Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Critical Mass

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San Francisco Critical Mass, April 29, 2005
San Francisco Critical Mass, April 29, 2005

Critical Mass is a bike ride typically held on the last Friday of every month in cities around the world where bicyclists and, less frequently, skateboarders, roller bladers, roller skaters and other self-propelled commuters take to the streets en masse. Critical Mass is not led, and has no officially-stated message, though it is largely understood to be an effort to promote alternative (non-motorized) modes of transportation and to raise awareness about the safety issues that face commuters using non-motorized forms of transportation when sharing the streets with motor vehicles. Participants meet at a set location and time and enjoy the security and companionship of traveling as a group through city streets. This can cause a disruption of motorized traffic, but the general philosophy behind the ride is expressed in the widely-used slogan, "We aren't blocking traffic; we are traffic."

Critical Mass rides are self-organized, non-commercial and non-competitive, and they operate with diffused and informal decision-making, independent of "leaders". They are often also unofficial, foregoing permits and official sanction from municipal authorities. Usually only the meeting place, date and time are fixed. In some cities, the route, finishing point, or attractions along the way may be planned ahead. Participants demonstrate the advantages of cycling in a city, and show how the city may be failing cyclists in terms of facilities and safety.

Critical Mass rides have been perceived as protest activities. For instance, a 2006 New Yorker magazine article described Critical Mass's activity in New York City as "monthly political-protest rides", and characterized Critical Mass as a part of a social movement[2]; and the UK e-zine Urban75, which advertises as well as publishes photographs of the Critical Mass event in London, describes this as "the monthly protest by cyclists reclaiming the streets of London"[3]. However, Critical Mass participants have insisted that these events should be viewed as "celebrations" and spontaneous gatherings, and not as protests or organized demonstrations[4][5]. This stance allows Critical Mass to argue a legal position that its events can occur without advance notification of local police[6][7].

Critical Mass rides vary greatly in many respects, including frequency and number of participants. For example, in what have been the largest events using the name Critical Mass, cyclists in Budapest, Hungary hold only two rides each year on 22 September (International Car Free Day) and 22 April (Earth Day). They attract tens of thousands of riders. The April 22, 2006 Budapest ride participation was generally estimated at 32,000 riders.



[edit] Purpose

Over a thousand riders took part in the 10th anniversary ride in Melbourne during November 2005.
Over a thousand riders took part in the 10th anniversary ride in Melbourne during November 2005.

The purpose of Critical Mass is not formalised beyond the direct action of meeting and carrying out the event, creating a public space where automobiles are displaced to make room for alternatives. The one agreed upon slogan is We Are Traffic. All participants, being equal in leadership, are thought to have equivalent claim to their own intentions and the purpose of the ride. Critical Mass is undeniably linked to the environmental movement, which cites private automobile use as catastrophic to our global and local environment, in physical and social terms. Generally, the purposes of the event as indicated by the actions of the riders are meant to oppose the domination of the automobile over our urban culture, or to create something different. However, these things are often interpreted very differently and some riders may even disagree - for example, one might not ride at all for environmental purposes, but because of social justice theories. Many do not ride in opposition to anything: they simply enjoy an opportunity to cycle socially and in safety, or in a boisterous and celebratory crowd.

[edit] History and organization of the rides

The first San Francisco ride, with 48 riders, began at 6 p.m., Friday, September 25, 1992, although it did not come to be called Critical Mass until the second ride, on Friday, October 30, 1992 (with 85 riders). Its name soon began to be adopted as a generic label by participants in similar but independent mass rides that were starting to occur worldwide at around the same time, although some started before then. It is estimated that there are Critical Mass-type rides in more than 325 cities to date. The term "Masser" is sometimes applied to frequent participants.

[edit] Origins

The term "critical mass" was adopted from an observation made by American human powered vehicle and pedicab designer George Bliss while visiting China. He noted that in traffic in China, both motorists and bicyclists had an understood method of negotiating unsignalled intersections. Traffic would "bunch up" at these intersections until the back log reached a "critical mass" at which point that mass would move through the intersection. This description was related in the Ted White documentary Return of the Scorcher (1992) and subsequently adopted by the Critical Mass movement.

The first San Francisco ride in 1992 was in fact titled Commute Clot, though this awkward moniker was changed quickly after the Ted White movie was shown, at the suggestion of bicycling advocate Dave Snyder. The term "critical mass" is also used by social theorists who posit that a social revolution is achievable after a certain critical mass of popular support is demonstrated. This social construct reflects the often unsaid ambition of many ride participants that the balance of mobility in our cities will change towards bicycles or other modes of transport, away from the now-dominant private motor car.

[edit] Structure

Rome Critical Mass, 29th July, 2005
Rome Critical Mass, 29th July, 2005

Critical Mass differs from many other social movements in its rhizomal (rather than hierarchical) structure. Critical Mass is sometimes called an "organized coincidence", with no leader, no organizers, and no membership. For example, the term xerocracy was coined to describe the process for how the route for a Critical Mass can be decided: anyone who has an opinion makes their own map and distributes it to the cyclists participating in the Mass. Some rides are decided spontaneously by those at the front of the pack. Others are decided prior to the ride by a popular vote of suggested routes. Still other rides decide the route by consensus. These methods free up the movement from the overhead costs involved in a hierarchical organisation: no meetings, no structure, no internal politics, and so on. In order for it to exist, all that has to happen is that enough people know about it and turn up on the day to create a "critical mass" of riders large enough to safely occupy a piece of road to the exclusion of motorized road users.

[edit] "Corking"

Detail from the November 20, 1992 flyer by Joel Pomerantz [1] which introduced the concept of corking. Note that the original San Francisco rides were not the last Friday, but the "last working Friday", to prevent interference with  Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Detail from the November 20, 1992 flyer by Joel Pomerantz [1] which introduced the concept of corking. Note that the original San Francisco rides were not the last Friday, but the "last working Friday", to prevent interference with Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Critical Mass participants are required to lead their own event, since there is no formal leadership. In order to moderate the flow of the group, riders sometimes use a tactic known as "corking", which involves blocking traffic from side roads so that the riders can freely proceed (sometimes through red lights) without fear of motor vehicles becoming embedded in the mass of riders. It is thought to be safer for the riders to stick together and disallow automobiles in their midst. Such vehicles entering the mass would likely create a bottleneck for the cyclists and cause more disruption and delays than otherwise may occur. However, for very large critical mass rides of many hundreds or thousands of participants, motorists may be severely delayed either way, and in this case corking is primarily conducted for safety reasons. The corking dynamic is similar to that of a parade. Veteran riders sometimes take advantage of their time corking to display tricks such as the Chicago hold-up.

When explaining the principles of corking to newcomers, many riders use the metaphor of a large bus full of people travelling as a group, which should not be split up, even if the light turns red after the group has entered the intersection. Critical Mass rides typically accommodate and yield to emergency vehicles and often even pedestrian cross traffic; unlike a group of cars, space can be made quickly, and groups of bicycles are typically more fluid and responsive to their surroundings.

Cyclists in Critical Mass ride through Times Square in New York City on July 30, 2004
Cyclists in Critical Mass ride through Times Square in New York City on July 30, 2004

Critics argue that the practice of corking roads in order to pass through red lights as a group is contrary to Critical Mass's claim that "we are traffic" [8], since ordinary traffic (including bicycle traffic) does not usually have the right to go through intersections once the traffic signal has changed to red, unless issued with a specific permit or residing in jurisdictions where bicyclists have this right (such as Idaho, USA : Idaho Bicycle Law). It has been pointed out that the current prevalent traffic signals have been designed to facilitate groups of motorized vehicular traffic, without specific consideration of the unique safety requirements of groups of bicycles, or other non-motorized transport such as electric scooters for the disabled. The act of corking also gives the Critical Mass participants an opportunity to talk to drivers or onlookers about what is going on, or why they are being made to wait. Although in most cases corking has the benefit of passing the ride through an intersection and out of the area more quickly, thus returning the roads to their normal traffic patterns, this is not always readily understood by the delayed motorists. Thus, sometimes, corking has translated into hostility between motorists and riders, even erupting into violence and arrests during some Critical Mass rides [9].

[edit] Reactions to and effects of the rides

Although there is no consensus as to the ride's overall effect on street conditions for cyclists or on public perceptions of bicycling, a few examples show the extent to which the ride has permeated various subcultures:

The name of the event has been subjected to word play in many contexts, ranging from advertising campaigns for commercial products to numerous other public events, some with only remote similarities to Critical Mass. The extensive news coverage of San Francisco's July 1997 ride spawned an international celebration of bicycling, called Bike Summer. The Rand Corporation produced a white paper entitled What Next for Networks and Netwars? analyzing the tactics of the ride, as part of an evaluation of decentralized decision-making for potential military battlefield use. The ride has generated books, documentary films, murals, and other secondary artifacts.

[edit] Conflicts with motorists

London Critical Mass, April 28, 2006 - 12th Anniversary.
London Critical Mass, April 28, 2006 - 12th Anniversary.

Critics have claimed that Critical Mass is a deliberate attempt to obstruct automotive traffic and cause a disruption of normal city functions, asserting that individuals taking part in Critical Mass refuse to obey the vehicular traffic laws that apply to cyclists the same as they do to drivers of other vehicles [10]. The accusation of traffic disruption is labeled by some participants as hypocrisy, since rarely are motorists blamed for their traffic jams, which occur more frequently than jams caused by Critical Mass.

Those Critical Mass participants who break the law sometimes defend their actions based on their belief that the special circumstances surrounding Critical Mass means obeying the letter of the law would be more dangerous and inconvenient for all road users. In addition, some participants say that typical laws governing bicycle road users are unfair compared with those governing pedestrians and motorists, and that street design and traffic laws heavily favour motor vehicle users: breaking the law in the context of Critical Mass is therefore an act of civil disobedience against this unfair legal arrangement. Still others say that they are simply living life as they wish it to be for a few hours each month, making culture which favors motorists obsolete and irrelevant.

[edit] Conflicts with authorities

In 1997, the mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, was asked by a journalist at a press conference how he planned to control Critical Mass. The mayor was quoted in the press as threatening the riders with arrest, along with various belittling of bicyclists. The reaction and extensive press coverage grew into a confrontation at the July 25, 1997 ride. The local newspapers had published a route, although many riders were hesitant about—or flatly against—cooperation with it. On Friday the mayor addressed the crowd at the Embarcadero meeting place but was shouted down. The crowd of approximately 7,000 bicyclists quickly split into many parts, each being chased or monitored by police units, including helicopter monitoring. This resulted in extensive turmoil throughout the downtown area and many arrests and bicycle confiscations.

Metropolitan Police officers with their cycles awaiting the start of Critical Mass London, April 2006.
Metropolitan Police officers with their cycles awaiting the start of Critical Mass London, April 2006.

After the US 2004 Republican National Convention coincided with the August 2004 New York City Critical Mass, many court cases resulted regarding the legality of the ride, confronting issues of whether police have the right to arrest cyclists and seize their bicycles, and whether the event needs a permit. In December of 2004, a federal judge threw out New York City's injunction against Critical Mass as a "political event." [11] On March 23, 2005, the city filed a lawsuit, seeking to prevent TIME'S UP!, a local nonprofit, direct action, environmental group, from promoting or advertising Critical Mass rides. The lawsuit also stated TIME'S UP! and the general public could not participate in riding or gathering at the Critical Mass bike ride, claiming a permit was required. A documentary film, Still We Ride shows the nature of these bike rides before and after the police took notice. [12] [13]

In September 2005, Critical Mass in London found itself in conflict with public law enforcement when the Metropolitan Police gave out notices announcing a requirement that the organisers of the mass report a route six days before the event. In addition, they stated that the mass may be restricted in the future, and arrests would result if their orders were not followed. The threat was quickly moderated when politicians and cyclist groups voiced objections. The following ride, that of October 2005, was tremendously well attended, with estimates approaching the figure of 1200 participants. There was a long stop in Parliament Square, part of the Government's exclusion area in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. However, this event also led to a particularly slow and cumbersome ride which brought some debate[citation needed] from London cycling groups[attribution needed].

Another consequence of the police notice was that a participant sought a declaration from the High Court of England and Wales that there was no requirement to seek police permission for the Critical Mass rides. After what the judgment describes as a "friendly action" in which the claimant and the police agreed not to seek damages, the Court ruling on June 27, 2006 agreed with the claimant that the Critical Mass rides did not fall within section 11 of the Public Order Act 1986 and therefore no notice had to be given.

[edit] See also

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