Critical Mass

Chris Carlsson helped start Critical Mass, a monthly cycling awareness ride. It has grown into an international phenomenon and most major cities have a similar ride. 

Hi Chris,

When I Googled “who started Critical Mass” you name came right up. I was surprised that Google essentially gives one person credit for the movement. I’m sure it was a collaborative effort, but for all intensive purposes (basically this letter), you founded one of my favorite things.

I’m a cyclist and first participated in CM while going to college in San Diego. That ride made a habit of going through the airport and completely stopping traffic; plenty of cranky drivers (all the more satisfying). There is something empowering about taking over the streets with a sea of cyclists. It is an exercise in democracy both in the abstract form of protest and that we  physically take control of the street based on sheer numbers. Purer forms of democracy are hard to come by these days…

In your TED talk you mention bike co-ops. I used to volunteer at one in Austin called the Yellow Bike Project. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It spawned from this concept of fixing up old bikes, painting them yellow, and “releasing” them into the city for anyone to take, use, and leave for the next person. It’s a great idea in theory, but they kept getting stolen. Now it’s mostly just an awesome space to learn and bond over bikes. I’m sure you know the atmosphere well.

Now I ride the Dallas Critical Mass most months. Considering Dallas is continually ranked one of the least bike friendly cities in the country (though slowly improving), the amount of riders is respectable. One day I’ll get of to San Francisco and ride the original.

Until then, take care.

RESPONSE:

Hi Hayden,
A very charming project and I’m flattered that you wrote to me out of the blue… and as you surmised, no one could claim to be the person who started Critical Mass. It began in a milieu of several dozen people in the early 1990s, and has been repeatedly mischaracterized over the years. Journalists and historians alike want to put collective phenomenon like Critical Mass into known and predictable boxes where one “Great Man” (or “great individual” anyway) is responsible for starting it. Critical Mass has managed to spark individual and collective change across the planet for more than two decades now. It’s a great feeling to have been part of it all these years, and to see that the politics it embodied from the early days has managed to challenge a lot of the old paradigmatic ways of doing things. Pleasure is way more subversive than anger, but not a shallow hedonism. The deep pleasure of how grand life could be–perhaps the greatest collective art project ever imagined–is what might propel us to the next level…
Thanks for keeping the conversation going, and keep on ridin’!
–cc

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One thought on “Critical Mass

  1. Hi Hayden,
    very charming project and I’m flattered that you wrote to me out of the blue… and as you surmised, no one could claim to be the person who started Critical Mass. It began in a milieu of several dozen people in the early 1990s, and has been repeatedly mischaracterized over the years. Journalists and historians alike want to put collective phenomenon like Critical Mass into known and predictable boxes where one “Great Man” (or “great individual” anyway) is responsible for starting it. Critical Mass has managed to spark individual and collective change across the planet for more than two decades now. It’s a great feeling to have been part of it all these years, and to see that the politics it embodied from the early days has managed to challenge a lot of the old paradigmatic ways of doing things. Pleasure is way more subversive than anger, but not a shallow hedonism. The deep pleasure of how grand life could be–perhaps the greatest collective art project ever imagined–is what might propel us to the next level…
    Thanks for keeping the conversation going, and keep on ridin’!
    –cc

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