Why They’re Wrong About Critical Mass

Published in Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration [Powell’s Books], printed by AK Press.

“I have no problem with waving and smiling. I have no problem if the entire flow of traffic is going the speed of the Mass. I take offense at the times you run red lights, the times there are open spaces in front of the Mass and you still take up four lanes. I take offense at the claim you are celebrating biking, when you’re really trying to take revenge on what you perceive to be wrongs visited upon bikers by motorists.”

Mr. Hat, Frequent Pseudonymous Poster to the Boston Critical Mass E-mail List

“The reason I didn’t like it is because many cyclists did not follow respectful share the road rules. They were out to harrass cars. If i were in a car, I’d be really pissed. … They went against all the Effective Cycling rules.”

Rebecca Kushner, 4/11/00 (Public Posting to CM E-mail List)

“Their act is violence perpetrated upon the community. If their intent is to [resist by non-violent means], I invite them to join an advocacy group such as the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin which is working daily to eliminate the barriers and reduce the frustration felt by all cyclists and lots of motorists.”
Charles Gandy, Executive Director of the Texas Bicycle Coalition.

“The Critical Mass rides […] are misdirected, childish efforts at bicyclist advocacy.”
Kenneth O’Brien, Maine Area Effective Cyclist Advocate

“But which unjust laws are CM riders fighting against?”
Paul Schimek, Effective Cycling Instructor #422

A robust Critical Mass movement inevitably bumps up against fairly vocal folks who would prefer we stay off the streets at rush hour and not ruin the meager gains that have been won for bicyclists over the past few years. Disapproval is particularly acute when Critical Mass is just getting started in a city, where the staunchest CM critics are often the most dedicated bicycle advocates. After a while, some of the grumbling dies down and these advocates begin to accept CM’s presence, if not actively encourage it.

These criticisms present a useful gateway into how and why CM works. They bring to the forefront contrasting models of social change and particularly highlight the difference between so-called “liberal” or “reformist” modes of change and “radical” or “revolutionary” modes. I will discuss how CM brings out distinctions between these modes while at the same time encompassing them.

First, I’d like to make the usual apology that this is just my take on things. Anyone who claims to know the one true nature of Critical Mass is probably missing the point.

There is, in my view, a widespread misunderstanding, reflected in some of the quotes above, that a Critical Mass ride is trying to ‘demonstrate’ something to someone or convince people to change their minds about things, as if it were a novel form of reasoned argument. If we were to accept this view of the ‘purpose’ of Critical Mass, we would indeed be fair targets for a lot of criticism. If we’re trying to change people’s minds, why do we get in their way? Shouldn’t we be doing everything possible to make everybody like bicyclists? Sure, we hand out flowers and hold up funny signs during the ride, but wouldn’t it just be nicer if we would keep to one lane and refrain from impeding the ‘regular flow’ of rush hour traffic? We could still ‘make our point’ but at the same time broadcast ‘a more positive message’.

From the point of view of an urban bicycling advocate, the ride event itself has an overall neutral effect on the state of infrastructure, education, and enforcement favorable to bicyclists. There are numerous positive effects: people see a lot of bicyclists having fun, who hand out informative flyers that do influence people’s opinions, and so forth. Maybe a few pro-bicycle politicians jump on the bandwagon and take advantage of the opportunity for publicity about a sustainable transportation initiative. There are also, of course, some negative effects in terms of traditional bicycling advocacy, which are described in great detail elsewhere. In my view, these positive and negative effects balance each other out.

If your main concern is bicycle advocacy, the main difference CM makes emerges in the time between rides, when otherwise depoliticized cyclists are inspired to take action; to write letters to their representatives and city councillors; to argue with their neighbors, families, and friends; to become increasingly aware of the primary role that auto-centric transportation and land-use policy plays in setting foreign and domestic priorities, in separating out rich from poor and black from white, in causing more deaths, injuries, and illnesses than all of our other major epidemics combined. If the point is to advocate for better policies via widely accepted democratic channels, Critical Mass contributes to this mode of change by building an army of better advocates.

I’ve spent a great deal of time at meetings of regulatory agencies, planning and zoning boards, and other decision-making bodies that determine what our environment is going to look like, which in turn has enormous impacts on our daily lives and social interactions. It is absolutely clear to me that these organizations do not make their decisions based on reasonable arguments, on trying to do the right thing ‘for the citizens of the city’, whether environmentally, socially, or economically. Zoning, development, traffic planning—all are politically driven. This means they are reflective of the underlying distribution of power in society. And I can assure you that bicycles as a mode of transportation are totally off the radar (at the very best, a token afterthought). Until bicyclists are organized—and I believe Critical Mass is a powerful tool for organizing and politicizing otherwise disenfranchised bicyclists—there will be no sea change. We will celebrate excruciatingly small victories. But we can do much better.

Advocacy alone, however, is not how social change—or collective determination of uses of public resources—occurs. Few historical examples come to mind of an oppressed class of people winning over the general public on the basis of their likeability. Nor does progressive change occur as a result of convincing, well-reasoned arguments and good-natured debate. The labor movement was not built by a concerted effort to convince capitalists that the workers were friendly people who deserved better pay. De jure racial discrimination did not end because of an effective public relations campaign highlighting the merits of African-Americans. Struggles for democracy and human rights under dictatorial regimes have never been won because the underdog rationally convinced the dictator to abdicate power.

Why should the situation be any different for the Critical Mass community? Although our interests are varied—bicycling seems to be only one small but essential part of what unites our movement—our situation is clearly that of an interest group that traditionally has been poorly represented in the American political system. Our success is linked to our numbers, our strength, our power, and ultimately our unity, but it is not particularly dependent on good public relations and a non-threatening demeanor.

Even some in the mainstream acknowledge the critical, more radical, role the Mass plays in effecting change. A highly respected professor of urban planning at UC Berkeley recently published an article in which he said that the prospects of achieving bicycling advancements in the US are specifically tied to the ability of grassroots political pressure brought on by such groups/movements as Critical Mass (Martin Wachs, Transportation Quarterly, “Discussion of ‘Bicycling Boom in Germany: A Revival Engineered by Public Policy’ by John Pucher”, Fall 1997).

Social progress—whether in civil rights, environmental protection, economic justice—never occurs without a group that pushes harder, that reframes the questions and recenters the debate, that occasionally acts ‘as if’ what they wanted to be true were true. This is the more radical role Critical Mass plays in social change. I do not ride with Critical Mass (necessarily) to make a good impression on people, to convince drivers of anything in particular, to ‘advocate’. I ride because I find the mass creates a temporary autonomous zone (to borrow a slogan from Hakim Bey); a place where bicycles do have the right of way—and not just on paper; a non-imaginary safe, quiet, clean, and fun use of the public good, the streets which we all pay for and the air which we all breath; a place where the streets are designed for bicycles, not cars. Critical Mass does not ask the question of whether bicyclists should have ‘equal rights’ to the streets, where ‘equal rights’ means ‘just like cars’, instead it presumes that the public space should be for us, the people, and then gives the cars a chance to figure out how to fit in.

The transformation that occurs on the streets during Critical Mass rides is not the result of more bike lanes or bike racks, traffic calmed streets or better signage, nor does it come from better laws on the books or better enforcement of existing laws, nor does it even come from increased respect for bicycles from those operating motorized vehicles. Instead it emerges from the fact that we are present in large numbers, and we have made a collective decision that this is how we want things to be.

Activists often refer to ‘direct action’ as a means of accomplishing political goals. In fact, this can mean two different things: in one sense, direct action is ‘taking to the streets’, demonstrating and protesting. In its more powerful sense, however, it is the action of taking control over the conditions that we live in. Inasmuch as the mainstream media has provided positive coverage of the recent wave of anti-globalism actions initiated in Seattle in 1999, it has focused exclusively on the first sense: large numbers of people demonstrating their beliefs and protesting against the powers that be. Participants in these demonstrations, however, often return with a much more profound sense of empowerment from the decentralized consensus decision-making processes that have evolved around these events. They realize that the world we envision may be possible on a large scale; not only that, but that this world exists on large scale, in various pockets at various times. CM is powerful as these protests are powerful, not simply because it demonstrates some idea, but because it enacts that idea.

CM’s radical nature lies in its process. It is a means of moving, not a particular destination. It claims, first and foremost, that we do things ourselves, and that this way of doing things is fundamental to liberty. Effecting change ourselves, rather than urging the duly-elected representatives to do something about it, is a very dangerous way to do things, and has certainly met with a good deal of resistance from the police. Some would argue that it less democratic: isn’t this the few imposing their will on the many? Others predict that legitimization of this mode of social change will inevitably lead to anarchy, where everyone who wants to accomplish anything will take to the streets, break windows, and set fires.

It’s important to remember, however, that democracy is not necessarily premised on majoritarian rule. Sometimes extraordinary counter-majoritarian actions are essential to protect the very mechanisms upon which democracy depends. It is quite clear that the Supreme Court, in ordering the desegregation of Southern public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, was not enacting the will of the majority. Even though the body politic would not have voted to eliminate segregation, the action was essential to the furthering of democracy, something that even the most conservative have finally come to admit. Similarly, even if we live in a society that is predominantly based on auto-centric and environmentally unsustainable patterns of development, where we might even vote for the policies we get, doesn’t mean it’s not more democratic for a small, determined group of people to make a difference for positive change, even if it happens to go against the will of the majority. As Margaret Mead says, “[i]ndeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

CM’s critics often focus nearly pathologically on the degree to which CM does or does not follow ‘the law’. They claim they would support and even participate in CM, if only we stopped at all red lights, kept in one lane, and followed the rules set out for us. Of course, it’s not the occasional misdemeanor or traffic violation that causes all the tumult: it’s the fact that there are hundreds of bicyclists riding together in what is traditionally car territory, having fun. Although we might be able to get some sanctimonious reward out of reminding the drivers that we are just following the rules of the road, I doubt it would make any difference in making the ride less controversial, nor even in reducing the incidences of conflict with the police.

There is a deeper issue at stake here, though. Laws are only as powerful as we allow them to be. The decisions as to what rules we are to live by are not passed down, engraved in stone, from the gilded halls of the legislature. They are fluid; we make them every day by deciding which rules to respect and which to ignore. For example, a local religious group recently attempted to press charges against a movie theater screening an allegedly blasphemous film. The court clerk asked the group several times if they really wanted to pay the filing fee. Because they believed the law to be what was contained in the officially published state statutes, they paid the fee and eagerly approached the Judge with their argument. They were sent promptly out the doors, minus their filing fee. Why wouldn’t the Court enforce the Law? Because the people had stopped believing in it a century ago.

When CM is attacked as leading to anarchy, we might at some level have to agree. CM does not delegate decision making power to duly-elected officials; it is not always entirely law-abiding; and the unplanned, spontaneous nature of the rides might accurately be described as ‘anarchistic’. But anarchy is much more of a method than an ideology, a way of experiencing the world rather than a political system. Most importantly, it realizes that the force which stops us from breaking windows and setting fires is not the threat of violent police retaliation but rather mutual respect and voluntary adhesion to practical norms of behavior. In my experience, CM has only become ‘anarchistic’ in the negative sense when faced with extraordinary violence from the police, which is much more the exception than the rule. If we learn anything about the potential of large scale anarchistic movements from CM, it is that they are predominantly non-violent, and do a much better job at self-policing than any group depending on outside forces to keep them in line.

Environmentalists are often accused of being motivated by a ‘social agenda’. They will deny the accusation, claiming that their arguments are based in scentific fact, are in fact grounded in demonstrable ‘truths’. But I think we would do better to admit the accusation. It is precisely our ‘social agenda’ that can make the movement appealing and powerful. What good is saving the world, if you don’t first create a world worth saving? CM grasps this reality and engages in it, by pulling the social agenda in the forefront. Sure, we want cleaner air and more efficient transportation, but we only want it if we can radically restructure our relationships and our work in the process.

Of course, the critics are welcome to disagree with anything I’ve said here. If they want to shift the direction of Critical Mass in a more ‘positive’ sense, they can bring more of the type of people they’d like to see riding, the last Friday of every month wherever their local mass convenes. Fundamentally, CM organically adopts the character of those who contribute most to it. It is powerful not because of the message it sends or the image it conveys, but because it engages and empowers its participants, welcoming anyone who wants to chip in.


  1. Anonymous Jan 28

    some radical cycling articles

  2. Jores Jul 31

    Thought provoking and well-written. Not a view I had particularly considered before.

    The big problem I see with CM is that it provides one more example for drivers to claim that they have the right to use the road because they’re going somewhere, but cyclists shouldn’t be using the road because they’re there for fun, or excercise, or as a means of political discourse, or whatever. I don’t generally see drivers having to justify their reason for being on the road, though.

  3. phædrus Aug 1

    As someone who originally enjoyed riding in several critical masses due to the experience of feeling safe on major roads but then became turned off by the heavy negativity and even aggressiveness displayed by some of the riders in the Mass, I appreciated reading your article.

    I do think you glossed over the question of why obeying more of the laws wouldn’t make it potentially more powerful by taking away the “low-hanging-fruit” that allows many to dismiss it as just a group of thugs.

    I was really disappointed in Minneapolis’ critical mass the time our newly elected pro-bike mayor decided to ride and so many of the riders started riding into oncoming traffic and taking one ways that he felt he had to leave.

    That was a loss.

    Besides, I don’t want to see a world where people charge into traffic going the wrong direction – not on bike, car or foot. I don’t want to see a world where people deliberately antagonize each other. I don’t want to see a world where emergency vehicles are corked because they happen to not be bicycles. I don’t want to see a world where pedestrian’s right of way is disrespected and pedestrians who try and take it anyway are buzzed, yelled at, and otherwise threatened/abused.

    A world where bikes are safe and accepted, where they take their space and don’t give it up and where the cars have to wait their turn, is great. The feeling – especially to someone new to urban riding and a bit scared to mix it up with cars – can be very empowering. To keep the riders together and the mass “safe”, I’m good with keeping the mass rolling through an intersection once the first riders have gone through, but why does it need to go so far past that?

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