Sat 2 Apr 2011
San Francisco, September 1992. A group of bicycle commuters, discussing their mutual frustration with marginalization and endangerment in the city’s streets, spearheaded a monthly urban bike ride they called Commute Clot. As the event quickly grew in popularity to hundreds of riders per month, they changed the name to Critical Mass, inspired by a documentary that showed how Chinese cyclists negotiate major intersections with no traffic signals by using the influence of their collective numbers to forge ahead together. Critical Mass drew in a wide variety of people who wanted the opportunity to promote sharing of the streets and to elevate the profile of bicycles as a viable mode of transportation. Critical Mass has since become a global phenomenon, catching on in hundreds of cities in the US and around the world.
Critical Mass isn’t just about anti-car and pro-bike activism, but a general sense of malaise with the confining features of modern life and how this is reflected in the car-centric urban form. In an essay from Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration by Chris Carlsson, a Critical Mass participant makes an effort to describe the values and purpose of this rather amorphous social movement:
Critical Mass is an unparalleled, practical experiment in public, collective self-expression, reclaiming out diminishing connectedness, interdependency and mutual responsibility. CM provides encouragement and reinforcement for desertion from the rat wheel of car ownership and its attendant investments. But even more subversively, it does it by gaining active participation in an event of unmediated human creation, outside of economic logic, and offering an exhilarating taste of a life practically forgotten – free, convivial, cooperative, connected, collective … Critical Mass since its beginning has identified itself as a celebration more than a protest, and is for many of its participants a prefigurative experience, both calling attention to and actually creating a taste of a different way of life … It is a public demonstration of a better way of moving through cities.
Last year I began participating in Critical Mass Houston every last Friday of the month. The Houston ride is casual and low-speed, originating at Tranquility Park downtown and usually lasting around 3 hours. Following the CritMass conventions, Houston’s ride is an “organized coincidence,” with no formal leadership and no planned route. Each week someone different steps up to get the ride started and forge the way. Sometimes there are stops along the way at various venues to give riders a chance to catch up and socialize.
One of the more controversial practices of this movement is that the ride uses safety in numbers to flout traffic laws. A common tactic of Critical Mass rides is for a few riders, called “corkers,” to block each intersection so that the rest of the riders can go by, even through red lights. As one would imagine, this occasionally generates hostility from Houston drivers, who are particularly unused to accommodating pedestrians and cyclists. I have seen some instances of drivers who were stopped at the intersection becoming belligerent, sitting on their horns, getting out to yell, or inching their car up toward the corker. But fortunately, for the number of intersections the ride goes through, these occurrences are relatively rare. Bystanders and drivers tend to be mostly amused and/or supportive.
While it has met some opposition to its methods by other bicycle advocacy groups, Critical Mass rides are definitely succeeding in grabbing attention. Even in the two years that I have attended the Houston rides on and off I have seen a noticeable increase in participation. At my first Critical Mass, there were maybe 75-150 riders. In last month’s ride there were easily 400.
I find this popular uprising against Houston’s systemic exclusion of cyclists on the roads to be a fascinating recent development. Critical Mass does not claim to be a protest or political demonstration, but rather a spontaneous gathering of cyclists who want a chance to reclaim the roads. In some cities the rides have taken on more explicit political stances, forming activist groups that communicate the complaints and desires of cyclists to local government.
While I am a bit skeptical that an event by primarily young, countercultural types in Houston’s downtown will be an agent of wide-sweeping change across a sprawling metropolis ruled by business interests, I do see it as an indicator of changing preferences and a visible presence of young progressives in Houston that have the potential to influence the city’s character. By creating a demand for more bike-friendly policies and development (a critical mass, if you will), there will be a greater business interest to appeal to people who want that kind of lifestyle.
Houston has never been known as a destination for vibrant street life, but there is definitely a growing demand here for more walkable and bikeable urbanism. There are pockets of hope, such as pedestrian-oriented developments in the Midtown and Montrose area, as well as the new mixed-use town centers sprouting up in Sugarland, Memorial, and other suburbs, which have proven to be wildly popular.
I highly recommend reading the wikipedia article. It goes through the history of Critical Mass as a social movement, criticisms and responses, and other similar rides around the world. You can also visit the Houston Critical Mass blog.