Critical Mass bike rides are spontaneous, leaderless rides that begin at specific times and locations in various cities around the world. Since no one organizes the rides, they have no agreed agenda or demands. They aren’t a protest. Instead, when we ride on Critical Mass, we’re living the world we would like to see—filling the streets with bikes, laughter, human speed, clean air, engagement, and life. At Critical Mass, we can bike down the street safe from speeding cars—together—empowered by our numbers. Critical Mass is a celebration.
Critical mass rides sometimes enrage car drivers because bike traffic competes with car traffic for space on the road. Cars have their critical mass 29 days of the month when bikes get crowded out—it’s called rush hour! Critical mass is a single day when bike traffic briefly outnumbers car traffic. Maybe in 50 years, bikes will outnumber cars every day. As concerns about climate change increase, people are searching for alternatives like bikes. A community of cyclists is developing—demanding respect and some space on the road.
Even though every ride in every city is different, frequent Critical Mass riders (mass-holes?) have been learning ways to make our rides better. Here are some tips for riding in Critical Mass or creating your own:
- Ride Slow, talk fast: The key to a successful Critical Mass is having enough bikes riding close enough together so as to take up all or at least one lane of the road. That makes riding in the zone filled with bikes fun and safe. To keep the ride together, the people in the front have to bike really slow—un-naturally slow. If the front goes fast, the ride will quickly get too thin and break apart—allowing angry car drivers into the breaches. Tiding slow is actually a great opportunity to meet your fellow riders, sightsee, smell the flowers, or catch up with friends.
- Smile and wave: It is inevitable that you’ll eventually come across an irate motorist. When this happens, it is best to de-escalate and meet anger with joy. Don’t take the bait to stop your bike and argue—just keep moving and ring a happy bike bell. Keep in mind the point of Critical Mass—to have fun riding our bikes together. Most mass-holes do not want to intentionally delay traffic—rather, we want to be traffic and ride. When a ride gets angry and confrontational, you’ll quickly lose a lot of riders—and they won’t want to come back next time.
- Mass Up!: If you’re at the front, it’s up to you to notice if the ride behind you is getting too thin or spread out. If it does, stop at a red light and wait for the ride to mass up.
- Adjust tactics depending on size: If a ride is huge, it may take up all lanes and run traffic lights to keep things moving and together. These behaviors don’t work if you’re on a small ride—it just pisses off drivers, makes the ride look arrogant, and turns the ride into a stressful battle, not a fun party. If the ride is tiny, consider just taking a single lane and obeying all traffic laws. It can help to turn frequently so cars are not backed up behind you.
- -Determining the route: Some rides use a system called “xerocracy” in which anyone who wants can hand out a Xeroxed flier suggesting a route. Other riders discuss and agree on a general route before the ride. Some have a typical route that they repeat ride after ride. Others pick their route on the fly—whoever is in front makes the decision at each intersection about whether to turn right, left, or go forward. Watch out about going in circles! It can be nice to discuss a fun place to end while you’re riding—a park, the shore, a bar, a good place to watch the sunset, etc. Some rides end at parties, bike film festivals, political events, or outdoor bike-in movies.
- Dress up and decorate your bike! The more fun and beautiful a ride is, the more riders it will attract and the less angry motorists will become. You can include bikes with sound systems, pass out snacks, or have theme costumes: A Halloween ride or a bike prom ride, etc. Some riders carry signs or hand out fliers to explain what is going on to people that they pass by.
- How to start a ride: If your town doesn’t have a ride, anyone can start one by simply picking a meeting spot and a time and place. You don’t need permission, since no one’s in charge! The most popular time is 6 pm on the last Friday of each month—nut any time will do as long as you keep it consistent. Then you can announce the ride for a month or so and get all your friends to go. You can put fliers on bikes you see locked up around town. Once you’ve had your first ride, hopefully word of mouth will keep the ride going into the future. If police show up at your meeting spot, keep in mind that Critical Mass has no leaders and thus no one can really speak to the cops on behalf of the ride. Bikes have a right to ride together if they like—just happy coincidence!—and don’t need permits to do so. If the cops demand that you get a permit, ask them if they make cars get a permit for rush hour!