The Worst Day of the Year Ride is February 11th

What does Critical Mass mean to you?

Posted by on May 3rd, 2006 at 8:41 am

Critical Mass August - Portland OR

As long as Critical Mass exists in Portland it will be controversial and divisive. Recent events have renewed the debate about its merits and purpose within the cycling community and beyond.

Critical Mass is a big, complex idea that has as many definitions as participants. No one person can define Critical Mass and each city has its own, unique set of rules for dealing with it. Given its controversial and emotional past and present, we can debate and argue about it forever.

Personally I remain ambivalent. However, instead of using this platform to advocate for its demise, resurgence or transformation, or having to choose sides between friends on the force and friends on the ride, I would rather hear from you.

I would like to know your answer to this question:

What does Critical Mass mean to you?

If you live in Portland, please share your personal, first-person thoughts. This is not a debate, so please try and avoid arguments or philosophical diatribes for or against Critical Mass. I think once we remove the controversy, name-calling, and politics from Critical Mass, we can begin to figure out where we should go from here.

I’m especially interested in hearing from people outside the bike community so I encourage you to forward this question on to your friends and neighbors. Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Jonathan Maus May 3, 2006 at 9:00 am

    To me, Critical Mass is a place to meet friends and learn about what’s going on in the bike scene. It’s also a chance for me to be an example to onlookers and show them that riding in the city is not only possible, but also a lot of fun!

    It means watching people smile at me as Eleni (my 3 yr old) and I ring bells and hoot and holler as we ride through downtown.

    And unfortunately it also means that when I do the ride I become part of a lot of political and social baggage that comes with it. It also means, in this town at least, that I have to ride alongside gun-toting cops, some onlookers who look fearful and puzzled, and that I have to obey the letter of the law, instead of riding free-flow, en masse through the streets.

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  • organic brian May 3, 2006 at 11:10 am

    Thanks for making this post. I’m disappointed there isn’t more involvement in the discussion at the CM email list:

    To me, CM has become kind of redundant and a liability. There is a bike event at least every week now ( for people to meet up, and many people refuse to go on the Mass because it is so tense. It would be nice to see a return to 2002-style Masses (minus the September brutality) where numbers were high, riders were civilized, and it was more like a travelling party than a political rally. The CM has been working against cyclists who are trying to get respect from motorists, many of whom have come to see all cyclists as self-involved jerks. Yes, I know it’s irrational, I’m just relating to readers what the perception out there is.

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  • Nick May 3, 2006 at 11:24 am

    When I began riding in Critical Mass (this was in ’00 or so) the police stayed well away from the riders. Mass was an organic, wild, unpredicatable thing. I think the only reason I ever come back to Critical Mass is because I have a tiny hope that it will be like it was 5 or 6 years ago.

    I think I am well-informed politically but I am probably not politically active enough. For me, Critical Mass was never about the politics. It was just a way to have fun on a bike with other people of the same mindset. OK, I guess there was a bit of a desire to show all the cage drivers that there was another, better way.

    My (somewhat cynical) opinion is that Critical Mass will probably never return to the way it was.

    I had a bit more to add but I realized that it was getting into the area of debate so I will refrain.

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  • Copenhagen May 3, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    CM means for me an alternative to this societies oil guzzling, methane producing culture. At it’s best it shows an example of biking being something sustainable, organic, joyous, creative and free.

    Like in Amsterdam or Copenhagen bikes can take the street in mass and become traffic on equal with motorized vehicles.

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  • Mick May 3, 2006 at 1:26 pm

    I want CM to be a demonstration of just how many bikers are out there. I want it to be peaceful and non-confrontational, but I also want it to be bold. I think we can make a statement without breaking the law.

    Should CD be self-policing? What if you see someone being an ass? Should you say anything?

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  • Tiago Denczuk May 3, 2006 at 3:41 pm

    In my opinion, what differs Critical Mass from other group rides is that it is an opportunity for us, riders, experience rush hour traffic the way we would like it to be all the time. Democratic, spontaineous, self-organized, self-protective, joyous, fun, inclusive, diverse and creative are the adjectives that, ideally, would best define the monthly event. It’s the time when we, riders, show proudly that we are mainstream as we reclaim our public space to celebrate that.

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  • Aaron May 3, 2006 at 4:14 pm

    So what is Crit Mass, what do we want it to be?
    First of all a second to post#2,3
    Critical Mass to me is currently two things. It’s a place to meet up and chat with other like-minded people. It is also a group of folks who get together to make a statement about bikes having access to the street. The meaning of Critical Mass is a minimum number of cyclists needed in order to safely ride in a lane without being fearful of attack from aggressive drivers. This last bit is what makes Mass attractive to the less bold riders like parents. Folks who normally wouldn’t be comfortable riding on downtown streets are willing to be in the Mass because there are enough other cyclists to make it safe.

    What I want Mass to be is the way it was in NYC in 98-2000. There were enough cyclists to ride safe even on clogged NY streets, and the ride was organic because of minimal police activity. Currently it has become more rigid than organic and even those leading the ride seem very timid. (a notable exception was last months when the ride went all the way to 39th and down to Hawthorne)
    Whether the ride will regain it’s former glory is completely dependant on the number of people who show up. I support riding Mass in an organic manor, but I don’t support being radical just for the sake of being radical. That brings cop aggression and takes away from the legitimacy of the ride.

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  • Richard May 3, 2006 at 4:15 pm

    To me it is an counterproductive protest that hopelessly aims for increased awareness of the benefits of cycling by irritating motorists. PPDs overreaction is a drain on society and amplifys the negative vibe of the ride.

    I have better things to do with my time then engaging in a lopsided battle against both car culture and law enforcement. The cards are stacked against CM.

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  • sherry May 3, 2006 at 4:53 pm

    Critical Mass (CM) has been on my mind a lot since Friday. It’s made me happy and sad all at the same time. It was my first time riding in CM, even though I’ve been talking about participating for months. My cousin was the one who actually convinced me to ride in CM. He told me that CM has changed a lot (for the better) in the past couple of years, and that he rides in it frequently, and that he supports it. My cousin is a Portland police officer.
    I’m sure a lot of people find that hard to believe, right? That a Portland police officer would be encouraging me to ride in Critical Mass? Yes, I found it hard, too, at first. But my cousin is an avid bike rider, and occasional bike commuter. So I was motivated by him. When I showed up at Critical Mass last Friday, I was so happy to see some people I knew, and my friend who I planned on meeting there. Everyone seemed to be having such a great time. Once the ride began, I really started enjoying myself, and even met some new people. It was a shame for me to end it on such a bad note, but after seeing the arrests, I decided to leave the ride.
    So…I guess I don’t know what Critical Mass means to me. I would like it to be peaceful, non-confrontational, safe, welcoming, and fun. But most importantly, I would like it to make a statement to drivers that bicycles belong on the road, too. Bicycles need to be recognized and respected by people who drive automobiles, and if a lot of people could come together at the same time, on the road, on bikes, while obeying traffic laws, I think it could make a bold statement.

    I don’t know if I will ride in Critical Mass again. I’d like to, but not if it’s going to represent what I don’t believe in, which is how I feel about last Friday. I definitely will keep promoting bikes the way I have been: by riding safely, being an active voice in our community, attending meetings, participating in my neighborhood association, involvement with bike safety & bike commuting committees, voting, biking to work every day and motivating others to do the same. And most importantly, by having bike fun!

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  • Randy #2 May 3, 2006 at 5:08 pm

    Simple. Celebrate and smile. We are traffic. We share the road. We support the notion that soon bikes not cars will be the primary mode of transportation in Portland. (See the Copenhagen video I sent Jonathan). This is now, not 1994 San Francisco style. We can take back the streets one bike at a time. More bike makes less room for cars.

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  • Jasun Wurster May 3, 2006 at 5:17 pm

    For me Critical Mass is a group bike ride for anyone who lives and/or rides a bicycle. This ride is mainly broke up into 3 parts, Pre-Ride, The Ride and Post-Ride. What I feel most vital to stress is that the Critical Mass I ride in, occurs in the city of Portland, Oregon in the year 2006. What happens to be the ‘norm’ for other cities and/or at times in the past may not applicable to our ride. The reason for this is that the circumstances in which we ride are totally different. In other words, Critical Mass will always have to change and adapt to it’s environment.

    During the Pre-Ride I get to meet with friends, new and old, in a park and exchange ideas ( may they be verbal or via fliers ). At times members of our local government are present in which I, as a citizen and bicyclist, can provide input to them in my environment. This also provides other citizens a chance to interact with members of their government in which they may not normally do. For me Critical Mass possesses a civic value and social conscious in which most other rides lack.

    During The Ride, I feel that this is a way for me to inform and educate new riders how to safely navigate our streets. primarily this is done by example. This requires the need for a front white light and to abide by the laws that govern me as a user of public roads. This requires me to ride slightly different than when I am not riding in Critical Mass. I also find that this is a great way to exchange information about the bicycle culture and community that exist in Portland. The Ride also provides a positive example to members of local government, citizens that choose to drive automobiles and fellow riders how vital bicycling is to the livability of our City. Most of all it is a personal celebration that I live in a progressive City that truly promotes alternative transportation.

    The Post-Ride is a social event in which the individuals in the bicycle community can continue conversing, riding, exchanging ideas … for it a Friday evening and I am with friends.

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  • josh m May 3, 2006 at 8:28 pm

    Once people feel the need to stop mouthing off and refering to cops as “pigs”, i might consider cm.

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  • Ethan May 3, 2006 at 8:52 pm

    I have had some truly wonderful experiences on CM rides over the years. Jonathan pointed out that ride is different things to different people. I loved the aimless joyride, safety in numbers, and public exposure aspects of the ride. When it became obvious that the ride was the focus of a push pull of antagonistic riders and their police counterparts, and that the overall public perception was negative (in this rather bike-friendly town) I had to stop riding.

    Back in the day your average motorist (and even bus drivers) would honk in support, pedestirans seemed to love the spectacle . . . not so common these days I bet. It seems to be well past the point of diminishing return. Hell, I remember the ride being escorted by a handful of bicycle-riding officers with one patrol car at the rear, I remember graceful corking and polite interactions with the occasional escalated motorists. The riders, the cops . . . in this city I suspect there are better ways all these people could be investing their time towards a better community, whatever that means to each person/group.

    It’s kind of a chicken and egg argument why/how this has happened. Was it poor behavior on the ride, some snooty eateries on NW 23rd, a change in police leadership, 9/11, Specialized Bicycles, Something Dat leaked to the cops? It may not really matter at this point.

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  • Jon M May 3, 2006 at 8:59 pm

    As someone that rides a great deal, lives in Portland, but works in the burbs, I have always seen Critical Mass the same way all my non-riding co-workers have: a sum of all the negative things that people think about cyclists. It shows a bunch of cyclists ignoring the rules of the road and not sharing the common ground.
    I spend hours explaining to people at work that there are plenty of riders that follow the rules of the road and are trying to do good in the world by saving gas and getting exercise while commuting. All they remember are a bunch of law breaking yahoos snarling traffic and breaking traffic laws.
    Every time Critical Mass shows up on the news, my cause of convicing the 95% of my co-workers that don’t ride to accept us as legitimate users is set back for years.
    Give up on Critical mass and instead work for better bike lanes and routes. Those are the things that actualy benefit us.

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  • Tankagnolo Bob May 3, 2006 at 10:18 pm

    I have not yet taken a ride with cm. As long as we as riders do not work to piss off drivers, its a good thing. I have done 13 STP rides, and as much as I enjoy them, the biker as asshole is as prevelant as the drivers as assholes I see everyday. It seems that whoever is on the “winning side”, drivers most days, cyclists on STP, the majority feels the road is theirs and the asshole factor looms large. I will join cm rides if I feel they show drivers an alternative, not just piss em off. Thats why a huge ride up I-5 when it is a “parking lot” appeals to me. Take a road that is NOT moving, and lane split right throught it, not impeading traffic, just beating it to a destination. Delta Park to Vancouver vie I-5 anyone, 5pm on a Friday. I’m there!!!

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  • Tankagnolo Bobs Sister, Jan May 4, 2006 at 8:10 pm

    In Portland, my experience has been negative. Critical Mass riders have been abrasive and halve attempted to interrupt the flow of traffic. I don’t think positive results can flow from negative energy and aggressive behavior in a city where driving is highly challenging at best. I understand the rebelliousness of youth and saw lots of this kind of behavior in the 60’s and 70’s when I was young. If I can’t see give and take and the willingness to look at more than one side, I cannot be supportive.

    I am not a biker, am a walker, mass transit rider and driver of the evil (low gas mileage) car.


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  • Pete Jacobsen May 5, 2006 at 6:42 pm

    I have never ridden with CM, or even seen a CM ride in Portland. I have seen rides in other cities. In those places, at least, CM has a very bad name. Think of cyclists trying hard to ruin the day of automobile drivers. Perhaps CM rides in Portland do not break the law, but I cannot imagine that the name “Critical Mass” will ever be able to rid itself of the bad taste many people have. OK, that I have.

    Riding is important to me, although I’ll always be a somewhat cautious rider. I stop at stop signs not because it is the law, but because I’m afraid of being creamed. I can imagine that riding legally in a big group in places that would otherwise scare me would be fun, but I would not feel safe if I thought car drivers were thinking of the group the way many have thought of CM in the past. If there were to be road rage, the cyclists would lose big time.

    Offer me the same ride with a different name!

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  • Randy May 6, 2006 at 8:59 am

    In the early 90’s, the BTA sponsored a family-friendly alternative to Critical Mass, call ‘Bicycle Visibility’ rides, I think. There were two or three of these rides, turnout was very good and they got a fair amount of media coverage, but then they just stopped having them.

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  • natoe June 8, 2006 at 9:14 pm

    to me its a way to come together and show people that we are here and were just as important as peole in cars.i personally like riding in the street and making the cars wait for a change,i risk myself out there everyday because people in their big gas guzling cars cant gt off their cellphones and pay attention to whats going on around them.if i have to break a few laws to prove a point-so be it

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