Twenty years of freewheeling

Cycling phenomenon Critical Mass celebrates two decades of reclaiming the roads

For twenty years, in an increasing number of cities around the world, cyclists have united on the last Friday of the month to take over the streets. Known as Critical Mass, these mobile, social and celebratory events involve a sufficient number of bicycles to dominate road space; a safety in numbers approach comparable to giant shoals of fish or flocks of birds.

The self-organising nature of such phenomena, where group behaviour emerges spontaneously through the interaction of individuals, is part of the thrill for riders. They move from being solo and vulnerable to becoming part of a surging, whooping herd.

“The whole ethos of the ride is that it is spontaneous, organic, and non-hierarchical,” says Emily Woodhouse, an environmental anthropologist at Imperial College and a regular on the London events. She sees cycling as a positive force for good in the world. “Critical Mass is a direct action expressing how I want the world to be.”

For many participants, the events are a highly symbolic gesture in support of a switch to human-powered mass mobility, which they believe could contribute to making cities healthier, happier and freer flowing. For others, it has simply been about the fun of the ride.

The first Critical Mass took place in San Francisco in 1992 and it has since spread to hundreds of other cities, with the London event sometimes attracting up to 2,000 cyclists. The highest attendance at a critical Mass event was in Budapest in April 2008, where an estimated 80,000 cyclists took part. All the rides have a local flavour but share the same sense of camaraderie, purpose and fun.

Karta Healy, founder of and a veteran of many Critical Mass events in cities including Portland, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris, sees the urge to unite with others and show solidarity against the dominance of the car as a major motivation. “It’s an empowering way to feel justified as a daily cyclist in your city,” he says.

‘The Mass’ is diverse, composed of people of all shapes, sizes, colours and affluence, bound together by the shared love of self-propulsion and the desire to reclaim the streets. There are often mobile sound systems creating a party atmosphere and for many the ride will end in a favourite park or pub.

The meeting spot in London is in front of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank at about 6:30pm. The air buzzes with excitement as friends reunite. Drinks are cracked open, bikes admired and tales of surviving on the city’s mean streets traded. Soon the crowd swells like water behind a dam and the air is filled with a crescendo of dinging bells.

Anticipation gives way to urgency and the cracks in the dam appear as the first riders head up the ramp to the Imax cinema roundabout and off into the heart of the city. The hive-mind has been engaged and without an agreed route or leader, the group surges forth to find its way to an unknown destination.

Once beyond the safety of the South Bank participants find themselves in a sometimes-hostile environment of hooting cars and bemused pedestrians. ‘Corkers’ physically block the traffic allowing the giant, mobile herd to roll across London on streets freed from the normal congestion. For some motorists this seizing and holding of space is an inconsiderate and illegitimate protest.

The response of the Metropolitan Police has varied. For many years the Met would provide a phalanx of police outriders on bicycles who would actually stop the traffic. However, tactics changed in 2006 and police no longer accompany the rides; a development some suggest may have led to an increase in confrontations with drivers.

Emily Woodhouse feels strongly that cyclists should avoid clashes with motorists or police. “Critical Mass is a more powerful force for social change as a completely positive, non-violent, carnival-type phenomenon,” she says. “That kind of atmosphere promotes cycling and dialogue between people.”

A difficulty for the police was the seeming lack of structure to the rides, with no single organisation behind the events, no spokespeople and no agreed route. But for many taking part, it is exactly this freewheeling, collaborative spirit that draws them in.

Many participants are increasingly encouraging the rides to become more explicitly positive, with a message based around the improved lifestyles that cycling could bring about for city-dwellers. Setting an example for the way forward, a new Leicester ride has been described as “a two-wheeled charm offensive,” with a different theme and dress code every month.

Approximately 2% of journeys in London are by bicycle. Copenhagen, in comparison, sees almost a third of all journeys in the city being taken by bicycle. It is also consistently rated as one of the world’s happiest places to live.

These two statistics will be seen as directly linked by many participants of Critical Mass. And after twenty years, as this global phenomenon continues to grow, the riders are more determined then ever to congregate in the name of fun, friendship and freedom, spontaneously creating streets without cars.