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Critical Mass Turns 20

An interview with Mass co-founder and all-around rabble rouser Chris Carlsson

Twenty years ago this week the world’s very first Critical Mass bicycle protest occurred in San Francisco. It’s name then was “Commute Clot.” About 50 people showed up. After a short ride down San Francisco’s central artery, Market Street, the small group of people — in what would soon become a tradition — went to a local bar for beers.Chris Carlson

Since then Critical Mass has become a global phenomenon. The anarchic rides — no leaders, no set routes, no agreed-upon finishing point or end time — have taken place in more than 300 cities around the planet. In some major cities the monthly rides routinely draw thousands of bicyclists into the streets. An April 2008 ride in Budapest involved nearly 80,000 people.

Not surprisingly, the rides have also sparked controversy through the years. Officials in some cities, most notably New York, spent many years trying to crack down on the unpermitted protests. Arrests and bike confiscations have been common.

The conflicts that accompany Critical Mass rides can be aggravating to motorists and cyclists alike. They have also succeeded in helping to change the culture of bicycling, to make cycling a much more commonplace, and accepted, element of many cityscapes. The number of trips taken by bicycle in Portland, OR has grown almost seven-fold in the last 20 years. New York City today has about 200 miles of dedicated bike lanes. Paris has put in place a top-notch bike share program, as has button-downed Washington, DC.

Last week I got the chance to speak with Chris Carlsson, a San Francisco writer, rabble-rouser and bon vivant who is widely credited with sparking Critical Mass. Like a good anarchist, Carlsson was eager to avoid the founder epithet. Still, in talking with him it is clear that Carlsson has thought more deeply than most people about the meaning of his co-creation. As he juggled the arrival of cyclists from Italy, Ecuador and Peru coming to San Francisco to mark the anniversary, Carlsson told me about the early days of Critical Mass, the shortcomings of much of today’s social change protest, the visceral joy self-propulsion, and why he hopes “bicyclist” would stop being a way for people to identify themselves.

photo of cyclists at nightPaul Freedman, rockthebike.comSan Francisco

How did Critical Mass get started? Tell me about the first ride and the early days.

Well, it was a period of time in the late eighties and the early nineties when people who were riding bicycles in town kind of all knew each other. There really wasn’t that many people bicycling in those days. The [San Francisco] Bicycle Coalition barely existed. They were meeting once a month in the back of a Chinese restaurant in the Sunset [neighborhood]; ten or 20 guys — men and women both — at most, and sometimes less. So there wasn’t much action.

But there was about maybe, I don’t know, 20 or 30 of us who had been in conversations very informally over beers and other imbibements in my offices. We were just thinking about urban life and bicycling and how, as bicyclists everyday, we were actually doing everybody a favor and yet we were treated so poorly. Second class citizenship on the roads, at best, and really no place on the roads for us. People would get angry at you if you were riding a bike and yell, “Get on the sidewalk.” Which is illegal. Or [they would yell]: “Grow up and get a car.” As if that was somehow an act of maturity.

So there was this milieu of friends and acquaintances hanging out and drinking beer and smoking pot and talking about all of this stuff. And we finally decided we needed to make our presence felt. The idea came out of that. Nobody can say who thought of it. It just sort of came up out of a conversation of lots of people. So it’s a perfect example of a collective phenomenon that unfortunately gets attributed to me more often than anyone else. I cannot claim that I thought it all up.

The idea was to get together once a month and meet at the foot of Market Street and just try to fill the streets with bikes and see what would happen if we could get everyone to commute home together. The premise of the whole thing was, “Let’s just ride home together as a group.” And by filling the streets with bikes there won’t be any room for cars. We will actually be able to have our own experience of the streets.

So we called for that for the end of September. I actually went to a Bike Coalition meeting proposing it in August. They were like, “Oh, that’s a great idea.” And the very next day they called me and said, “Don’t use our phone number, don’t put us on there.” I was like, fine — we didn’t want it to be officially sponsored anyway. In fact, we knew that the best thing we could do was to make it anonymous so that nobody is really responsible for it. That way they [city officials] couldn’t say, “Oh, you have to have a permit, you have to have insurance.” All of the usual rigmarole that gets imposed on everything in this culture.

We didn’t really know if anybody was going to come or not. But on the first ride about 50 people showed up and it was great. It was really exciting. We just rode straight up Market Street, turned left on Valencia Street, and went to the bar. And then the following month another 70 or 80 people showed up. We did the same thing — we went straight up Market and went to Zeitgeist [a local bar].

The third month was the first time we cracked a hundred. That’s when the name stuck — “Critical Mass.” The first two we called a “Commute Clot.” Then we saw Ted White’s movie, “Return of the Scorcher,” and it had this nice little overview of the resurgence of the bicycle as an everyday transportation choice around the world. And in that movie George Bliss is in a Shanghai hotel looking down at traffic. China in those days was still dominated by bicycles and he described how all of these bikes would pile up at an intersection and suddenly they would reach “critical mass” and break through. There were no traffic lights or no regulation whatsoever. That was a hit with us, and Jim Swanson or Dave Snyder or somebody said, “That’s it!” And we started calling it Critical Mass.

It went on and on from there. Soon there was a ride in Berkeley and one in New York. It was very quick getting on by word of mouth. And that was before the Internet. That was really before we were all using the Worldwide Web as part of our lives. It was 1992.

cyclists on a bridgeHynek MoravecPrague

Were you surprised by the way it took off and how today it is really this global phenomenon?

Oh, sure, you couldn’t be anything but surprised by that. It was absolutely unpredictable. It was a very interesting experience in terms of learning about how memes work — a good idea can take off on its own really easily. I think the basic element of that is: It’s a phenomenon that’s already in everyone’s head. People already know the idea — they already get it that bikes are treated badly on the streets of the world. And that getting together and filling the streets with bikes it’s just sort of a common sense thing to do, to make space for yourself.

Then it’s this joyous experience. Once you’ve tasted it, you can’t go back. It’s just like, “Wow.” The euphoria. The sense of the city changes. The sense of the geography, the smell of the city. The taste of your atmosphere. The meeting of other people along the way. The beautiful bodies you get to look at while you’re riding. All of these things are just quite gratifying. So anybody who’s tasted that once immediately has a sense of how different life really could be.

I think that is Critical Mass’s abiding contribution to our culture. It shifted people’s imaginations in a really profound way toward a sense of how much better life can be right now. You don’t have to wait. We don’t have to ask for permission. We can just get busy with making life better immediately.

And of course what we do once a month for a couple of hours is not enough. We want to do it all the time. But at least we have a chance to taste it for a minute and renew our sensibilities over what’s possible.

This has been a passion of yours for a while, something you dig into deeply in your book, Nowtopia. You write about the idea of a “pre-figurative demonstration.” Can you talk about why that’s important for social change?

Well, I think that one of the problems with challenging the way things are is that — in the United States especially but it’s even a growing phenomenon globally — we live in an amnesia culture, a culture that doesn’t remember its past, doesn’t remember how things were. And without belaboring the specifics of that, the reality of it means that people feel that the world they confront on a daily basis is fixed, unchanging. Because they don’t see how much it has changed to get to where they are. And so when you start to do something like Critical Mass it has a way of unlocking the subjective powers of the individual to change the world. The pre-figurative quality of it is that you start to enact the world you want to live in immediately. You don’t wait around. You actually short circuit a lot of the logic of social protest and social change that says: You have to go through this organization-building; and then you make your picket signs and you stand on the corner; and you write petitions and you write letters to government. And you are always reinforcing your subordinate role in the culture as the outsider asking for something. And when you do something like Critical Mass, you’re not asking for anything. You’re just taking it. You’re just making the world you want to live in.

Now that obviously begs a lot of questions for long-term transformation of society. How does that actually work when you get down to the moment when you institutionalize it? But [laughs] we can work that out when we get there.

The issue really is that we live confronted by this edifice of immobility, and embedded technological and social choices that we have no say over. Yet it’s presented to us as if we participated in making that world democratically. Well, we haven’t. We haven’t had any moment along the way when chose to live in a car-centric culture, where we chose to live in a world dominated by oil companies and massive concentrated wealth. We actually would like to make choices about the world we live in. We’d like to make choices about how we move around in cities. And we’d also like to make choices about what we do all day while we are in the city. That last question never comes up. And Critical Mass is just beginning to open a little space where we can talk about that.

But the big issue that Critical Mass reinforced — and demonstrates what’s possible — is that you can change, right away, how you inhabit your transportation choices in an urban environment.

photo of a police officer piling bikes togetherTod SeelieNew York

You’ve also written in Nowtopia that in the late twentieth century “a social movement emerged based on the bicycle.” I’m wondering: How, if it all, does something that’s essentially just a mode of transport stand for something larger?

I think the reason the bicycle has resonance for a lot of people has to do with some of the things I’ve said earlier: it changes your relationship to the physical environment. So instead of being stuck in a 2,000-pound metal box listening to corporate propaganda coming off your radio — or if you’re thoughtful and lucky maybe you’re listening to some non-profit radio, but anyway you’re getting somebody else’s edited version of reality — instead you’re actually out in the streets. You’re moving through the streets. You’re smelling things. You’re feeling the wind in your face. You’re subject to the trials and tribulations of heavy objects hurtling by you at close range. But you’re able to have a different relationship to your environment. And not only that, but, crucially, a different relationship to your fellow citizens, people that live in the same place that you do. So when you’re out on the streets on a bicycle, you see things directly. You’re having a direct to the world as it unfolds around you. You see a friend? You stop and you talk. You don’t honk, rush for parking, and hope that they’re still there. You just pull right over and you’re in a conversation. And in that conversation you begin to have a different relationship to the construction of awareness, of knowledge, of your own cognitive universe. You understand the world directly in communicating with someone else who’s doing the same thing with you. Instead of being in this recipient mode of consuming the edited fantasies of corporate media. 

That’s just one part of it. You also have this re-inhabitation of urban environments. The main thing is that the bicycle signifies this refusal of a whole set of social relationships. You know, the ball-and-chain of debt dependency. It’s a real good way to short circuit your debt cycle. Everybody knows the car is a black hole for money. The car is also a good way of privatizing the costs of transportation to you, the individual, instead of it being a social investment that everybody makes together. The bicycle also allows you to be in a different relationship to ecology. You feel better about your burden on the planet, your own personal set of emissions, all of those kinds of things.

I don’t actually care about that all that much. I think there’s a real over-emphasis on individual consumer choice as the arena of social and political agency in our society. It’s just totally wrong headed. Really, the problem is that we produce a mess. And what you choose to consume kind of doesn’t matter because we’ve already made a mess. So you can go on a jet all day long, and it really wouldn’t matter because the jet is flying whether you’re in it or not. The problem is that we’ve chosen to send jets up into the atmosphere and fly them around all day long in huge numbers.

What we really need are solar-powered blimps [laughs] that your can take you time getting from one place to another and have a leisurely pace of life and slow everything down. Work less and enjoy life more and so on.

So the bicycle in a way is of an emblem of “Slow Transportation” in the best sense of the word “slow,” in the same way we talk about Slow Food. This whole idea that we live in this crazed, sped-up, frenzied world.

I think the bicycle starts the process of having the space and time to slow down and talk to each other face to face and start to have conversations about meaningful things. So the choice to bicycle is just an opening to a set of a whole different ways of understanding the world. Which is why I think it gets so heavily repressed. Why in New York and Portland they used heavy, heavy, heavy police repression for years on end to try to suppress and destroy Critical Mass rides in those two cities.

And yet it seems like today in some cities, and New York and Portland are among them, we’ve seen a total change in the cycling culture, and how bicycling is accepted. How did Critical Mass change the laws and the physical landscape of cycling in cities?

Our new book, Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20, documents that exact phenomenon. City after city around the world — whether Porto Alegre, Brazil or Rome or Paris or London or San Francisco and New York — every city has really changed since 20 years ago toward a more bicycle-accommodating culture. Now that’s one point. The second point, equally and perhaps more important, is that all of these cities are still fundamentally car-centric. There’s no place in any of these cities that you could say is bike-centric. Everywhere you go it’s about cars. Cars, cars, cars. Parking them, moving them, leaving them in traffic jams — that’s what you do in a city. You make space for that. And then, “Oh, you know what, you want to ride a bike? Well here, OK, we’re going to give you a little stripe on the side of the street. This is going to protect you, leaving you right in the parked car door zone. That’s what we’re going to give you. And now you should be so proud and happy you’ve achieved these white stripes on the road.” Well, I consider it an insult, personally. I think we really haven’t come that far.

What’s come a long way is that there’s way more people on bicycles. Because we’ve created a new climate of political and social possibility in which people feel like they can bicycle. Many, many, many people in many parts of the world that I’ve met start getting back on a bike to ride Critical Mass. And once they ride Critical Mass, they’re like, “Oh, I can do this. Anybody can do this. I can do this everyday.”

How many people have made that transition already as part of a even deeper transitions in their everyday life and everyday choices?

Critical Mass — you always have to say, “It’s not an organization. It doesn’t have an agenda.” But it has been transformative. It has actually made people’s lives better and it has changed lives across the world. It made urban lives better. It made the quality of city life better — in every city where it has occurred. Because of the efforts that people have made to ride together in large groups of people and to challenge the priorities of infrastructure and urban planning wherever they are.

cyclists in a large groupLunaRosaRio de Janeiro

You say the white lines are “insulting.” But they’ve made many more people comfortable about biking. I’m wondering if you could talk about the difference between the Critical Mass, bike-hacker culture and the lycra-clothed cyclist scene?

There’s a guy named Mikael Colville-Andersen that does a website called Copenhagenize.com. He’s kind the roving international diplomat for bicycling from the city of Copenhagen, among other hats that he wears. He also founded CopenhagenChic, and he’s gotten really good at taking photos of really beautiful women on bikes — and men, too — well-dressed and showing that the bicycle is an everyday vehicle. His argument is that all these sub-cultural embraces of the bicycle don’t help. Because the bicycle is not a reason to be political — it’s just a way to get from Point A to Point B. And if it’s the best way to go from Point A to Point B, then more people will do it.

And, interestingly, the two subcultures that you identified … One the spandex wearing, legal eagle types that I tend to refer to as Republican efficiency freaks who think that the bicycle is just delightfully efficient, and wouldn’t everybody just obey the laws. And the other culture, the greasy-calved, shorts-wearing, rambling, bike messenger type aesthetic, fixie-riders these days, etcetera. That’s a very youthful culture, it’s fairly hipster oriented, and that also has a way of not inviting a lot of people in.  It has its own codes and behavioral norms. And as with any subculture, it’s mostly about consumerism — it’s about buying and wearing the right things. And if you don’t do everything just right, you’re not really part of the team. So I don’t really love that one either that much. But I do want to credit that culture, at least in its earlier antecedents, for having helped create a bike culture and opening the space more broadly for lots of different people to try bicycling from lots of different points of view.

Critical Mass was the place where all these different constituencies could meet each other. And more constituencies could find actually themselves and create their own identities. Like this week we’re going to have a Kiddical Mass at Critical Mass. That was actually started up in Eugene, OR some years ago when parents and kids wanted to have a mass bike ride together, and they didn’t want to be under the wing of anybody who had a more sort of confrontational agenda. And so at our massive 20th Anniversary Critical Mass there’s going to be a Kiddical Mass contingent. So bring your kinds out if you’re so inclined.

So there is this notion of these various subcultures that cross over each other, intersect, and in some ways conflict around the question of urban transformations to accommodate bicycling. And in the United States we haven’t gotten to the point where bicycling has disappeared as an identity — which is kind of the goal. There’s no reason why you should characterize yourself as a “bicyclist.” A bicycle is just a choice of a technology, and an industrial technology at that, to move from one place to another. And if it’s the best choice, more people will make it. But right now we invest all of our resources in social infrastructure in other choices. One of our great hopes all this time has been: “Give us a break here. We’ve already made the choices even though the infrastructure is against us. So please accommodate the infrastructure, change it around so that it’s easier to do what we’re already doing. Because we’re making a choice that actually benefits everybody, not just ourselves.” 

Of course that threatens the economics of the car and oil industries. So that’s part of the reason why the politicians and the powers-that-be haven’t been interested in hearing that or making those changes. And then people like the police, not necessarily individual police but certainly institutionally, have had a lot of trouble with bicycle movements and bicycle rides and cultures because I think in some way they feel personally insulted. Because it’s against their sense of what the American Way of Life is.

There’s this whole culture war that permeates the whole atmosphere of this discussion in the United States. … So Critical Mass becomes a turning point, and it’s a place where the battle lines are drawn. So the simple act of riding a bike becomes much more meaningful than just riding a bike. It’s still like that, even though I agree with Anderson in Copenhagen that the long-term situation that we want to get to is where choosing to ride a bike doesn’t seem like a big deal at all. It’s just the obvious, better choice for most daily transportation needs.

* This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island JournalJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is a writer-farmer with a deep background in environmental politics. In addition to his work in the Earth Island Journal, his writings have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, The Progressive, Utne Reader, Orion, Gastronomica, Grist.org, Alternet.org, E magazine, and Yes!  He is a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots and also co-author with Kevin Danaher of Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power.
He is writing a book about wildness in the twenty-first century, to be published next year by Island Press.

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