Critical Mass and the (Bicycle) Chain Reaction
Cycling enthusiasts and nuclear engineers both have a unique understanding of critical mass. While cyclists do not necessarily need to understand the effective neutron multiplication factor or fissile material to participate in cycling’s Critical Mass events, these rides do have a complex and sometimes misunderstood history. Critical Mass rides are still defined by “organized coincidence,” or spontaneous, non-hierarchical yet mysteriously ordered groups of cyclists gathering at the same location to take over the streets twenty years after the first Critical Mass took place in the United States.
In Stockholm, Sweden, hundreds of cyclists rode together in the early 1970s in what is often believed to be the first semblance of Critical Mass rides. Two decades later, on Friday, September 25th, 1992, the modern era of Critical Mass was born in San Francisco. Several dozen cyclists gathered on Market Street for the first “Commuter Clot,” as the ride was dubbed at the time. The purpose of the ride was to generate awareness of cyclists’ rights, but more importantly, according to a booklet produced in 1994 in San Francisco, “Critical Mass is foremost a celebration, not a protest.” Another two decades later, there are now more than three hundred Critical Mass rides in cities all over the world.
Critical Mass rides are like nuclear reactions in the respect that a certain number of participants are necessary to set off the reaction, and that this number varies from city to city and from week to week. As long as there are enough riders to take up the road, a gathering of cyclists can turn into a Critical Mass. In San Francisco, Critical Mass occurs on a regular basis and has included anywhere from a few dozen riders to a few thousand riders. In Budapest, Hungary, Critical Mass only takes place twice a year, on Earth Day and on Car-Free Day, and has had as many as 80,000 participants at a single ride.
While the concept began as a celebration of the bicycle in San Francisco, people inside and outside of Critical Mass events have had differing opinions about the purpose and consequences of Critical Mass. A site that supports London’s Critical Mass describes the events as a way for “people to reclaim the cities with their bikes, just by getting together and out-numbering the cars of the road.” Other rides are organized to support a political or environmental cause, including Free Tibet rides and anti-oil rides. In some instances, the cyclists’ efforts to take back the streets are not well received by all members of the community. The practice of “corking,” or blocking intersections to allow the mass to ride together through traffic lights, creates an obvious inconvenience to motor vehicles. After years of tension in New York City, the battle between Critical Massers and the N.Y.P.D. resulted in the city awarding cyclists nearly $100,000 in 2010 after several incidents of harassment.
Critical Mass rides are defined by defying definition. There is no set size, schedule or organizing body for these rides. There is no mission statement or predetermined route. If you have a bike and you want to participate, you are more than welcome. You can arrive with the intention of riding for a purpose, or you can surrender to the mass and simply ride for the sheer joy of riding. Just don’t ask who is in charge.