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

Meet Gin Kilgore, a car-free Chicago mom

Logan Square resident as well as cycling and car-free living advocate Gin Kilgore was recently interviewed in the Chicago Tribune. Grid talks to Gin to get some more information about how others can go car free or “car light.”


Cars aren’t allowed to get this close in Humboldt Park.

Continue reading Meet Gin Kilgore, a car-free Chicago mom