“It started with a bike ride in San Francisco on Sept. 25, 1992. About 50 people cycled in a pack along Market Street, hoping to earn some respect from drivers who sometimes ignored them or edged them off the road. They called it the “Commute Clot.” Today it’s known as Critical Mass, a movement that’s spread worldwide. Supporters say it promotes cycling and the rights of bicyclists. But critics say it is illegal, clogs traffic and antagonizes drivers…” [source]
Have you ever noticed huge groups of bikers cycling through the main roads of cities while being somewhere in-between protest and party mode? You probably witnessed a Critical Mass gathering.
Why this choice of words for the name? One of the movement’s co-founders, Chris Carlsson, described it as follows:
“…intersection crossing etiquette in China’s big cities is discussed as a matter of Critical Mass: the cross traffic waits until it achieves a critical mass and then pushes through, leaving the original stream of traffic to stop and build until it reaches its push-through point. Once a month we are a Critical Mass, filing 3-4 long blocks of San Francisco’s Market Street at the tail end of rush hour, and pedaling in a free expression zone temporarily free of engines and exhaust…
In physics, it is “the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction” , while in sociodynamics, and directly inspired by the above definition, it is “a sufficient number of adopters of an innovation in a social system so that the rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining and creates further growth. The title is more than a clever play on words: its implied goal is to create a movement that will keep bringing forward the issue of cycling within cities and how traffic regulation,s and especially driver culture in most places, still need to properly incorporate the most efficient vehicle known to man. For many people, though, Critical Mass is above all a celebration of biking, a “be the change you wish to see in the world” brought about by joy and sharing.
What started with this meeting a quarter of a century ago has inadvertently become a worldwide phenomenon; however, it remains one difficult to measure. Because of the decentralized nature of this movement and the way the groups form naturally, it’s virtually impossible to accurately report the number of the (hundreds of) meetings held monthly or the number of participating cities and cyclists.
Fortunately, we have some Critical Mass fans of our own within the ranks of our Spotters, such that we can take an interesting, comparative look at the differences between their home cities in the movement specifically and biker culture in general .
“Everyone is invited! No one is in charge!”
The birthplace of the movement couldn’t but feature one of the most vibrant and, perhaps ideologically hardcore, crowds.
“The Critical Mass ride is lots of fun and serious for some”, says San Francisco Spotter Nadine Johnson. “Some use it as a protest against road dangers to cyclists. Others use it as a great way to meet other bike lovers in the city of all ages.”
What if you want to join the monthly meeting?
“Remember, the ride route is posted on the website every month. You can avoid the traffic jam if you’re in a car or enjoy the site and take a few pictures. A little patience, and planning, goes a long way. On the last Friday of the month, the ride starts in at Justin Herman Plaza at the base of Market Street.”
“Body paint optional.” – or maybe not so much!
“We’re not blocking traffic – we ARE traffic!”
This is the motto of 4,000 – 5,000 cyclists participating in Hamburg’s meetings, which also take place every last Friday of each month.
It’s easy to tell local Uwe is a big fan: “For some it’s a protest, for others just a bicycle tour, yet others call it a flash mob – for me it’s a bit like a huge family outing where everyone is having a great time and where people are eager to help out if someone is in need of a pump or a repair kit.”
Despite the political overtone and a symbol of practical camaraderie, it’s no less a place to show off your bike or just have a laugh: some provide entertainment by dressing up, bringing their music (stereos on trailers), attaching bubble blowing devices to their racks or sharing lollipops with everyone. My favorite, however, is a guy with a BBQ mounted on his handle bars who grills sausages while riding!”
Emphasis ours. Sweet, delicious emphasis ours.
“The route is unknown till the last minute, but is doable by everybody.”
The Critical Mass meetings in Athens go by the name of “Friday-Freeday“s and their rides around the city often last up to 4 hours. They are different from other gatherings in this collection by being weekly and nightly. Recent participation has been around 1,000 cyclists.
Local Sofia explains why this movement is significant for her city in particular:
“Athens is definitely not a bicycle friendly city. Not only the landscape but also, and most importantly, the lack of infrastructure, are the main reasons for that. Recently, some people have been trying to introduce the bicycle as an alternative, environment friendly and budget friendly transportation means. And they are doing a good job: the bicycle fans are increasing and a walk around the city will prove it.”
Friday-Freeday meets every Friday at 21:30 Thisseion square, outside the metro station.
“It feels amazing being a part of this group/movement…”
Local Spotter Bogdan started loving biking in his city much more ever since he started regularly attending Critical Mass:
“We ride through the streets of Belgrade to raise awareness about our existence as cyclists and it’s a fight for better conditions and infrastructure for bikes in the city.Well that is what we are fighting for, but for me it’s more about having fun, meeting tons of new people, riding weird bikes, playing loud music on speakers while riding and ending up in a pub for a drink or on a field to have a picnic...”
“The route is always different but you can find more info, photos and videos on the Facebook page and since you probably don’t have a bike with you, you can contact me via Facebook or send a message to Critical mass‘ fan page and we will help you borrow or find a place to rent a bike.”
Belgrade’s gatherings take place every last Saturday of the month at 16:30 at Republic Square.