Has Critical Mass Run Its Course?

Recent developments in New York City and San Francisco have me thinking about Critical Mass, wondering what kind of future it has, wondering whether it’s run its course. In New York we have new police department rules requiring that groups of 50 or more bicyclists obtain a parade permit before embarking on a group ride (reportedly, parade permits are not easy to come by in New York, so this new rule has some teeth). And in San Francisco, we have a Chief of Police who recently went on a bike ride with representatives from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, while during the same month, made a public statement about “cracking down” on Critical Mass.

It goes without saying that how we ride is a personal matter as long as we’re obeying the law and not endangering other road users. But when we make choices to break the law (running red lights, blocking traffic, etc.) in the name of calling attention to the rights and needs of bicyclists, we invite the question of whether the ends justify the means, and whether we’re doing more harm than good at a time when transportational bicycling is receiving more coverage than ever in the popular press.

What do you think? Is Critical Mass still a viable method for drawing attention to the rights and needs of bicyclists or would we be better served by other, less confrontational approaches?

I’m opening this up for (moderated) discussion, but please, let’s keep it civil. This is an emotion-packed, polarizing topic, but I have faith we can stay away from name-calling and personal exchanges. If you’re a regular contributor, you know the drill; if you’re new to the site, please take a moment to read our discussion guidelines before hitting “submit”. Thanks! —Alan

49 Responses to “Has Critical Mass Run Its Course?”

  • Patrick Gill says:

    Long-time reader,
    First-time poster.
    I’ve been riding for utility and pleasure for some time and would consider myself rather outspoken in the area of bicycle advocacy in my relatively small(in comparison to NY and SF) city in Ohio. I have never seen the methods of Critical Mass as being effective. It always seemed like they were stirring up negative publicity with the way they ride. Our nation in general spends quite a bit of time and money publicizing safety announcements regarding motor vehicles (“Click-it or ticket”; “Over the limit, under arrest”, etc) I think that we as bicycle rights and safety advocates would be well served with campaigns that run in these same veins–The public needs to know about the laws that are already in affect in our respective areas and an image that is pro-cycling needs to be cultivated among the general public. I realize campaigns like these are large government funded efforts and the cost can be very high, but I believe there needs to be major change in the way in which we address the people at large.


  • John_in_NH says:

    This is a topic I have thought a lot about, I participated in a small critical mass in my university town, once and never again. I also watched “return of the scorcher” and another movie I think called “critical mass” which, while trying to explain the founding of it in San Francisco and the movement and its positives, ended up by making me dislike it even more.

    As a transportation cyclist, who is out every day, in pretty much any weather, I find that once a month gatherings tend to bring people who rarely use their bike, out on the streets, these tend to cause problems blocking traffic (not being traffic) running stops and lights, and generally trying to inconvenience motorists as much as possible. I also inconvenience motorists on a daily basis; I take a lane on the couple 4 lane stretches I bike on, however I do not try to take the entire road, I am properly lighted and maintain a reliable speed and direction.

    I feel that because of these masses and the anger generated by car drivers, that the anger tends to then be “released” on the cyclists like me, that are out every day for long distances, not just ridding from the dorm to the class.

    I understand why they are formed, the idea that bikes are equal to cars in terms of roads, but they are not equal and will never be(however funding should be if we feel it’s a true form of transport, which it is, thanks Ray!!), they need their own space that is separate and different than a car because they are not a car.

    I feel a mass courtesy ride is much better, one were car lanes are kept open, all rules of the road are kept and when honking happens, the response is waves, not kicking or hitting, an the end point is a nice pub ;).

    That being said, I do not campaign against them, I just will not participate.

  • Riley says:

    I agree with Patrick…the activist cyclist does nothing but anger the general public. The more that bicycling seems more like a tool as opposed to a lifestyle choice the more that people will accept it and begin to use it.

    American bicycle culture comes off as very exclusive…the fixies…the racers…the tweed rides…triathletes…mountain bikers, they all seem like you need to buy special clothes and equipment to even be counted as a member. Riding around in a big group seen as exclusive causing traffic jams does nothing.

    I’m American, but I live in China where bicycles are tools, and car drivers know that there are tons of cyclists all around so they purposely drive slower. It’s simple mathematics, the more inclusive the culture becomes the more people begin riding…the more a real critical mass is achieved.

    Critical mass had a place…twenty years ago. It’s no longer a novelty, juts an annoyance and riding around pissing off the very people you’re trying to encourage to join your cause seems like an awfully immature attempt at activism.

  • Hugh says:

    Critical Mass has already changed San Francisco for the better. When we started, in 1992, bicyclists were routinely run off the road by openly hostile motorists. City Hall paid no attention to cyclists needs. There were few bike lanes, little infrastructure. And the SFBC had only a handful of members and met in the back of a Chinese restaurant.

    Now, 17 years later, all that has changed for the better. Critical Mass brought people into the streets to see what our city would look like with different transit priorities — and people liked what they saw. And they acted on it. In the 17 years since Critical Mass began, the number of cyclists and the membership in activist groups has increased every year.

    I have never lived in New York or Chicago, but my sense is that in those cities as well, Critical Mass was also a contributor to what is now a vibrant livable city activist scene.

    The people who want a “Courtesy Mass” in which everyone rides to rule should know that that approach has been tried and it failed. Since cyclists strictly obeying all traffic laws cannot socialize and communicate, the whole point is lost, and those rides dwindle pretty quick.

    Don’t believe the hype that says Critical Mass is about hostility. It is not, and anyone who has ridden in one of our rides in SF knows that. It is a celebration of public space, and in a city that has so little public space — thanks to city planning that makes the automobile king — our ride is needed now more than ever.

    For more on SF Critical Mass: http://www.sfcriticalmass.org

  • Rick says:

    Alan, I know we’ve chatted about this, and I’m glad you’ve brought it up. Personally, I’ve always equated Critical Mass with the ACT UP movement in the late 80’s: they both espoused civil disobedience (that sometimes bordered on reckless criminality) in the interest of bringing a needed awareness to profound inequalities, and often employed a politburo-like mentality in dealing with anyone who disagreed with their methods. But I would also say that in looking back, Critical Mass (like ACT UP) did much more good than harm in changing the national dialog, and for that, they should be forever appreciated.

    But the future? Does Critical Mass, and it’s emphasis on awareness through confrontation, have a place there? I don’t think so. With a more “third way” approach, we now have the attention of the people who control the Federal purse strings, and transportation planners in every major metropolitan area are climbing over themselves to advocate for safe and efficient cycling; the “Rules for Radicals” approach has to morph into another direction, or else the movement runs the risk of alienating the very people we depend on to make the whole process work.

    As cyclists, I think it’s time to step up: I’d like to see more education about how to ride a bike safely, and how to interact with cars and pedestrians without rancor; in addition, I’d ask that we have a licensing system, just like we do with cars–because like a car, we have the power to kill or injure someone badly, or cause an accident through negligence of traffic laws. We need to ask the police for more enforcement, because if someone can’t obey the law, then just like a driver, they should risk being punished for their poor choices. These are not draconian measures, these are the ways to get drivers off our backs, and onto their side of the road.

    I know that many people will disagree with the above thoughts, but I’m brought back to your recent post about the fellow in Virginia who thought “cycling wasn’t transportation, but recreation”: I believe he said that because cyclists appear to want it both ways–we want cars to obey traffic laws regarding us (as well they should) when we want to be part of that traffic, but we still want to enjoy the “wind in the face” freedom to blow past little old ladies on a multi-use trail doing thirty mph in a peloton whenever we feel like it…and ultimately, that attitude costs us all. Either we’re responsible while interfacing with other users of transportation infrastructure, or we’re not, and continuing to piss off drivers and cops while asking them to take us seriously is so 1995.

    Is Critical Mass finished? Can we get beyond demanding change without accepting our own responsibilities? I sure hope so, because I’m really tired of having drivers and pedestrians look at me like I’m the enemy.

  • Thom says:

    We have this discussion a lot in San Diego, where our CM has grown exponentially over the last year, but has also devolved into goofy stunts like riding through the airport, shopping malls, and over the Coronado Bridge.

    I disagree with Riley that an activist cyclist does nothing more than anger “the general public”, for we are part of that polity as well. It’s just a matter of how we express that activism.

    Critical Mass at its best was a protest by a minority, but what happens when the culture at large begins to align with the goals of the protest? I think CM itself (inasmuch as CM is a *thing*) is going through an identity crisis; and no, I don’t think it is a healthy way to advance the cause in our current climate. It is a fringe response to a problem that is receiving mainstream attention, and it will gradually be eclipsed by meaningful, targeted, positive activism.

  • Ian says:

    I agree very much with John – I’m not going to condemn the critical mass riders, but it’s not for me. Kinder and gentler seems the way to go.

    Riley, I also live in China and I have a hard time commending the drivers here for their awareness of cyclists! Critical mass happens here at 6 pm every day, and it’s a bloody mess. Drivers and cyclists both employ the same techniques and mindset, which can involve driving/riding against traffic, through lights, and on sidewalks. I travel by bike in town and have learned the flow, but it took a little while. Of course, bikes are disappearing here, being replaced by cars, which may also cast a little light into the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of “critical mass.”

  • Paul says:

    I should begin by saying that I live in Britain, so may have a different focus than those in the US.

    I strongly believe that every right people enjoy has been gained by civil disobedience. Rights are fought for, not given away by capitulating to laws as they stand. Motoring and car culture are such evils, responsible, according to WHO, for about 3000 deaths everyday worldwide, that we must fight against them.

    Millions die every year from motoring, and people suggest we should sit quietly in our bike lanes?
    The very air we breathe is being polluted by motoring, and people suggest we should lobby for a few more pence for a segregated lane?
    Our cities become daily more congested and difficult to live in and more roads are cut through the countryside and we should go for a tweed ride?

    I’m going to keep fighting.

  • townmouse says:

    I think Critical Mass is evolving, and that might help make it more relevant. Look at London’s last week which was turned into a memorial ride for three cyclists killed recently by HGVs. Also things like Kiddical mass and fancy dress rides that make a point without being confrontational. I’ve never been on a CM ride, and I wasn’t that keen on them, but if I’d been in London on Friday I definitely would have attended that one.

  • Nick says:

    If, during CM, the bikers do not follow the rules of the road, then I think they are a parade and should have a permit. As well, I agree with Bike Snob (http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/2010/02/backward-circles-fight-for-no-right-to.htmlz): “a bunch of people decided for some reason that they needed to assert some rights that we already had, and thus Critical Mass was born.”

  • Tom Stahl says:

    I think people just need to see good examples of the actual usefulness of a bicycle these days. If/When gas goes over $4.00 a gallon this year, it won’t take much more than the example of a real-world, transportation cyclist to make full time car users think about using a bike instead of a car.

    How about instead of critical mass in the cities and around colleges, we take critical mass to the suburbs – to places like Avon, Indiana where I live. Call it “Utility Mass” or something. Get a group of people together and help someone move using just bikes as trasportation. Get a group of people together and go shopping for the local food pantry or homeless shelter. Anything that involves bikes being used for something other than disruption, and not purely as a recreational vehicle. There’s no denying that cycling is FUN, or we wouldn’t all be doing it. Now, we just need to show people they can have fun, stay healthy, AND still pick things up at the store or move things without using a car.

    Lets use our bikes to set an example in the places that need the most influencing now – which is the suburban area, where people aren’t as accostomed to seeing a bike on the road, let alone a bike that is serving a real purpose. And possibly most important in these areas, showing people they don’t need special clothes or an attitude to ride.

  • Dweendaddy says:

    I generally think that the more biking there is, the better. I have ridden in CM rides in NY in the 1990’s, SF in the early 2000’s and now in New Haven, CT. They all are VERY different in size and feel. I think that in New Haven CM is the only time most citizens are aware of Critical Mass. There are often police escorts, no outrageous behavior, and only occasional blocking of traffic so that the whole mass of 50-150 bikers stays together.
    How effective is it? I don’t know, but I think it still has its place in most cities. In SF and NYC there are different objectives, but in a place like New Haven, it lets the renegade (anyone who bikes daily) bicyclists join together to know you have company, and it shows the public how many cyclists there actually are.
    That said, I also like the monthly bike to work breakfasts and other meetups, which I attend more regularly than CM.

  • Brian Daniels says:

    >>strongly believe that every right people enjoy has been gained by civil disobedience. >>Rights are fought for, not given away by capitulating to laws as they stand.

    Agreed! However we legally already have the right to the road. In the U.S. much highway funding is even tied to including pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. We are far from cycling heaven but fundamentally we are vested with “rights”. I’m with BikeSnob NYC on this one. The Critcal Massers in NYC in agitating for rights they already had have had those rights reduced. Exercising your right to ride is as simple as going our for a ride. You will not be treated politely by everyone. Not everyone will be happy with your presence. That to me is beside the point and quite possibly impossible to change. Certainly hearts and minds are not won by this type of confrontation.

  • Thor says:

    it is refreshing to read so many well thought out and balanced opionions. If somebody can point me in a direction where CM rides have achied a positive enviroment for cyclists in general. ( That is kids, daily commuters, sporty riders, just everybody who enjoys their bike) . I will gladly learn and say.. Yes that one event did something positive. In the meantime I dont think they are a good idea and have destroyed more than they achieved.


    p.s. I am all for orghanized safe familiy rides, tweed rides which follow the rules , and every other activity which gets people out on bikes and have safe fun. ( organized a couple myself)

  • Sharper says:

    Running temporarily with the image of Critical Mass solely as a confrontational exertion of cyclists’ rights, I see a few benefits to bicycle culture from its continuation. First, it’s a way to get younger cyclists involved in bicycle advocacy. The demographic future of my local bicycle advocacy group is frightening, and we need a constant influx of activist-minded recruits. I see Critical Mass as one sort of recruitment tool; upstart young punks can cut their teeth on the confrontational ride, and when they tire of throwing brickbats, can settle in to the sort of traditional advocacy that more “mature” cyclists are used to. What’s more, those riders that organize smaller Masses in their towns are getting an immediate education in how to organize bicyclists in general. I want the next generation of bicycle advocates to be steely veterans who have seen the best and worst of cycling culture.

    Going further, a confrontational Mass also gives more temperate advocates a demon to point at on their side. A bad Mass that occupies the extreme pro-bicycle ends legitimizes moderate advocates and gives them political cover

    However, the assertion that Critical Mass as a whole is inherently disdainful of traffic rules and drivers is faulty. Every city’s Critical Mass is different in feel, in attitude, and in intent. Heck, every Critical Mass rider is there for his or her own reasons, whether it’s to hurl insults at cops or ring their bell to count the drivers who honk back. And as I like to point out, if the police are in attendance at the ride but don’t enforce traffic rules, Critical Mass is a de facto parade, no permit required.

    Either way, I’m not comfortable saying that any movement that’s so decentralized and so many things to so many people has “run its course.” Ultimately, Critical Mass is about riding bikes, and I refuse on principle to thumb my nose at anything that gets more bicyclists on the streets, be it $5/gallon gasoline, DoT subsidies, or Critical Mass.

  • Matt says:

    A very important point is missing: Critical Mass is fun as hell.

    Doesn’t seem fun for people who think tweed rides are fun, or board meetings are fun or pouring over transportation documents is fun, but it is for other people (please, if you think these listed things are fun, I applaud you and thank you for your service to the biking community, please do not take offense!).

    We need variety in motivations. Here in Los Angeles, where our fun critical mass-esque rides regularly see numbers in the several hundreds to over a thousand, most riders are not attending meetings or joining advocacy groups. But some will. Eventually. First the excitement of a bicycle and transforming the streets needs to happen.

    Next time you ride CM or something similar, forget for a second about the red lights being run or the angry motorist and look at the wide-eyes and grins of some young, new cyclist who is experiencing a movement and its empowerment. That’s where the future of bike riding is.

  • Don says:

    This discussion of provocative activism and the types of individuals who may be attracted to it brings to mind something I have observed during my daily commute in a college town, namely the arrested bicycle development of the average young person. I am talking about a kind of scofflaw recklessness.

    Part of this may be attributed to developmental factors: with all due respect, young people tend toward self-absorption and risk-taking behavior until about age 25. But part of it is the absence of bicycling in transportation education.

    When a person gets a driver’s license, driver’s ed may cover some aspects of sharing the road, but it misses a tremendous opportunity to promote responsibility in all forms of transportation. So when a student goes off to college and returns to bike riding after driving during high school, she or he may tend to regress to an earlier state, riding through intersections, passing other riders without warning, going against traffic or on sidewalks, etc. To such a person, CM may seem like indulgent fun quite apart from its purported mission. Not only that, their relative lack of attachment to their college town may feel like license to test social norms and may not consider the group’s goals beyond that.

    For this reason, it seems to me, bike advocacy has a special requirement that its activities be beyond reproach, lest the message be lost in the peloton.

  • Doug V says:

    Really great and well thought out comments on all fronts here. Rather than type too much, I’m going to second Sharper……as a means to incite thought beyond rougue cycling, critical mass will grab some and bring them towards a more thoughtful and productive form of activism. If it doesn’t, who cares, it’s fun! Grab 100 folks for a ride, take 10 of them to a city council meeting and we’re ahead of the game…………We do need to watch what the message is though, snob is right, don’t fight for what we already have, fight for community, fellowships, rights!

  • doug in seattle. says:

    I have participated in three or four CMs in Seattle in the almost two years I’ve lived here. Every time there was an abundance of support — high fives, cheers, thumbs-up from the folks standing on the sidewalks. People getting out of their cars and cheering us on. This positive support far overwhelmed the angry responses. Despite this,The Stranger, the main local alt-weekly, has a blog where discussions about CM usually become three hundred comment hate fests.

    This differences in response has always confused me and leads me to believe the people who most hate CM hate it from a distance. Or merely hate the idea and not the reality about which they know nothing.

    As far as CM “running its course,” my opinion is that its course will be run when no one participates. It’s not like we can say, “It’s done! All over!” because no one is planning them. They just happen.

    I’ve also never bought the idea that CM sets back cyclists’ rights. Cities with CM continue to bend over backward to build cycle infrastructure or at the very least they say they want to.

  • Jack Kenward says:

    I wonder if cycling in the Bay Area, Sacramento and points in between would have advanced to the extent it has without the Critical Mass movement and all the conflict it created. Regardless, I similarly wonder if the “Tweed” Rides of more recent vintage are taking the place of the Critical Mass rides. Both formats have created a better sense in the general community of how many cyclists would and do use public streets as venues for riding and have begun to break down the monopolies motorists claimed and government officials had been willing to concede.

  • Brian says:

    Critical Mass launched a worldwide sustainable transportation movement. It served its purpose in many places just by letting the car-dependent know that their space was now being contested.

    Just as lunch counter sit-ins launched the Civil Rights movement, they had a purpose and that purpose was to raise an issue into the public dialogue.

    That movement has evolved into a family-friendly movement that has the goal of creating streets safe enough for 8-to-80 year olds to ride a bike. This is a nice and logical evolution and accounts for the Ciclovias that are popping up around the world.

    The bike movement is now mainstream. But it wouldn’t have been possible without Critical Mass creating an issue that could not be dismissed.

  • Stephen says:

    For those who (still) defend CM as a practice, I’d like to ask: What positive changes have you accomplished? (This doesn’t include goofy grins on young hipster faces, or a high five from another street dude.) Does your city build bike lanes as a matter of policy? Are the police ticketing more cars? Is there an ordinance requiring new commercial and office buildings to have bike racks in a convenient location?

    Individual anarchy is a romantic notion, but we’re talking about users sharing streets, not eliminating violent racism or trying to stop an immoral, bungled war.

    I’m all for organizing to get what you want. That’s politics, pure and simple. But pissing off other drivers and the police doesn’t really accomplish much, does it? Asking bicyclist to get organized is sometimes a comedy routine, but attending meetings, reading documents, and writing letters to staff and elected officials, sometimes over a period of years, will bring real change. CM just feels good.

  • Sharper says:

    I’m tempted to accuse you of living in some fairyland where bicyclists, by the very act of using the streets, don’t piss off any motorists. I can tell you from personal experience that here in relatively bike-friendly Sacramento, it’s possible to have police officers honk at you angrily for riding according to best safe practices and perfectly within all applicable state and local laws. And that’s not even mentioning the other motorists who honk and yell at you to stay in the bike lane (often on streets where there isn’t one) or to get off of the damn road altogether.

    If merely being on my bicycle on the street is going to piss off motorons and cops, I’d rather do it in the company of friends and fellow cyclists. Critical Mass is just one such outlet.

  • Alan says:


    Motorists piss off motorists too (see it just about everday) – I think it’s just part-and-parcel of sharing the road, regardless of the mode of transportation.

    The experiences you had (being honked and yelled at while riding within the law) beg the question, why? While I’m not 100% convinced this is the reason, a reasonable argument can be made that riders who came before you, riders who behaved aggressively and flouted traffic laws (either as individuals or as part of organized groups), created an environment of conflict in which it’s assumed all bicyclists must be riding illegally, even if they aren’t.


  • ToddBS says:

    I’ve always felt that CM was more about being the squeaky wheel than trying to convince people based on the validity of their argument. And I’ve never found that to be a sustainable method. To change people’s attitudes you must convince them, not annoy them. Sure, you may get some concessions, but you’ll never get cooperation.

  • Giffen says:

    Great conversation going here. I agree with a lot that has been said. Believe it or not, I haven’t yet decided whether I am for or against CM. :)

  • John says:

    I think Sharper has raised some good points, so I won’t belabor them, but I’d like to suggest that a bicycling movement that seeks to change the transportational status quo in this country needs to embrace a variety of tactics–including nonviolent civil disobedience. This does not mean every bicyclist needs to embrace these tactics, but that, as part of a movement, CM has a place. And let’s be honest, bicycle-hating motorists will continue to be out there, with or without CM.

  • EricF says:

    First, I’m pleased that we can have a reasonable discussion of this topic, fraught though it is.
    I have ridden in a couple CM rides here in dinky Lawrence Kansas, and I see the appeal. I had the most fun when we were just riding around as a group on side streets. When we were on the main streets and motorists were getting mad, I wanted to leave. So it seems to me that CM is a conciousness-raising tact, but for the riders, not the motorists. Motorists will be how they are, no matter what we do, in my opinion.
    And a big NO on the idea of licensing bike riders. There are laws that cover us whether licensed or not.

  • Adam says:

    EricF is correct, Critical Mass is more about raising consciousness in (or “radicalizing”) cyclists and potential bike commuters. It’s what made me confident enough to bike commute. I don’t think it has a net positive or negative effect on motorists.

  • John S in LA says:

    A cagey old guy once told me the best way to get a bad rule changed is to follow it to the letter. In the case of the New York 50-rider parade permit rule, get your groups of 40-45 riders, all two, three, or twenty of them, and send them on separate courses. That’s plenty of people to take a lane, drive the bike bus, even do a little corking, if you feel that’s what makes Critical Mass Critical Mass. (Of course, with just 40-45 riders, keeping your group together should be a little easier.)

    The beauty of this is now the authorities have to put a lot more resources into harassing you, if they feel THAT’s what makes Critical Mass Critical Mass. They are likely to find this effort unsustainable.

    Bikes are nimble. Certainly Critical Mass can be nimble too, no?

  • Rick says:

    Adam, can you explain why cyclists need to be “radicalized”? Does riding in a group that obeys nothing but its own whims (although I hesitate to use the word “mob”, surely you can see the path you’re going down, yes?) really make you more confident? But I will differ with you one of your points: there are a great many people who think Critical Mass has a net negative effect on motorists (and our image with the non-cycling public), which is why we’re discussing this.

    Eric, the reason why I believe there should be a licensing system is because there doesn’t seem to be another way to get riders to take classes–which I believe should be mandatory–and prove that they’ve taken them. Can you think of another way to do this?


  • PJ says:

    Critical Mass gives all the rest of us a bad name. A few of us in Fort Wayne have elected to go with the Critical Manners, Courteous Mass. We follow the rules of the road by stopping at stop signs, red lights and signaling our turns. I will follow up later in the year and let you know how it’s going.

  • Sharper says:


    Maybe I’m secretly an optimist, but I think scofflaw cyclists cause a lot less driver anger than they’re blamed for. Sure, jumping a stop sign might piss off cross-traffic drivers, but so can coming to a textbook stop in front of same-direction drivers who might expect you to roll through. I doubt law-breaking is more the problem than the perceived inconvenience. It’s not fun to share anything, especially roads, with someone who doesn’t behave like you.

    Frankly, I didn’t realize how antsy and impatient the act of driving made me until long after I started bicycling primarily, and I consider myself a relatively calm driver. I think since many drivers aren’t as used to road-using bicyclists as they are to jackholes that can’t merge, morons on cell phones, jerks that cut them off, road-hogging megaSUVs, grannies in station wagons with broken gas pedals, drivers who stop for pedestrians you didn’t see, and countless other annoying road stereotypes, scofflaw (or “scofflaw”, as in my case) bicyclists are good scapegoats because they’re still rare enough to stand out.

    I think I can put it best by retooling your question a bit: is the average driver’s 16 mile rush hour commute spoiled by a single sign-running bicyclist?

    I note we’re getting pretty far away from Critical Mass as a subject, but it might just be that the Critical Mass debate is just a proxy for the scofflaw cyclist debate in general.

  • JT says:

    It’s important to acknowledge that critical mass is really not a bunch of people out for a nice ride, following the law. As someone said, it wouldn’t be fun otherwise. If they stopped for every light, yielded to every pedestrian, and didn’t intentionally try to prevent other traffic from passing, they would become fragmented quickly — and consequently, they wouldn’t annoy people. Likewise, if they were really just out for a ride, there would be no need to organize. But that’s the point isn’t it? To create a disruption and get noticed.

    The idea that they are just using the road in a legal fashion is disingenuous at best. Should people be allowed to hold a race on city streets without a permit? There’s not much practical difference, as long as all the participants are in vehicles allowed on the streets. These laws are not designed to restrict the right of assembly, but to ensure that nobody can (legally) create a major disruption at their whim without allowing others to plan for it. And as they found out, when you push the limits of the technicalities of the law while flaunting the spirit of the law, sometimes the law finds a way to bite you back.

    The effect of these rides is not to create sympathy but to segregate the cause from the mainstream, much like the tea partiers. Many cyclists have spoken against the rides, which means that even people who should be on their side don’t approve. I’m sure the sentiment is a lot worse among non-cyclists. Alienating people isn’t usually very effective at getting them to back you up when it comes to policies and legislation.

    If critical mass seeks to raise awareness of cyclists as equals on the road, then I can’t see how a tactic which reinforces stereotypes about cyclists will help change the public opinion. The goal is respect and equality on the road. Organizing specifically for the purpose of creating a major traffic disruption, thereby limiting others’ ability to use the roads normally, seems ironic at best.

  • Stephen says:

    With all due respect, I don’t my questions have been answered by anyone.

    I’ve been mixing it up in traffic on a bicycle since I could. The bicycle gave me freedom before I could drive, a certain independence that transcends cars (a rare thing, IMHO), and great legs.

    I’ve seen CM in San Fran, and I see it here in Tallahassee. It always seems a bit sad to me, and it is anywhere from amusing to outraging to drivers.

    Civil disobedience has its role, but what are the effects? What societal good has come of CM? Is it truly more than just anarchism, narcissism, or just kinda punky? I’m a scientist by training–prove it or disprove its utility. Everything else is mere opinion.

  • Adrienne says:

    I ride in CM because there are still not enough safe places to ride in SF. I ride in CM because there are so few places to safely park my bike. I ride because my rights are trounced on daily by people in cars. I ride in CM because I can not trust the police to protect me when I am on my bike. I ride in CM so my kids can see that you can stand up for yourself, and my kids ride in it to speak for themselves. I ride in CM so that just 12 times a year there are places in SF where those who choose not to drive are the ones who have a moment of power and space to be safe.

    That is power. Being able to show yourself and what you believe. Sometimes that is uncomfortable for people, but then, I am uncomfortable in a world where people on bikes and foot have to fight for the space already given to them by the law.

  • J W Lane says:

    CM is a useful strategy for staying alive, if adopted to your local circumstances. In the SUV and gun crazy provinces of US society, it’s not a good idea too attract much attention. However, if you know several people who ride the same commute, the group offers an improvement to your security; more witnesses, more chances of a camera, more muscle. As a form of protest, this may no longer be the time.

    Note: CSE (an Indian ecology group) reports that India’s maximum cities are added 800 cars per day to the roads. The Financial Times reports that India is barely a blip compared to China. Where’s all the new oil? Well, there isn’t much. Maybe, after a lot of people have freaked out at the pump, things will begin to calm down and there will be a lot more bikers.

  • Alan says:


    “I ride in CM because there are still not enough safe places to ride in SF. I ride in CM because there are so few places to safely park my bike. I ride because my rights are trounced on daily by people in cars. I ride in CM because I can not trust the police to protect me when I am on my bike.”

    The underlying question is whether CM helps improve those conditions you describe or actually contributes to making them worse? I truly don’t know….


  • Adrienne says:

    I can not speak for all places, but the SFBC would not have the membership it has (11,000 San Franciscans are members) if it were not for the CM problems of the 90’s. The violence against cyclists and the draconian crack downs on the ride are one of the major factors that contributed to the sudden increase in the organization’s membership and subsequent political power. No one knew that there were people who never delivered a single package but rode bicycles everyday until they saw them riding CM with their kids. No one knew that cyclists were being killed in the City until they saw CM and started asking questions. I can not tell you how many people I have met who are amazed that there are that many cyclists who think it is that important to show up and ride. People don’t show up to vote like that in some places.

    Riding in SF since the 80’s I can say with absolute certainty that SF is different as a result of CM. Like all who ride in CM, I have my moments when I question some rider’s motives, but overall, it serves as a wake up call for the whole City that there is a strong portion of the City that is not being served and are willing to stand up for that belief. Imagine what it would be like if people put that much energy into Health Care or returning manufacturing to the USA or getting us out of the Middle East… it would be a different world.

  • Rick says:

    Adrienne, I hear you, and I, too, believe that efforts of CM organizers in the 90’s laid the groundwork for the benefits we have today; however, isn’t the question not “wasn’t CM once great and desperately needed?”, but rather, “is the continuing approach of CM–change through confrontation–relevant to todays’ cycling culture?”

    I’m happy that CM existed, and I’m thrilled that your take on this is that CM has made the world a better place to live in (and I agree that it has), but when do we get to the point that we say, “hey, we won?” What is the ultimate goal for you? A completely car-free environment? equal funding for cars and cyclists? At this juncture, what more can CM achieve?

    It reminds me a bit of Robert Redford’s character in The Candidate: after campaigning so hard against “The Man” for so long, that once he won, he turned to his campaign manager and asked, “So what do I do now?”

    So what about it, Adrienne? After you’ve demonstrated against unfairness and inequality, and come out the winner, what do you do now? Keep pretending it’s 1995? Why don’t you do what you said–put that energy into demonstrating against other things that need changing in this world… it’s time to move on.

  • Adrienne says:

    Rick- I thought we had turned the corner in SF, too. We are starting to get more people on bicycles, we are finally getting infrastructure (kind of), there are more bike racks… but things are far from OK and I wouldn’t say we have come out “the winner”. It has been forcibly brought to my attention that there is a great deal farther to go.

    Does CM still have a place? I think so. I am not sure how it should look but I also do not think that the SF or NY PD’s know the answer to that question, either. I also think that working to strengthen the recognition of the rights of one group works to strengthen the recognition of the rights of all people- especially with something like cycling because cyclists are every kind of person.

    As to 1995… I would love to be 25 again : ) But that can not happen so I am content for it to be 2010 and me to be 39. I am still on my bike, and I may just ride CM this month ; )

  • Sharper says:


    Remember, too, that San Francisco’s Critical Mass is not the entirety of the Critical Mass movement. Critical Mass rides worldwide are necessarily going to be different from city to city, based on the organizers, the participants, and how well-served the local bicycle culture feels. I’ve heard that San Francisco’s ride has more of a celebratory atmosphere now than it did 18 years ago, but that doesn’t mean that a ride in the confrontational style of the early SF Masses wouldn’t help raise awareness and effect change in Abbott or Dubuque or Orlando or Abu Dhabi. Or that SF’s current ride can’t still help cyclists gain confidence in asserting their rights or learning to self-organize. I’d contend that if there’s a Critical Mass going on somewhere, it’s filling a need — whether that need is for some cyclists to enjoy a massive bike ride or to protest against unfair and dangerous cycling conditions.

    I think your argument loses some punch when it compares Critical Mass to an organized advocacy effort, rather than recognizing it as a spontaneous public demonstration. You can’t assign any specific goal or intent to any Critical Mass ride — and certainly not to the concept of “Critical Mass” — other than “show up to ride bikes together”. Everything else (corking or not corking, running or not running stop lights, smiling or scowling at drivers, riding across all lanes or down one lane, and so on) is secondary and decided for expedience, not for some vague statement made before the city council.

  • Alan says:


    That’s an excellent explanation – thanks…


  • Thomas says:

    Its interesting reading the comments regarding CM in San Francisco. Adrienne makes it sound worthwhile. I am in NYC, and I think here that CM has been a failure. I have participated in only one of their rides , in the 90’s, and for me, once was enough. I had been expecting a celebratory type of ride with hundreds of riders participating, where a ‘critical mass’ of bikes on the road meant that from the sheer number of bikes, we would ‘own’ the road. My disillusionment was instant: The turn out was very small, less then twenty riders. They were an angry and hostile bunch who not only went out of their way to outrage motorists, but also were abusive toward pedestrians! Not only that, they took shortcuts thru parks ( on the smaller, pedestrian only paths) and then rode on the HIGHWAY that encircles Manhattan – creating a very dangerous condition for motorists and bicyclists alike. At the conclusion, the police were called ( because of a CM’er instigated incident) and things went from bad to ugly. So for me, I decided ‘never again’.
    Now , it is 2010, and NYC has made huge improvements to biking infrastructure, adding bike paths, bike lanes, bike posts, all over the city. Ridership is exploding. NONE of this is due to CM, which NEVER had any of these achievement as goals. CM never had a goal, never wanted bike lanes, wanted a radical anti-car culture which is unrealistic and impractical. Instead these goals have been achieved by more responsible advocacy groups, such as Transportation Alternatives, which have always had bike paths and bike lanes as goals.

  • Elisabeth says:

    I can’t help it. I love the romance of Critical Mass.

    I love that carnival feeling of people taking over a road on foot or bicycle.

    Hopefully a mass bike ride which is officially sanctioned is still a good thrill.

    And the idea of tipping the balance towards bikes and pedestrians is an important one.

    We have Critical Mass to thank for that.

    Viva Critical Mass!

  • Girl Power says:

    A parade permit is not legal. Bikes are moving vehicles under most traffic laws, you may as well ask all people driving in cars traveling in big groups i.e. on the freeways, to get a parade permit. I’m confident that if *properly* challenged this NYC law will be throw out.

    Stopping at red lights has to happen. Sorry, it’s the law for moving vehicles.

    Other than that I still think CM rides are a great way to build community and expose motorists (I saw a CM ride from my car) to the joy of bike riding.

    And 99.9 % of motorists LOVE CM riders and are very grateful for having witnessed, you would not close up a freeway just because a few irate drivers did not get thier way.

  • Girl Power says:

    @ Thomas, Not having a bike infrastructure in large cities is a stunningly bad mistake.

    We need to follow the lead in Amsterdam and paint one lane in two-way lanes a dark red bike lane and and add bike lanes to all one lane roads. Period.

    Motorists would be separate from bikes and they would opt for commuting by bike if they opportunity was there, dark red lanes would be tantamount to a bus line without having to add a bus.

    To prevent gridlock city speeds should be lowered from 35 to 30 mph.

    Eventually they can make the far right lane on major frewways bike only by adding doncrete barriers between the bike/car lane. Motorists would turn onto the fwy around the old right lane, bikes would bo onto thier lane via a smaller entry on the far right and exit on smaller lane on the right.

    Bikes that need to keep traveling on the fwy past entrances and exits may use bike bridges that take them over and past the exits and entrances like the bike bride on the Los Angeles River path at Los Feliz.

    Simple, cheap and fun transportation that would stimulate the economy by improving health and by exposing consumers to more small business storefronts as they commute by bike. This may also lower the coast of gas making life a bit easier for motorists and small businesses.

    The solution for mass transit is very easy.

  • Girl Power says:

    The solution for mass transit is cheap and easy. (see my post above)

  • Ted says:

    Critical mass looks, to me, like David posturing himself as Goliath for the day, and then looking over his shoulder to see the crowd’s response, (and then he can’t figure out why the crowd is looking at him “that way”). I recommend, rather, that we all leave the house every morning as David, allowing a much more physically broader opportunity for the crowd to say “Wow, look at David go! Maybe I’ll be out there with him one day!”

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