Mass Movement on Two Wheels

Chris Carlsson, one of the original founders of the Critical Mass bicycling movement, writes, "a funny thing happened during the last decade of the 20th century. Paralleling events that transpired a century earlier, a social movement emerged based on the bicycle."

Heck, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Carlsson’s article appeared in an academic journal called Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture & Action (PDF). It’s good stuff but not the lightest reading.

This curious, multifaceted phenomenon constitutes an important arena of autonomous politics. The bicycle has become a cultural signifier that begins to unite people across economic and racial strata. It signals a sensibility that stands against oil wars and the environmental devastation wrought by the oil and chemical industries, the urban decay imposed by cars and highways, the endless monocultural sprawl spreading outward into exurban zones. This new bicycling subculture stands for localism, a more human pace, more face-to-face interaction, hands-on technological self-sufficiency, reuse and recycling, and a healthy urban environment that is friendly to self-propulsion, pleasant smells and sights, and human conviviality.

Photo: Famewhore/Flickr

  • singlespeed

    While I’ve involved myself to varying degrees in the critical mass movement, and am extremely sympathetic to its causes, there is nothing racially diverse &/or economically diverse about this phenomenon. Lets not kid ourselves. Please. I agree with the ‘lightning rod’ qualities of the bicycle, and politically I’m behind the ideas he poists as gathering around the bicycle, but Chris needs to get out more. In fact, I think the phenomenon has grown extremely hostile (worse yet, righteous) in its advocacy. You’re not saving the world by riding your bike, I’m sorry, I wish I was evey time I commuted on mine. You are helping – radically – but the moment you take on that righteousness is the moment you lose another 20 supporters, ESP racially & economically diverse ones. While I blame this administration for radicalizing a huge swath of the left, the Times Up etc groups are wallowing in self sanctity and its alienated a huge portion of possible supportors. I guess I just think this is the least oppurtune time to self congratulate this movement.

  • I don’t think anyone’s sanctimony has alienated the huge portion of CM supporters.

    When CM was peaking with thousands of riders back in the spring and summer of 2004, before the NYPD crackdown, I often saw parents with kids on their bikes, older people and casual business types joining in. I once even saw a Chinese food delivery guy merge into the ride, whooping and hollering happily.

    Why aren’t these people riding anymore? I suspect it has more to do with fear of arrest than anything Times Up members have done.

  • a bike commuter

    I’m also sympathetic to CM, but I don’t think that you can realistically argue that the fight with the NYPD had nothing to do with the righteousness at least some elements of Times Up. (“We will not get permits; we will not stop for lights… because we are right.”) Whether or not this was a useful tactic is another question (Malcom vs Martin?), but it was certainly a dynamic that needs to be considered, not swept under the rug.

  • Dan

    NYPD certainly deserves some of the blame for radicalizing these movements. Faced with the threat of arrest the groups have not backed down, but rather confronted the police. That’s great for them, but I’m not risking a night in jail for this stuff, it’s not that important to me. But it’s still somewhat important. I still give money to TA and I comment on this blog, but I don’t want to bike at night in the rain under the threat of arrest and that shouldn’t make my contributions to this dialog any less valuable.

    I think if you read some of the comments on other posts on this blog where cyclists have chastised non-cyclists about not riding their bikes, or being afraid, or being less than great bike citizens, you get a sense about why even sympathetic ears are turned off to the idea of bike riding in the city. We need to shift the discussion away from macho posturing and civil disobedience towards safety, access, and respect for motorists and pedestrians.

  • JF

    I’ve only attended a few Critical Mass rides; the most recent was in a small city with a small cycling population, and we were only able to “take” one lane of a six-lane boulevard. Some people pulled alongside me in a car and asked in a non-hostile way, “What are you doing this for?”

    I realized that I didn’t have any answer for them. Nobody in the ride had mentioned any particular goals to press for, and the slogans shouted by the other CM riders sounded very vague and abstract. I contrasted this to the Queensborough Bridge protest ride I’d been on a year earlier and the difference was striking. I had no reason for taking the lane that these people wanted to use. Nothing I could think to say that would earn or cement their support. I haven’t done another critical mass ride since.

    There’s a lot of good things in that Carlsson article, and I agree with just about everything other than the value of critical mass rides. Recycle-a-Bicycle, DIY bike culture, the rejection of “gear” as a status symbol and racing-based hierarchies. Bringing people together as part of a movement. I’d even support critical mass-type protest rides with clear goals and demands.

    If I’m missing something, please let me know.

  • Nicolo Macchiavelli

    Don’t give up on the politics of the working class bike commuters. Its just that they are not really down with English as their primary form of communication. Check out the rides parked at your local fruit and vegetable stand. Some of the Latin guys are riding pretty elaborate rigs. They are very interested in riding, they are good strong riders and they actually need their bikes for economic reason. $1200 for a year of metro card – a great $400 bike = $800 more to send home to the family.

  • sushil

    The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

    The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

    Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

    To read the complete article please follow either of these links :




  • Coincidentally, I just read that bicyclists were promoters of good (paved) roads in Chicago in the mid-19th century. Kind of ironic.

  • rachael

    I think some of these commenters have not actually attended a critical mass ride over the past year. No matter how hard cyclists have tried to comply with the rules at critical mass rides, they are still being harrassed by police. In the past months, cyclists have stopped at red lights and have all the correct equipment, yet the police still write tickets. Last Friday, I watched as a cyclist was given a ticket for not having a front light even though he was wearing a headlight on his forehead at the time. I think it would be better if everyone would be a little more supportive of the various groups and rides instead of letting things like Critical Mass divide us.

  • Let’s not scapegoat CM or Times Up here and focus on what the real issue is: the power of non-motor transportation, the force of reclaiming public space, the threat that the NYPD sees, the money the city wastes on attacking CM, the particular forms of community that bicycling creates, the possibilities and limits of bicycling as a social movement, the politics of ‘who owns the street’ in a city like new york.

    I think what Carlsson does is document the history of a movement that looks nothing like a movement. From everyone I talked to, people don’t ride CM for fear of the police. And bicycling is not ‘white’ at all, or wealthy. In fact, its just the opposite. Certain bicylcing activites are racially homogenous, like low rider bike culture, messengering, weekend warriors, bmx’s, CM, etc. But the amazing thing is how these micro-cultures are constantly recomposed and decomposed with changes in the economy, housing, fads, etc. Bicycling will never be the only solution, but it is one layer in a field of strategies that opens up other ways of acting in concert, in public, in joy. How to take that feeling off the bicycle and into the living room, community center, schools, and neighborhood is the task at hand for today.

  • I haven’t been able to read Chris’s piece, due to PDF-viewing problems on my end. While I can’t speak to it, I will say that I regard Chris Carlsson as North America’s most original and influential cycle activist in North America over the 20 years in which cycle activism has been a serious concern of mine. I for one have been deeply affected and shaped by his writing, editing (e.g., “Processed World” mag, Critical Mass book “Cycling’s Defiant Celebration”), speaking, and visionary activism. I can’t wait to read his piece, and I’d love it if more people commented on it.

  • rasast

    One month, I’m going to show up to CM with a big group of my friends, start the ride before all the Time’s Up! people get there, and see what happens.

  • Deacon

    Nice manifesto. Carlson and Megulon-5 should burn another fat one. I am sure they could get another 5 pages out of it.

  • jim

    What an infuriating article. He starts out creating this strawman of the uptight bike advocate, who’s trying to push cyclists toward “angelic” behavior and therefore guilty of “neo-Christian moralism”! If only it were a joke! If Carlsson is part of any movement, it’s a movement of middle-class college-educated people who feel like they’ve discovered something that was there all along, and that’s an extremely middle-class way to feel.

    It’s great to learn about the “Chopper Riding Urban Dwellers, a group so anti-consumerist that their name includes the name of a consumer product. What outlaws! Outlandish!


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