We Are Traffic

The Spirit of Critical Mass

1,000 Words

cyclists on a bridgeHynek MoravecPrague

The first ride, which took place in September of 1992, was modest: Less than 50 bicyclists gathered on San Francisco’s Market Street for what they then called “Commute Clot,” a loosely organized effort to ride their bikes en masse and, in the process, redistribute the balance of power between automobiles and bicycles.

The event soon took on the name “Critical Mass,” a reference to a process in China whereby cyclists are able to cross intersections once they have gained enough numbers to overwhelm the auto traffic. The “organized coincidence,” as has some have called it, grew quickly. Within a year, some 1,000 cyclists were routinely participating. By 1997, when San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown tried to stop the ride, up to 7,000 cyclists were involved. Brown’s failed crackdown (and the headlines it generated) gave international attention to Critical Mass, and helped spark an international movement. Today, Critical Mass rides take place in dozens of cities around the world, from Hong Kong to Johannesburg, Lisbon to Ljubljana.

The anarchic spirit of Critical Mass is summed up by the monthly calendar listing of the San Francisco Bike Coalition: “Where does it go? Who knows. Who’s in charge? No one.”

Critical Mass – whether in Florence or Phoenix – succeeds through a kind of collective intelligence. The rides have no leaders, no set route, no agreed-upon end point. The direction of the ride is determined solely the cyclists’ instincts, by pedalers’ individual decisions at each separate intersection.

Our photo essay reflects this open-source ideal. Rather than highlight the work of a single artist, as we usually do, we are featuring photos taken by Critical Mass riders themselves, images gleaned from Flickr.com and Wikimedia.

As these photographs show, Critical Mass is at once a celebration and a rebellion. Cyclists – accustomed to feeling isolated on car-dominated streets – revel in the sense of community. Costumes are not uncommon; at the San Francisco ride, a pedal-powered stereo, “the soul cycle,” provides a hip-hop soundtrack. At the same time, the festival feeling overlays a deeper political purpose: to reclaim public roads for bicyclists, and to make the point that automobile drivers need to get accustomed to sharing the streets. Each ride makes the implicit point that reducing our reliance on cars is an environmental and social imperative.

Motorists often respond with annoyance, complaining that Critical Mass messes up traffic. The cyclists’ response is simple: “We are traffic.”

cyclists in a large groupLunaRosaRio de Janeiro

photo of cyclists at nightPaul Freedman, rockthebike.comSan Francisco

photo of a police officer piling bikes togetherTod SeelieNew York

795.jpgMichele AquilaFlorence

photo of many bikes photo of bikes on the ground near a train station cyclists many cyclists cyclists in a plaza
Click any of these to see more photos of Critical Mass.

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