Does biking in large groups, like the monthly ride called Critical Mass, help or hurt cyclists and the cycling movement?

Updated September 29 and 30 to add my thoughts and to clarify that when I asked my friends on Facebook for their thoughts, only four people replied. Also included the fourth reply. Added information about the “Aftermass” documentary effort in Portland, Oregon. Added Critical Mass alternatives.

This debate aired on Chicago Tonight on Thursday, September 27, 2011, at 7 PM. I haven’t watched it yet – I just wanted to get it out there for you. Features cycling mom and friend of Grid Chicago, Gin Kilgore, as well as Ethan Spotts, director of communications at Active Transportation Alliance, and Scott Rowan, co-author of The Urban Cyclist’s Survival Guide.

I asked my friends on Facebook about this issue; here’s what the only four who responded said:

Dan Ciskey

In the summer it’s nothing more than a frat party on wheels. They block other bikers who need to use the street in the opposite direction by riding across the entire street. Even when the opposite direction has its own bike lane. At that point it’s not bike-positive, it’s just a bunch of jerks. I had a driver who got stuck in Mass throw change at me, even though we were past and I was riding away from the group. They’re really winning hearts and minds!

I’ve never run into them in the winter (when I’m sure they’re much smaller; most of the riders don’t seem too serious).

Friend who wanted to remain anonymous

I think that if nothing else, Critical Mass should avoid riding by Union Station whenever possible (which is always). There’s a huge throng of pedestrian traffic headed toward onion station at the exact time of day as Critical Mass – and they’re consistently blocked from being able to cross Adams Street to get to the entrance.

Anne Alt

For years, I’ve felt that Critical Mass is a mixed bag. Our main Chicago ride, fun as it may be, has gotten too big. It’s difficult to have something the size of a parade NOT alienate a fair number of people.

If riders are friendly to pedestrians and drivers, the response is usually friendly. If riders are confrontational or thuggish, it gives our bike community a collective black eye.

If we want to build greater acceptance for cycling and get more people out riding on the streets, alienating the general public will NOT help us make progress towards a more bike friendly city. It’s more likely to provoke a Tea Party-style backlash. I suspect that the negative responses we see in newspaper article comment sections and bike bashing on talk radio are just the tip of the iceberg. Road rage incidents reinforce this opinion.

I think the smaller neighborhood Critical Mass rides are more effective at promoting the idea of sharing the road and peacefully coexisting. I appreciate what Critical Mass has done to popularize the idea of bike riding in cities, but I think the big rides of recent years have become counterproductive. I also appreciate the efforts that some of our local CMers have made with the multi-mass idea – difficult as that is to pull off.

I’d rather be part of a mellow, friendly social ride than a drunken frat party on wheels. Just my $0.02… Your mileage may vary.

Dan Korn

 It’s true that it might not be the best tool to encourage people to ride, but I think its greatest value is the energy it gives to its participants, and that’s been a huge factor in the growth of the cycling movement, which has, admittedly slowly, but surely, led to improvements like protected bike lanes and events like Bike the Drive here in Chicago, and similar advances in other cities with large Critical Mass rides and communities. These kinds of changes wouldn’t have been possible, I submit, without the sense of community and vision that Critical Mass fosters. To me, that far outweighs any negatives. Although, if people are now talking about cycling, for almost any reason, that’s a good thing too.

My thoughts

I think that the people who enjoy doing Critical Mass should continue doing it. I will not ask them to stop, but I won’t ask them to continue. I don’t think it hurts the “cycling movement”. What hurts the cycling movement is the lack of political leadership to help move it. But that’s changing in Chicago. I rode in Critical Mass (the October ride is my favorite) because I enjoyed being around people who were having fun, and I liked the energy of the ride. I stopped riding in Critical Mass purely because it exacerbated my existing neck and back pain.

Joe Biel is making a documentary of “post-Critical Mass” Portland, Oregon. He writes on his Kickstarter page:

What does it mean that Portland, one of the best North American cities for cycling, has virtually no Critical Mass? Is it no longer relevant in the evolution of cyclists or has the police crackdown just been so successful? What are the new goals of cyclists? What is the new activism? How are objectives reached?


People riding in Critical Mass on Clybourn Avenue in summer 2011. Photo by Mike Travis. 

Critical Mass alternatives in Chicago

6 thoughts on “Does biking in large groups, like the monthly ride called Critical Mass, help or hurt cyclists and the cycling movement?”

  1. If I had known that that FB status had been a call to defend CCM, I would have done so vehemently. I’m sure Anne, Dan and Steven believe what they posted but there does seem to be pressure from all sides in the last couple of years to distance one’s own advocacy from Critical Mass. It seems like CCM is a whipping boy  of late and maybe that’s because many of the people that ride the Mass now don’t grasp why it was so desperately needed in the 90s.
    This controversy (if it is more than just a simple blowhard grasping for stronger book sales) reminds me of Newton’s quote, “if I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants”. It is easy to say that Critical Mass is crippling to the bicycle advocacy movement now because there is finally a real movement with a strong foothold in American society. Ten years ago, Critical Mass WAS that movement. I am eager for the day to come where the strides Critical Mass serves are no longer necessary. When citizen cyclists stopped being murdered on our streets, when bicycles are just as accepted as a fixture on the road as motor vehicles, when the same amount of government dollars spent on the betterment of life for motorists are spent for cyclists, maybe then Critical Mass will no longer be relevant. Until then, I am not going to let a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch.

    1. No one defended it when I asked; maybe it was too unpopular to do so. 

      Someone sent me a selection of people’s writings from the Chicago Critical Mass listserv two weeks ago and they sent me only opinions on how it’s a negative event. 

      “When citizen cyclists stopped being murdered on our streets, when bicycles are just as accepted as a fixture on the road as motor vehicles, when the same amount of government dollars spent on the betterment of life for motorists are spent for cyclists, maybe then Critical Mass will no longer be relevant”.

      That’s precisely why Portland stopped doing a Critical Mass, I’ve heard. 

    2. I agree with Ash. The argument in defense of Critical Mass is about social capital. If you were to write a book about the history of bicycle advocacy in Chicago, my hunch is that you would discover Critical Mass played an elemental role in bringing together leaders. If you were to unwind the roots of organizations like Bike Winter, Chicago Stolen Bicycle Registry, Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, West Town Bikes, etc… I suspect you would find Critical Mass linked these people and/or was used as a platform by people to further their collective strength. That said, the organizations that came out of the Critical Mass incubator are breeding the bicycle advocacy leaders of tomorrow. The leaders of tomorrow are the kids who bought their bike at Working Bikes, learned how to fix it at West Town Bikes, and spend their summers working for the City as Bicycling Ambassadors.
      The second argument in defense of Critical Mass is that, for a significant amount of people, it’s fun. It’s easy to criticize them as drunk frat partiers, but guess what, a lot of people are there enjoying themselves. Wonky people talk so much about what bicycling can do for economic development, for public health, for sustainability, for climate change, but at the end of the day ‘fun for fun’s sake’ has value entirely on its own.

      1. Here, here, Michael!  Your first paragraph nailed it. If you want to find the roots of Chicago’s current bike advocacy and planning leaders, many of them could be found in the early 2000s collating and stapling copies of the Critical Mass Derailleur zine on Alex Wilson and Lauren Salmi’s dining room table at their monthly Derailleur assembly parties.

  2. Whether CM helps or hurts the movement is a moot question in my mind, made so because it is unethical and self-contradictory.  Its power is entirely reliant on an ethically bankrupt concept of strength through numbers, disregarding all the laws of the road, as well as the others trying to use it.  How does refusing to share the road encourage 4 wheel traffic to share it? 

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