The Critical Mass Bike Ride is a monthly cycling event which is designed to celebrate bicycling and to remind the public about alternatives to motor vehicle transportation, as well as to unique safety issues which cyclists have to deal with. By convention, the Critical Mass Bike Ride has been held on the last Friday of every month in cities all over the world since 1992. The monthly ride is an example of direct action, as bikers take their concerns to the streets during the Critical Mass Bike Ride, and the ride often achieves a great deal of media coverage in major cities. The majority of the time, Critical Mass is a peaceful and fun event; however, there have been instances of violence and social disruption associated with the event on rare occasions.
Depending on the city, the Critical Mass Bike Ride may have a set route, or riders may determine their own route. In most cases, the place and time for the starting point of the Critical Mass Bike Ride are set in advance. If the route is set, it will be distributed to the riders. Otherwise, riders vote on the route to take that day, or take turns leading the Critical Mass Bike Ride through the streets. At the end of the ride, participants disperse to go on with their days. There is no leadership behind Critical Mass, which does not technically exist as a formal organization; every bike rider in a Critical Mass Bike Ride is a member of Critical Mass, but there is no organizational charter or governing body.
The term “critical mass” comes from social theory. The idea is that a group of people or a movement will tend to stagnate until enough members gather, forming a critical mass which pushes through obstacles. This can readily be observed with traffic in many parts of Asia, and it can also be seen with social groups which start out small before finally accruing enough members to take action.
Participants in a Critical Mass Bike Ride hope to point out that bicycles are an excellent alternative to motorized transportation, but that most cities do not have adequate safety measures in place to protect cyclists. Many cities lack protected bike lanes and other street modifications which could make commuting by bicycle much safer. The group ride, in addition to being fun, also shows cyclists how to ride more safely in groups.
Many Critical Mass chapters engage in “corking,” a process in which cyclists block cross traffic, allowing the group of bicycles to stay together. Some outsiders are critical of corking, because they believe that it blocks traffic, but Critical Mass groups argue that it is safer for the cyclists, moves the bicycles through much more quickly than conforming with conventional traffic laws would, and allows Critical Mass cyclists to educate motorists and pedestrians while they wait. Most Critical Mass rides yield to emergency vehicles and pedestrians.
One of the main catchphrases of the Critical Mass movement is “we aren't blocking traffic; we are traffic.” The cyclists hope to get people thinking about bicycles as a valid mode of transportation deserving of respect. Despite the relatively peaceful intent of the Critical Mass Bike Ride, there have been incidents of violence between motorists and cyclists during Critical Mass rides, eliciting a police response. These incidents are quite rare, and should not be viewed as representative of the views of anyone beyond the specific parties involved.