Note that a revised version of this posting became an essay in Critical Mass: Bicycling's Defiant Celebration [Powell's Books], published by AK Press. You can read it on my weblog.

To: Massbike
From: Adam Kessel (

As one of the alleged 'leaders' of last Friday's Critical Mass, I thought I should take a moment to respond to some of these comments, as there is little overlap between the "Critical Mass" discussion list and the "Massbike" discussion list. I'll preface my remarks by saying that I'm not particularly interested in engaging in the flame wars that appear to dominate this list (to which I've subscribed for about a year) so I'll just say my piece and leave.

First, though you may not agree, I am hardly a leader or organizer of the mass. Although I did a lot of flyering over the past month and helped draft a route map, I saw posters and signs all over the city for the ride that I did not make (nor do I know who did!) I met one cyclist who said he had already been flyered "5 times" -- and certainly not by me. I brought the route map, but my involvement in 'directing' the route ended there. I was not one of the people calling out "left" and "right", and in fact the ride only followed about 40% of the turns indicated on the map (although did hit all the major landmarks suggested). I certainly won't be making the next route map.

One day a friend of mine was biking in Cambridge and saw another cyclist handing out flyers in motion, was not able to catch up with her, but it was someone neither of us had ever seen before. I recognized only a handful of the nearly 100 people who showed up at Copley Square. The idea that the leaders sought to make themselves identifiable by putting signs are on their heads is absurd; cyclists wearing signs were the people who grabbed signs and attached to them to their helmets at the beginning of the ride. Furthermore, there are now at least four "boston critical mass" web-sites I am aware of, and I have no idea who is involved in the other three.

I'm not going to try to define objectively Critical Mass nor suggest how it should function or what its 'aims' are. I will relate how I experience it and what I view as some of its positive effects.

There is, in my view, a widespread misunderstanding that a Critical Mass ride is trying to 'demonstrate' something to someone or convince people to change their minds about things. I don't believe this is how social change--or collective determination of uses of public space--occurs. In fact, a highly respected professor of urban planning at UC Berkeley recently published an article in which he said that the prospects of achieving bicycling advancements in the US are specifically tied to the ability of grassroots political pressure brought on by such groups/movements as Critical Mass (Martin Wachs, Transportation Quarterly, "Discussion of 'Bicycling Boom in Germany: A Revival Engineered by Public Policy' by John Pucher", Fall 1997).

The ride event itself has an overall neutral effect on the state of infrastructure, education, and enforcement favorable to bicyclists. There are numerous positive effects: people see a lot of bicyclists having fun, perhaps they hand out informative flyers that change people's minds, etc.. There are also, of course, some negative effects, which have been detailed in recent postings to this list. In my view, these balance each other out.

The main difference that CM makes, I believe, is in the time between rides, when otherwise depoliticized cyclists start to take action; to write letters to their representatives and city councillors; to argue with their neighbors, families, and friends; to become increasingly aware of the primary role that the private automobile plays in determining foreign and domestic policy, in separating out rich from poor and black from white, in causing more deaths, injuries, and illnesses than all of the leading 'public health' villains.

I challenge you to contact the 'mainstream' bike advocacy organizations in Chicago and San Francisco (with which I am the most familiar) to learn about the roll Critical Mass and pushing the envelope has played in making huge progress in these cities. I would be happy to provide you with contact info for the Executive Directors of both organizations. You may argue that the political climate is different in San Francisco, but I don't believe that's so true for Chicago. Critical Mass has been indispensible to energizing and activating bicyclists in these and other cities, and has made -- I believe -- a tremendous difference in infrastructure, education, and enforcement. These masses are anarchic, leaderless, and powerful. Sometimes they follow the 'rules of the road', sometimes they don't.

The history of social progress (again, in my view) is punctuated by small groups of concerned, determined people who had to 'bend the rules' a little to achieve their goals. The very principle of direct action involves 'enacting' laws that don't yet exist. When African-Americans first entered into Woolworth's lunch counters during segregation, they were acting as if the world were the way they wanted it to be. Clearly it wasn't, and they were (especially initially) arrested, abused, and generally mistreated.

At the time, moderates claimed that it would be more effective to play by the rules, using officially sanctioned methods to accomplish social change: litigation, legislation, media work and policy advocacy to shift 'public opinion.' Earlier, abolitionists were accused of being too radical, angering the entrenched power structure--and, in fact, of 'setting the cause back'. Moderates (today generally referred to as 'liberals') play an important role in implementing change. I perceive the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition to be just such an organization. And it is indispensable, but not sufficient.

Progress that has been made--whether in civil rights, environmental protection, economic justice, etc.,--has never occurred without a group that pushes harder, that reframes the questions and recenters the debate, that occasionally acts 'as if' what they wanted to be true _were_ true. For me, this is the role Critical Mass can play. I do not ride with Critical Mass (necessarily) to make a good impression on people, to convince drivers of anything in particular, to 'advocate'. I ride because I find the mass creates a temporary autonomous zone (to borrow a slogan); a place where bicycles do have the right of way--and not just on paper; an ephermal non-imaginary safe, quiet, clean, and fun use of the public good, the streets which we all pay for and the air which we all breathe; a place where the rules are designed for bicycles, not cars. To quote Chris Carlsson, one of the early instigators of San Francisco's Critical Mass: "We conceived Critical Mass to be a new kind of political space, not about PROTESTING, but about CELEBRATING our vision of preferable alternatives, most obviously in this case bicycling over car culture."

Day after day, I attend meetings of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the Municipal Harbour Plan Advisory Committee, the City Council, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, and other bureaucracies too numerous to name. Decisions in Boston are clearly made behind closed doors--more than any other city I'm aware of. In Chicago, I worked as a researcher for a transportation and land use citizen's advocacy group ( and we were constantly complaining about access to the bureaucracy there--but it pales in comparison to Boston. It appears to be impossible to get a BRA agenda without actually going to the meeting; nor to know the future schedule more than a few weeks in advance. Citizen input is routinely ignored, and since the meetings are during the day almost everyone representing "citizen interests" is paid to be there. This is a closed process.

It is absolutely clear to me that these organizations do not make their decisions based on reasonable arguments, on trying to do the right thing 'for the people of Boston', whether environmentally, socially, or economically. Zoning, development, traffic planning--all are politically driven. And I can assure you that bicycles as a mode of transportation are totally off the radar (at the very best--a token afterthought). Until bicyclists are organized--and I believe Critical Mass is a powerful tool for organizing and politicizing otherwise disenfranchised bicyclists--there will be no sea change. We will celebrate excruciatingly small victories. But we can do much better.

You are welcome to disagree. If you are interested in shifting the direction of Critical Mass in a 'positive' sense, bring more of the type of people you'd like to have riding, the last Friday of every month at 5:30pm at Copley Square. Design your own flyers to hand out over the month or at the ride. Or create an entirely separate ride to demonstrate effective cycling techniques. As I understand, the Charles River Wheelmen, the Granite State Wheelmen, the North Shore Cyclists, the Seven Hills Wheelmen, and numerous other groups frequently have group rides that are not protests, direct action, or parties and adhere strictly to the written law. These are also options.

Just my $0.02. Thanks for reading. I've enclosed some links to other critical mass-related things below that you may find interesting.


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