About 80 cyclists could be found careening around downtown Ann Arbor two weeks ago, fleetingly occupying everything from Washtenaw Avenue to narrow Kerrytown residential streets while chanting, “We don’t need cars, we don’t need gas, to ride around town in a Critical Mass!” This amorphous group of bicycle enthusiasts meets at the corner of State Street and North University Avenue at 5:15 p.m. on the last Friday of every month to go on a Critical Mass bike ride. Critical Mass is a festive assertion of bike culture celebrated in more than 300 cities worldwide that is meant to challenge the car’s dominance of transportation and the negative implications this status quo has on our physical surroundings.
Critical Mass is a parade that requires no permit. It is a temporary autonomous zone on wheels that feels like it should be illegal. It doesn’t block traffic because, after all, the participants are traffic. It isn’t civil disobedience because its participants are breaking no laws. While the rides certainly attract attention (due in no short part to the often-flamboyant dress of participants and the portable stereos blasting Michael Jackson and “Macarena”), the riders are merely transporting themselves down the road. Our preconceived notion that the only vehicles that belong on streets en masse are cars means that seeing an abundance of bicycles strikes us as somehow wrong or unnatural. Critical Mass is intended to draw just such a reaction and then force people to question exactly why seeing that many bikes seems so unnatural.
Critical Mass also compels participants and observers to rethink their concepts of public space. Ben Lipkin, long-time Critical Mass organizer and recent University graduate, says that the ride can be defined as a civic event that is completely independent from the city. It’s an event that is organized and successfully pulled off without bothering with the bureaucratic headache of procuring permission from the city to block off the streets. He says that “it’s a lot more meaningful when people do it on their own and spontaneously take control – it helps people have a realization about the power that they have,” which is what makes Critical Mass so popular and empowering. The fact that the event is not officially sanctioned by any kind of authority “makes larger groups of people create meaningful connections with public space.”
Lipkin explained to me that, although “from time to time there is some aggravated frat boy looking to pass everyone as soon as he can while yelling ‘beatnik’ out the window,” Ann Arborites are supportive of the Critical Mass rides. People recognize that “in a town like Ann Arbor it’s a lot more practical to ride bikes than it is to drive,” and oftentimes the Critical Mass riders will find themselves actually outpacing the cars they are supposed to be slowing down. While some might point to this and say that it makes Critical Mass rides in Ann Arbor irrelevant, rider Nat Damren claims that this actually suggests the negation of the purpose of the automobile. He says that while common knowledge holds that you’re supposed to go quickly in a car, downtown Ann Arbor’s streets and the sheer volume of traffic make a bike a far more practical mode of transportation. Residents of Ann Arbor realize this, and so the rides continue without excessive hostility from motorists or police.
Riders in other cities are not so lucky. A New York City Critical Mass that took place during the 2004 Republican National Convention and drew thousands of cyclists ended with more than 250 riders arrested and the confiscation of even more of their bikes. This draconian treatment can be chalked up to the fact that just about any public political statement resulted in a few nights behind bars during the week of the convention, which makes Manhattan the exception rather than the rule when it comes to police harassment. Subsequent downtown rides have seen a larger police presence and a handful of arrests, but rides in Brooklyn and the Bronx continue without interference. While there is always some degree of friction between riders and police (a few riders have even been arrested in Grand Rapids), most Critical Mass rides manage to retain their lively atmosphere by reducing confrontation. Budapest was recently host to the world’s largest Critical Mass ride, with 30,000 riders taking to the streets on Sept. 22 without any hassle from the police.
Ann Arbor has a ways to go before it can pull off a ride of Budapest proportions, but Critical Mass is growing in popularity. Lipkin estimates that about a third of the cyclists in September’s ride were first-timers, many of which were enthusiastic but unfamiliar with Critical Mass customs (including the practice of sporadically lifting one’s bike into the air at intersections and cheering madly). The rapidly deteriorating weather could put a damper on Critical Mass, but Lipkin is confident that the October ride’s Halloween theme will ensure that the streets are filled with costumed cyclists showing that there’s more to transportation than the motorized sort.
Mallen can be reached at email@example.com.