What is Critical Mass?
Critical Mass is a monthly gathering of cycling enthusiasts. A ride dedicated to increasing the awareness of bicycles on our streets and their use as an alternative form of transportation. Basically, it's a method of demanding rights and safety for cyclists, and hopefully opening people's eyes to society's dependency on the environmently destructive use of internal combustion vehicles (cars).
The first Critical Mass ride was held in September 1992 in San Francisco. There were 48 people. The ride increased in size by about 75% each month so that by the time 1993 came about, Critical Mass had almost 500 riders and was becoming well known among bicyclists in the city--although city officials still hadn't acknowledged its existence. A couple of months later, people in other cities started noticing and began other Masses. Also in 1993, San Francisco police and Mayor Frank Jordan finally made notice of the ride and struggled with how to "deal" with it. It took until June of 1997, when Critical Mass was almost 5 years old, for the "new" mayor Willie Brown to make any special note of the event.
There have been nascent Critical Mass events in hundreds of cities around the world, from Sydney and Melbourne, to London and Bristol, to Toronto, Chicago, Boston, Richmond, Austin and even Walnut Creek.
As Critical Mass has proliferated, other protest actions have also developed against the destructive presence of automobiles in cities. Reclaim the Streets events, large "spontaneous" street parties that often attract thousands of participants, have occurred in London, Berlin, Sydney, Edinburgh, Amsterdam and other cities. After creating an "obstruction," such as a fake car crash, participants quickly flood the targeted street with banners, musicians, stilt walkers, fire breathers and PA systems. Participants often dig up the street and plant trees, or create children's play areas complete with wheelbarrow loads of sand. "It's not so much of a 'pedestrian thing'," explains Randy Ghent of the Lyon-based Collectif pour des Rues Libérées. "It's more of a movement to reclaim urban space from the clutches of the automobile."
Together with protest events like Critical Mass and Reclaim the Streets, there has been a significant growth of publications, web sites, conferences and organizations devoted to reducing auto-dependency. In October 1997 a week-long conference in Lyon, France, "Toward Car-Free Cities," attracted 65 activists representing 50 organizations from 21 countries. The Car Free Cities Network was launched with 37 founding organizations in 1994 at a conference in Amsterdam. With more than 60 European cities participating today, the network points to Venice as evidence that car-free cities can function well while enjoying a high quality of life.
Many debate whether Critical Mass, with its prominent slogan "One Less Car", is a cause, a result or merely a highly visible element of this movement. In any event, it is one manifestation of the increasing resistance to the disruption and damage created by auto-dependency.