Thursday, December 17, 2009

Critical Mass, Melbourne

One of the more interesting parts of my trip has been looking for the ties that bind bicycle cultures.  The differences between bike cultures are often quite clear: the Dutch and Danish often use single speed bikes with 28" wheels, while Australians tend to prefer the more sporty road and mountain bikes.   In Denmark, people follow the traffic rules.  In the Netherlands, they tend to be a bit more lawless.  Australia has bike lanes, Europe has separated bike paths. 

But in all of these places you will find a truly global phenomenon, a piece of cycling culture whose birth is attributed to San Francisco; it's a slice of bicycle life that is almost always sure to raise people's blood pressure...Whether they're arguing its merits or liabilities, Critical Mass is known and practiced in countries around the world.  
In my experience, cyclists tend to love the mass or they hate it.  A generalization?  Sure.  But it's worth taking an informal poll amongst both your cycling and non-cycling friends.  My guess is you probably won't find many people riding the fence.  

What happened in New York in 2004 is helpful in explaining why cyclists are so divided on the Mass.  In August of 2004, New York bicyclists took to the streets on the last Friday of that month--as they had for six years before--but this time the reaction from police was different.  The Republican National Convention was being held in New York over that weekend, and the police were instructed to maintain higher than normal levels of security.  What followed was nothing short of a small riot.

I found a few videos documenting the events of 24 August, 2004.  This first video is a bit slow, but if you scroll to 5 minutes you can see immediately why this particular Mass became critical.    

This second video is a bit intense, but it captures a poignant few minutes of what would prove to be years of drama. 

Finally, a movie was made about the August 2004 mass and the ensuing court battles:

You can watch the whole movie on You Tube.  It lasts about 37 minutes, but you've got to take it 10 minutes at a time.  

Jeff Mapes spends a considerable amount of time talking about New York and it's significance in his book, Pedaling Revolution.  I sent the book back home months ago, so I'll leave it to you, Gentle Reader, to read his interviews with participants and police.  He presents a very balanced perspective on what happened, why it happened, and what it means for riders across the United States.  

My own experiences with the Mass in Memphis included more  police than I cared to meet.  In the summer of 2002, we staged what I think was Memphis' first critical mass ride.  We had roughly 30 riders on the road--one actually had a bike dressed as a dinosaur!--but before we'd been riding half an hour the police had descended upon us.  I, and about a half dozen others, were rounded up and put into squad cars while the officers scanned their law books frantically looking for a charge.  In the end, no charges were filed and we were released on our own recognizance.  That was the last Critical Mass I helped to organize.  

I rode in a couple of mass rides in Memphis in 2008, but they were neither critical nor massive.  The rides topped out at 8 riders.  

So when talk of the Melbourne mass began swirling around in Mid-November, I was intrigued.  I wondered how the mass here might be different than the mass back home.  

In a sort of freak coincidence, I took an unusual route home from downtown (where I had just had a MRI on my hip, no less!) and ran smack into a crew of Critical Mass promoters.  I went along with them as they hung up fliers and scratched advertisements onto the pavement with sidewalk chalk.   


Soon the Mass itself was upon us.  I rolled up to the library to find hundreds and hundreds of people gathered in front of the Melbourne library on a fine spring afternoon.  They were gathering for what would be one of the biggest bicycle rides I would ever be a part of.

We rode through most of the main streets in Melbourne's Central Business District, corking intersections, raising a raucous and thoroughly enjoying ourselves.  


Cyclists were spread out in a long line as far as I could see--both to the front and the back.    

When we got to Flinders St., a main thoroughfare through the heart of downtown, the riders all held their bikes high above their heads and cheered.  It was a glorious moment.  Motorized traffic waited while cyclists had their moment in the sun.  Literally. 

Now, typically the mass doesn't stop for lights.  Bicyclists plug the intersections with their bikes and bodies, blocking all on-coming traffic with nothing but sheer trust and, well, mass.  This mass, however, did stop at a number of lights.  I later found out that a gentleman named Morgan--from San Francisco no less!--took an impromptu leadership role on the ride.  When another rider later asked Morgan why he stopped at the lights, he said "I don't want to piss off motorists.  If we're traffic, we should stop at traffic lights and obey the traffic laws."  Fair enough.  I tend to agree with Morgan.  But is the mass still critical if you're obeying all the laws?  

I soon learned that this mass was no regular monthly meet-up...this was the 14th birthday of the Melbourne mass!  Heaps of riders decorated their bikes with birthday fanfare, some wearing birthday hats on top of their helmets.   

As the sun set, the ride's numbers began to taper off.  We also gained a police escort...which typically does not happen on Critical Mass rides.  My guess is that our complete shutdown of a main intersection on Flinders St. prompted more than one phone call to Johnny law. 

As we took the turn of the mass, back south with the City looming on the horizon, I happened upon a tall bike built for six.  Yup, s-i-x.  The mass is often dubbed "a party on wheels," and I suppose its hard to imagine anything more like a party on wheels than a bike built for six.  It had fun just watching them ride it.  

So what's the verdict?  Is the mass good or bad?  For this blogger, it depends on the city.  Relations between the police and bicyclists ought to be amicable, certainly, and riders should be aware that critical mass is about fun--not advocacy.  The argument has been made that the mass is actually detrimental to the creation of bicycle infrastructure.  It often antagonizes policy makers and the public rather than winning the hearts and minds.  I found this out when a rider forced me into a parked car, where my rubber grip just barely grazed a driver's side door.  "You mut...." was all I heard before we had moved on, but I'm almost certain he was going to use adult language. 
Frankly, I'm not sure everyone appreciates the general feeling of liberation and (sometimes) lawlessness exuded by Critical Massers.   In fact, I think some resent the idea that anyone in society can be allowed to disrupt what appears to be the orderly nature of civic life.  Critical Mass, for Suzie Housecoat, is one step away from total chaos, a world where dogs and cats are sleeping together....

But for others, it's an amazing experience on two wheels, a spontaneous instance of community perhaps un-matched by almost anything else in Modern life.  

What is Critical Mass for you?   


  1. Memphis police behavior is a symptom of a deeper problem - the culture that limits the city's progress in a modern society and (as some believe) drags Tennessee down. Bicycling is an old idea that solves many modern problems (health, environment.)

    Critical Mass, though disruptive, gets bicycles on the mind of the common citizen in a way that nothing else can. It highlights a movement, it bonds bicyclists together. I personally don't have a problem with a bunch of bicyclists out for a ride following all applicable laws.

    I haven't reflected on it this way before, but how many of the top rideable cities in the USA have CM? My theory is the worst cities and the best don't have them - sort of a bell curve. In a city with great facilities, the communities more want to celebrate what they have. In the worst bikeable cities, in their own self defeating ways, don't even have the will in their own bike community to organize a decent CM. I put Memphis in the latter, followed by Nashville. With the lack of progress in Chattanooga with the new mayor and lack of justice for cyclists killed, a CM is probably due there too.

  2. does Morgan have a beard? if so, ask him in the worst drunken American schoolgirl voice: "where u fraaaaum??!" and before he has finihsed answering, you gotta shout "thaats aaawesome!!" and then say howsit from james... later punk, good to read your stories. oh and critical mass = rock and roll

  3. Screw you James! Where YOU frrauum! Not Amsterdam!
    Hi Anthony, hope all is well and you are enjoying the lovely Melbourne weather.

    I'd like to explain a little more detailed my view for anyone who cares.
    More times then I care to remember, while riding in possibly unsafe conditions; no bike lane, narrow shoulder, right turning traffic, I have taken a lane to myself. I have had someone yell from a car "This is not critical mass asshole!" This is in the San Fransisco Bay Area, the birth place of Critical Mass.
    How I'd do Critical Mass......
    The reason I stopped at the lights is because if you are claiming you be promoting cyclists rights to the roadway, you are obligated to follow the rules too. If it stopped at every light, Critical Mass could shut down even larger sections of a city and without breaking the law (no police escorts?).
    Just my 2 cents. More importantly, do your own thing and do it well. With that, I will drink too much espresso again today.

  4. It makes me very happy to see friends I've met across the world cross-comment on my blog. It has been truly a pleasure to cycle and enjoy adult beverages with both Morgan and James--and on two different continents no less!

    I tend to agree with Morgan's perspective...and his point about increasing the effectiveness of the mass. If we stopped at each light in the Melbourne CBD, the line of cyclists would have inevitably flowed out into the previous intersection, blocking it out of sheer necessity while following all the road rules!

    And I'll get at Pat's comment about the mass later this evening--I've got to be off to drink too much espresso, too! Best to everyone!

  5. 'tend to agree'..? get off the fence anthony ;-) don't be distracted by morgan's one handed wheelieing between lanes of gridlocked traffic while drinking an 'adult beverage', that crazy kid be speaking sense. beer breaaak!!!

  6. i only did one critical mass in london, there were about 1000 cyclists and over 100 police pushbike escorts. they didnt seem to mind running red lights and drinking whilst cycling. i think there were there to stop any homicidal taxi drivers ploughing into the parade.. either way it was great fun..

  7. anthony: The grateful dead have a song "the eyes
    of the world". you are so graced, and we are by you. Merry Christmas and Joyful seasons.
    in love,