Editor’s note: Next Friday is the 20th Anniversary of Critical Mass. The following is an excerpted version of an introductory essay from Chris Carlsson, one of the founders of Critical Mass, who co-edited the new book Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20, a compilation of essays on the movement from authors around the world.
Critical Mass was born 20 years ago among dozens of people in San Francisco and has reproduced itself in over 350 cities around the world thanks to the diligent efforts of countless thousands across the planet. Often just a few people start riding together and it attracts others to join, gaining momentum steadily until it bursts onto a city’s political and social landscape. Moreover, the concept of riding together en masse is open-ended enough that people have adapted it in many ways during the past decades, from altering the structure of formal recreational riding to using “Critical Mass-style” rides to bring attention to a wide range of political campaigns and issues.
And as we learn from some of the essays in this new collection, mass bike rides weren’t invented in 1992. They took place in different parts of the world years before we started in San Francisco, notably in Bilbao, Spain and Helsinki, Finland where our writers describe earlier rides. Chinese cities were full of bicycles as primary transportation for decades; observing traffic patterns in 1991 Shanghai from a hotel window, New Yorker George Bliss described how bicycles would pile up at the side of a flow of traffic until they reached “critical mass” and broke through to create their own traffic stream—this is where our name came from. Not far from where I lived as a boy in North Oakland, early ecological activists staged an annual mass bike ride called “Smog-Free Locomotion Day” on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue from 1969-71. In the deep social genes of San Francisco itself, mass bike rides of 5,000-8,000 cyclists jammed muddy, rutted streets a century earlier, in 1896, to demand “Good Roads” and asphalt (unknowingly setting the stage for the next vehicle of speed, convenience, and personal freedom that soon followed: the automobile). My mother was born and raised in Copenhagen where I visited as a small boy and then again in 1977 as a young adult—the sensible organization of public streets with space dedicated to bicycle transit was self-evidently preferable to the freeways and rigid, car-dominated street grids of my California childhood.
Critical Mass was a new beginning, but it grew quite naturally from fertile ground where many different seeds were germinating. When it finally emerged 20 years ago it was a hybrid product of late capitalist urban design, long submerged anarchistic political ideas, a growing refusal to submit to the imposed necessity of embedded technologies, and an urgent reclaiming of cities as a lost public commons. The ease with which it replicated itself across the planet was eloquent testimony (and a creative rebuttal) to the creeping monoculture shaping city life everywhere…