As Critical Mass Turns 20, Founders Reflect on Sprawling Bike Protests (AUDIO)

By Julie Caine | 09/28/2012 – 1:16 pm

Early Critical Mass Ride

(San Francisco, Calif. –Ben Trefny, KALW) Political movements don’t have to be shaped by politicians. In fact, one of the most dynamic movements to shape the way we see our streets started with a group of bicycle riders in San Francisco who simply wanted to be seen.

It’s a gathering that’s come to be known as “Critical Mass.” Tonight, hundreds, if not thousands, of cyclists from around the world will come together to take over their city’s streets and celebrate the event’s 20th anniversary.

The Mass has taken place on the last Friday of every month since September of 1992. It’s a leaderless bike ride, without a preplanned route, lasting several hours. The concept is to have enough people riding on bikes — a critical mass — to force cars to stop and wait for them. The message: The road belongs to bikes too, not just cars.

Critical Mass rides are controversial, somewhat chaotic, and sometimes confrontational. But it’s also effective. And it’s grown. Today, Critical Mass rides take place in more than 300 countries around the world. Urban bike riding has changed significantly in that time — some would say Critical Mass helped the world spin a little differently.

Chris Carlsson is the co-founder of Critical Mass. He and Lisa-Ruth Elliot co-edited the new book, Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20. KALW’s Ben Trefny spoke with the two editors to reflect on how the Mass got its start.

CARLSSON: We felt really mistreated, as second-class citizens on the roads… people would treat you derisively, they’d yell at you, they’d think you were, like, immature, you’re a kid.  “Grow up and get a car!”  As though that were somehow an act of maturity.  So we thought, let’s just meet at the foot of Market Street and ride home together.  Simple act.  Get everybody together we can, fill the streets with bikes, and by doing so, displace the cars.