lead to chaos,
but rather a festive, celebratory atmosphere. Great pains have been taken to avoid
the common pitfalls of other movements, with much Xerocratic space being devoted
to arguments against moralizing attacks on motorists and other unproductive tendencies.
By presenting bicycling as a fun, positive alternative to the dreary destructiveness
of car culture, Critical Mass has gained immeasurably.
GETTING THE WORD OUT
Getting the word out is the first step. Flyers
are a quick, cheap way to reach a large number of people. With a few friends and
a copy machine, you can have your area saturated with Critical Mass announcements
within a few days. However, the public walls of most cities have already been
plastered with so many announcements that alternative strategies are useful.
• Thin strips of xeroxed flyers can be attached
to bicycles around town.
• Small stickers can be put on anything bicyclists
lock their bikes to.
• Bicycle stores and bike-friendly businesses
can be asked to put flyers in their windows.
• Word of mouth, announcements by friendly
local radio DJs,on stage in clubs, etc.
WHERE AND WHEN TO START
The preliminary steps to setting up a ride
are fairly straight forward: pick a time, place and route. Beginning the ride
in some downtown area is obviously a good choice, since so many bicyclists and
commuters are already there. A well-known public area, easily accesible to most
bicyclists, where large numbers of people can congregate before the ride is perfect.
(In San Francisco, Critical Mass leaves from a plaza adjacent to the financial
district, which is conveniently located at the foot of the main traffic corridor.)
Choosing a time is even easier: you want to
meet in the early evening, say 5:30, both in order to accommodate bicycle commuters
who are on the streets anyway, and to gain visibility by making sure Critical
Mass is part of the rush hour traffic. Having Critical Mass fall on a Friday marks
it as the beginning of the weekend, and contributes to the celebratory feel of
the ride. And what better Friday for the event to take place than the last Friday
of the month? If Critical Mass continues to spread, the day may come when, on
the last Friday of the month, the sun is always setting on a Critical Mass ride!
It is important that the meeting time and place
remain constant, so that it is as easy for people to take part on a regular basis,
and more people can join in as the ride becomes a regular event.
PLANNING A ROUTE
Picking a safe, entertaining route is integral
to keeping Critical Mass novel and fun. There are several things to consider when
planning a route:
• Bicyclists of varying skills will be taking
part; planning a ride with lots of difficult hills or a very long distance is
not a good idea.
• The streets chosen should be large enough
to accommodate large numbers of cyclists. (One way streets are especially good.)
• Keep it simple. A complicated route that
veers all over the place might look fun on paper, but will prove to be unworkable
on the ride. People need to be able to read and easily memorize the route, so
they know where they’re going and what the ride is doing.
• Varying the route from month to month makes
each ride a bit of an adventure, and reaches a wider spectrum of people.
• The mood of the ride is influenced by the
area cycled through. A ride through a downtown area, where whoops and hollers
can echo off tall buildings, and there is a population of motorists and bystanders
to interact with, will create a more festive mood than a ride through an industrial
or suburban area. The latter two tend to quiet down the ride, which could be used
to vary the mood. It’s up to you.
• Have an end point, such as a park or bar,
where there’s the possibility for cyclists to socialize after the ride.
XEROCRATIC AESTHETICS: If you want to communicate,
make it easy to read!
Make sure the fliers passed out to participants
are readable and tell people what they need to know about the ride. For instance,
if there is a tricky intersection, or dangerous train tracks on the route, point
it out on the map. Doing the route flyer on a computer can make things easier
(if you’re computer literate, and has the advantage of being easy to read and
reproduce). The route sheet can also double as an informational bulletin/newsletter,
with troubleshooting ideas, news from the last ride, and ideas for future rides.
As the San Francisco Critical Mass grew beyond
the point where a single bicyclist could see both front and tail of the ride (about
300+), a xerocratic publication, Critical Mass Missives, started to appear. It
contains happenings on the previous ride, news of other Mass’s around the world
and discusses problems within or concerning the ride.
When bicyclists take to the streets en masse,
there will be a certain percentage of motorists who will not be amused. These
motorists—a minority, to be sure—will have a hard time seeing a group of bicyclists
as legitimate traffic, and may insist on forcing their way through the crowd.
The interference of these frustrated individuals, trapped as they are in their
cars, are a CONSTANT problem for Critical Mass. Tactics have to be developed,
understood, and implemented by as many people as possible in order to ensure that
this problem does not become too much of a drag on an otherwise fun and good-natured
ride. Here are the ones we’ve found work.
Think of Critical Mass as a density. It works
by forming a mass of bicyclists so dense and tight that it simply displaces cars.
Anytime the ride begins to spread too thin, with areas large enough for a car
to drive into, you have a potential trouble spot developing.
The simplest and easiest way to deal with this
problem is to encourage people to be aware of what’s going on around them, and
to act when they see things go awry. If a gap large enough for a car develops,
someone needs to ride into it and call over a friend. If the head of the ride
moves too fast and the Mass becomes too thin, someone in front needs to call out
for people to slow down, and for the ride to regroup. The same goes for those
at the tail of the ride, who may be riding so slow that the ride, again, spreads
too thin. Diagrams on the route sheet pointing out trouble areas and regrouping
points are a great way to bring all this across.
Density is vital in ensuring safety and a solid
image of bicycling as practical, safe and fun for the ride’s participants. When
Critical Mass is still passing through an intersection after the light has turned
red, in rush hour traffic, it is important to justify the long wait for cross
traffic by maintaining a steady mass of bicyclists riding through the intersection.
Corks are the diplomats of the ride. Their
title comes from their function. Here’s how they work: one or two bicyclists block
each lane of oncoming traffic as the ride goes through an intersection, making
sure that even if a gap large enough for a car to drive through should develop,
cars are stopped where they are. This tactic is especially effective if the cork
takes a friendly, non-antagonistic stance with motorists, even holding up signs
that say "thanks for waiting" and "honk if you like bikes!" Corks need to protect
the rear of the ride, too, from cars turning into it. Of course, no one needs
to be officially designated as a cork, and people will largely take on this role
of their own initiative.
Should Critical Mass obey the same traffic
laws that motorized traffic follows? Yes and no. For the most part, traffic laws
were made for cars, as anyone who routinely bicycles through stop signs can attest,
and they certainly weren’t written with large groups of bicyclists in mind. So
the answer to this question is obvious: Critical Mass should bend or ignore existing
traffic laws where the group’s safety and effectiveness will be served, and follow
the law where it serves our interests and needs.
Red lights are a perfect example of this principle.
When the head of the ride reaches a red light, it only makes sense to stop. This
way, a) no one endangers themselves by riding into oncoming traffic, b) we allow
motorists the simple courtesy of their right of way, and c) we give ourselves
an opportunity to stop, regroup and form a solid Mass. But if, as Critical Mass
passes through an intersection, the light changes, it does not make sense to break
into two groups, and the ride should just continue through the intersection, shielded
from the waiting cars by corks.
When the Mass thins out too much to justify
holding an intersection through a red light, it can be useful for someone to yell
out "BREAK MASS!" The first section of Critical Mass would continue through the
intersection and the second part would wait for the light to turn green. If all
goes well, the two groups will be reunited at the next light. This tactic is most
often used when the Mass gets larger and less cohesive.
As the ride goes along, people on the street,
waiting at bus stops or sitting in their cars will want to know what’s going on.
You won’t be able to stop and talk with all of them, and you’d be hard pressed
to fit it all into one sentence even if you could. So for anyone that is curious,
it really helps to have a small flyer made out that lets people know what Critical
Mass is, why we feel this action is necessary, and that invites them to the next
These flyers can be made to fit three to an
8 1/2 sheet of paper so that they’re inexpensive and can fit well in your back
pocket. Pass them out at the beginning of the ride, make sure that anyone who
is interested has a stack to give out, and watch as they get passed out to hundreds
of people who otherwise would have never heard of Critical Mass!
Those who hand out flyers along the route are
the real diplomats of the ride. Often the face-to-face contact by these cyclists
and occasional rollerbladers have been especially helpful in diffusing tense situations
arising from an angry car driver who has been made to wait. A cyclist will roll
up to these frustrated commuters and explain the ride while handing them a flyer.
This shows people you’ve thought of them a bit, and it buys you some time as they
digest the tract while the ride proceeds.
Like the corks, flyer distributors lend an
air of self-control to the ride for motorists and pedestrians. Corking and flyer
distribution is usually done on an ad-hoc basis, as needed, by cyclists who decide
spontaneously to fill those gaps.
KNOW THE LAW
The above planning is the skeleton of what
the Mass needs in order to be as enjoyable and carefree as it is. However, other
issues arise as soon as bicyclists, hundreds of bicyclists, hit the streets. Should
Critical Mass obey the same traffic laws that motorized traffic follows? For the
most part, traffic laws were made for cars, as anyone who routinely bicycles through
stop signs can attest, and they certainly weren’t written with large groups of
bicyclists in mind. So the answer to this question is Critical Mass should bend
or ignore existing traffic laws where the group’s safety and effectiveness will
Traffic laws vary from state to state and city
to city. Find out what the Vehicle Code says about bikes in your area. Know your
rights; in California bicyclists "enjoy" all the rights and responsibilities of
motor vehicles. Knowing the truth about what is in the book and being able to
correct those who quote it wrongly empowers the riders on Critical Mass. You can
obtain a traffic rules and regulations book at a Department of Motor Vehicles
What kind of approach do we take toward people
who choose to drive, or who happen to be stuck in cars, maybe for business, when
the ride passes? Just as important as devising strategies to deal with hostile
motorists is the need to deal with those in the ride who may provoke them.
For some bicyclists, Critical Mass is an opportunity
to berate motorists, now that WE own the road for once. Our society’s over-reliance
on motorized traffic is a massive and overwhelming social problem, and it won’t
be changed through the use of bitchy, ineffective tactics by a small minority
of pissed-off bicyclists. But a movement for change based on a reclaiming of public
space and the building of human community, open to people from across the social
and political spectrum, could contribute to a deeper and more fundamental change
in the way our society operates.
One of the important things to realize is that
the Mass will tend to follow whoever is is front, whether they have a clear idea
of where they’re going or not. "Vanguard" types, frustrated that their self-destructive
antics are not put up with in the middle of the ride, will generally sprint ahead
of the ride, go through red lights when it isn’t necessary, and try to block as
much traffic as possible. Or, they may decide to lead the ride off the agreed
What happens then is that the head of the ride
goes too fast, the ride spreads out, cars get in the middle of the ride, no one
has any idea what is going on, dangerous situations occur pretty rapidly, and
your Critical Mass becomes a Critical Mess.
The way to counter this is to get two or three
friends at the head of the ride who have some idea of what the route is and, more
importantly, are committed to staying in a group. If you all stick together as
a clump, you can influence the course of the ride by riding slowly, speaking out
where neccessary, and trying to keep everyone together. If you do this, you have
to be prepared to take a certain amount of shit from people who may see you as
someone imposing your ideas on everyone else. But speaking your mind and actively
asserting your initiative is not akin to being authoritarian—in fact, it’s the
essence of democracy.
Snails are a group of antagonistic bicyclists
who poke slowly behind the rest of the mass. This dawdling causes the mass to
thin out and anger car drivers who are waiting for the ride to progress through
the intersection or who are behind the mass and impatient for the mass get moving.
Again, make your opinion known and be comfortable
with that type of interaction. Remember, these people are not out to have the
best time for the greatest numbers. They are selfishly antagonizing motorists
and destroying any positive association that the drivers once might have had when
the rest of the jovial mass passed them.
Public demonstrations tend to make the government
look bad, since they vividly show that the government does not always represent
or have the support of the people. Naturally, the police are concerned about popular
demonstrations, and they generally take one of two approaches: either they attack
the demonstration—exposing the force on which this society is based—or they attempt
to portray themselves as the demonstration’s sponsors and diligent protectors.
With the Bay Area Critical Mass rides, they
have generally taken the second, paternalistic approach, allowing the ride to
take place, blocking traffic for us and making sure their presence is felt as
an "escort". On one occassion they even went so far as to announce over a bullhorn
before the ride "Welcome to this event!"—an outsider might have surmised that
the whole thing was planned and executed by the police themselves!
When police begin to arrest people or hassle
riders, they are trying to provoke a confrontation which will justify a repressive
crackdown—a confrontation in which their victory is almost guaranteed. It is important
not to take them up on the offer. When the police demand that the ride move into
the right lane, do it. Then, when the coast is clear, go back. After a few more
attempts to control the ride, the police usually give in and realize, short of
arresting everyone, there’s little they can do except ride along and actually
act like the public servants they professed to be in the beginning.
The best strategy is to avoid breaking any
laws you don’t have to, try to reason with those individuals on the ride who display
a tendency to get out of hand and don’t give the police an excuse to stop your
ride or bust anybody. Be up front and above board about the ride. After all, we’re
just riding home together in an organized coincidence, so give the cops the route
sheet if they want one.
Illustration by Jim Swanson
As much as they may try to own or control the ride, Critical Mass is a popular movement that operates independently of government regulations, and as such, we don’t have any business with the police (although they may have business with us). Within the anti-authoritarian culture of the bicyclist milieu, refusing the arbitrary commands of the police might make sense. But the best approach to the police presence at Critical Mass is not to engage in some pathetic, losing confrontation, or embrace them as our saviors and protectors. Rather, we should ignore them and get on with the business of trying to build a Mass.
This booklet was printed in early 1994 after being produced by an ad-hoc collective consisting of Chris Carlsson, Jim Swanson, Hugh D'Andrade, Kash, Nigel French, Beth Verdekal, Kathy Roberts, and several others...