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Why Critical Mass fits in solutions-based times

critical mass

Seattle cyclists close down elevated Highway 99 near downtown on Friday’s critical Mass. Is this a useful mass visioneering exercise?

TerraPass isn’t, strictly speaking, an activist organization. Generally, the days of trying to help the environment by chaining yourself to bulldozers (or driving them off cliffs) are being replaced by a set of organizations and companies finding workable solutions to environmental problems.

So, I must admit I was a bit timid rolling up to Seattle’s highly energized Critical Mass, the monthly congregation of bicycle commuters and enthusiasts. What would a carbon policy nerd like me have in common with a guy riding a fixed gear bicycle while playing the drums? Well, I’m pleased to say after an hour riding around Seattle with a rolling party of 1,000 that Critical Mass is a useful and solutions-based demonstration exercise.

There are three cool things about Critical Mass. The first is my interpretation of Critical Mass as a useful public visioning exercise. If we are really going to have a world in 2050 with 80% lower carbon emissions, the bicycle is going to have to have a place on the streets. Perhaps at least half the traffic lanes need to be allocated to bikes. How are we going to get there? Is this even possible?

These questions are hard to answer if you haven’t seen anything close to the solution. Especially in American cities that is just very hard to contemplate. Critical Mass gives the community that image, every month in 325 cities around the world. Just by showing the local community this image once a month, the goal somehow seems more reachable and more attainable.

The second is that critical mass gives riders and drivers an on-ramp to interacting with each other. Yes, there were a bunch of hipsters there. But there was also just a lot of regular folks out for a ride, with Critical Mass showing them that biking in the city is possible. Even cooler is the effect critical mass has on drivers. The disturbance and blocked traffic predictably infuriates some drivers and there have been some unfortunate temper flarings recently. Maybe nice weather in Seattle calmed the nerves, but most drivers I encountered honked and cheered us along! Sure, some people will never get bikes on the road, but this is at least a start to learning to live together.

The final cool thing about critical mass is how it’s organized — it’s not. Wikipedia describes it as “rhizomal,” which maybe was written in post-Critical Mass euphoria while reading Jung. But viral and grassroots phenomena are thriving in the internet era. Critical Mass has no leaders, no marketing budget, no staff, no directions other than a time and meeting place. Even the process of starting the ride is akin to fish swirling around an aquarium tank and then somehow deciding to change direction. Critical Mass is proof that a cool social entrepreneurship idea can be self sustaining without a huge grant to kick it off.

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