Why Critical Mass fits in solutions-based times

Written by tom


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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  1. Gerry Miller

    I think you’ve captured it. The one in Chicago is just like that, liberating. The Merry Pranksters meet smart sane people. I saw one man in a suit carrying a pillow under his arm, which came in handy when everyone stopped for a short pillow fight. Many drivers, those who weren’t popping blood vessels, enjoyed the escape too. People took to the streets and took them over.

  2. Anonymous

    Thanks for the article–Bike Albuquerque had a filmfest last year and showed several films about critical mass. I find the concept very inspiring. It didn’t take off here in Albuquerque, but I love knowing it’s happening elsewhere and maybe sometime I’ll have a chance to join in.

  3. Anonymous

    i’ve heard cars that idle give off more polution than cars that are in motion. are there any concerns about critical mass creating traffic slowdowns/stops during events that might be more harmful to the environment then keeping traffic moving?

  4. Rob

    One day a month for a couple of hours on a tiny tiny tiny percentage of roads in the world is not the right place to worry about pollution. The positive effects of reinforcing cycling completely outweigh it.
    Also, it doesn’t make sense that an idling care makes more pollution than one in motion; it’s consuming less energy. I guess it’s conceivable that some “miscellaneous” emissions are not catalyzed or combusted as well, but that strikes me as unlikely.

  5. Emily

    I think it’s fine for people to ride bikes for the sake of the environment, but I have a personal policy that applies to everybody, regardless of what they’re supporting:
    If you are demonstrating in the middle of the road and tying up traffic, I will go out of my way to NOT support your cause. I don’t give the firefighters a donation at their “Fill the Boot” fundraisers. I don’t give the Lions’ Club a donation when they stand in the middle of a busy intersection with a bucket and a sob story about blind children, and I don’t support Critical Mass.
    I’m sympathetic to the cause, and if I thought it would do anything at all to improve safety to the point I could ride a bike to work without fear of death, I might support it — but speaking as one of a diminishing number of sane, rational drivers on the road, I can tell you that deliberate attempts to tie up traffic do NOT win friends for your cause. They only alienate those of us who might otherwise have considered supporting you. The first time you make me late to an assignment (I’m a journalist, so there is NO good time for one of these protests to occur), late to a meeting, or — God help you — so late getting home that my dogs get tired of waiting for me and decide to take care of business on the carpet, you’ve lost my support.
    Furthermore, as a sometime cyclist myself, I loathe this kind of demonstration, because it only reinforces the stereotype that most cagers hold, which is that bicyclists are sanctimonious hippies whose sole purpose in life is to get in the way and create traffic hazards. If you want to change this attitude, the way to do it is NOT by making an already inconvenient and dangerous commute even more inconvenient and dangerous.

  6. Elizabeth

    The wonderful thing about Critical Mass is that they are not tying up traffic – they ARE traffic. Bikes are just as legitimate a form of transportation as cars for any purpose, and Critical Mass makes the point that they should be treated as such. Right now I live in the suburbs, but I’m getting out as soon as possible, and I can’t wait to start riding with Critical Mass when I live in the city.

  7. Rule 56

    I’m a bicycle commuter and I agree, to a point, with Emily.
    I started bicycle commuting in earnest last July. Now I go everywhere on a bike: to my job as a litigation attorney, to the store with my kids, running errands and for just plain tooling around. I’m at 2400 miles and counting in the past 10 months.
    I don’t view what I do on a bike as either inconvenient or dangerous. I’ve done my homework and I’m comfortable that I have a place with all the cars out there. The more I act like any other vehicle, the more comfortable I am.
    I agree, though, that tying up traffic, if that’s what Critical Mass is doing, is not the way to win converts. When I’m commuting on a bike, I don’t like to stop any more than when I’m in my car. Stopping for a traffic light, a school bus, or a long funeral procession is annoying no matter what your mode of transportation. But these are routine, run-of-the-mill issues. Having to stop because of an intentional tie-up, whatever the reason, is extremely vexing.
    The more bike commuters there are, the better. But I don’t support intentionally tying up traffic. Just getting out and riding normally should be all it takes to get motorists used to seeing us out there and getting them to share some of the pavement with us.