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Remember Critical Mass?

Posted by on January 25th, 2008 at 10:03 am

January Critical Mass flyer

Flyer for this month’s Critical Mass.

Critical Mass — that enigmatic, fun, controversial, “defiant celebration” of bikes as traffic — has been all but missing from Portland’s bike scene lately.

The theories about its demise vary, but in the last year or so it seems to have lost its mojo here in “Bike City USA”.

Some folks say that Portland’s bike community has just moved beyond the need for such a ride, and that it ignites more anti-bike sentiments than its worth (both from car drivers and bikers). Others say it simply became a bore and an exercise in futility after the Portland Police instituted a very strict enforcement policy (there’s no “corking” allowed).

“There is no reason to wuss out just because of the cops.”
–From a message posted to the Shift email list

And yet, through it all, there are still people that feel it is a necessary and important component of our bike ecosystem. After falling completely off my radar in recent months, it seems like now there’s some renewed energy coming into the ride.

I don’t have much evidence, but I did notice a few flyers around town for this month’s ride (in photo above) that say, “A very special Critical Mass,” and feature an illustration of a bike and a car with the tag line, “My bike will eat your car.” Also leading me to believe that there might be some renewed energy for the ride was an email posted to the Shift list that read:

There are a lot of cyclists in Portland.
There is no reason our Critical Mass has to suck so much.
There is no reason it can’t be thousands strong like in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.
There is no reason to wuss out just because of the cops.

Critical Mass isn’t a death march- it’s a celebration! Come have fun with your fellow bikers and shout “Happy Friday!” with a smile to the passers by.

If you’re curious and want to take part, meet at 5:30 tonight (1/25) under the west side of the Burnside Bridge (ride leaves at 6:00).

For more about Portland’s Critical Mass, check out the email list or the (somewhat outdated) Rose City Critical Mass website.

Please support BikePortland.

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. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

44 Comments
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    D January 25, 2008 at 10:12 am

    From wikipedia: \”Critical mass is a sociodynamic term to describe the existence of sufficient momentum in a social system such that the momentum becomes self-sustaining and fuels further growth.\”

    We\’re seeing that every day on the bridges and in the bike lanes. Anything that makes bike riders out to be antisocial scofflaws only sets us back.

    Critical Mass bike rides only serve to slow the momentum toward true critical mass.

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    yarrum69 January 25, 2008 at 10:23 am

    I think it hurts the bike community. Bitterly. Numerous incidents come out of the rides and, man, this Portland, we like each other, right? We live here to enjoy the City, and each other. Why piss on your own flowers?

    xoxo

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    Carl January 25, 2008 at 10:36 am

    I\’ve ridden in some really fun and positive Critical Mass rides. Rides where motorists, cops, and pedestrians wave and where there\’s just a general sense of joy and wonder.

    I\’ve also been on some painfully lame and embarrassingly antagonistic Critical Mass rides (riding the wrong way down Boston\’s one-ways, kicking cars, and flipping off cops, for instance).

    Critical mass has the ability to be at least twice as destructive as it can be positive. I stopped going here in Portland because Critical Mass simply didn\’t have a critical mass. In order to seem big and mighty, the small group had to INTENTIONALLY block traffic rather than be big enough to truly BE traffic.

    I hope that tonight\’s ride truly has the critical mass necessary to be a beautiful traffic jam of bikes eliciting waves and smiles from all involved. I\’m willing to give it a chance but when the first cager gets flicked off, when some jackass appoints themselves \”leader of the anarchists,\” when the first lane is taken purely out of spite for other road-users, or when it becomes otherwise clear that the intent is to piss off rather than celebrate…I\’m done.

    Let\’s give it another try, folks.

    (cue Dabby)

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    tonyt January 25, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Critical Mass

    Critical Pain

    Critical Bad PR

    Critical opportunity for newcomers to \”prove\” their \”cred.\”

    Critical Mass RIP, please.

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    Jessica Roberts January 25, 2008 at 10:47 am

    I went on a ride once, wanting to find out what it was all about. I was so uncomfortable when we started going up Burnside, taking both lanes, and then some yahoos started playing chicken with the oncoming traffic coming the other direction! It really didn\’t feel productive, constructive, or joyful to me. As Carl points out, if many things were different, maybe it could feel those ways (as indeed it does in some cities), but to me it just didn\’t feel good or helpful in its current incarnation.

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    nuovorecord January 25, 2008 at 10:59 am

    Just go ride your bike and be the change you wish to see. CM\’s time is past here in Portland, me thinks.

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    Nelson Muntz January 25, 2008 at 11:04 am

    If Critical Mass were strictly a positive celebration of bikes and a solid statement about bikes as traffic then it would flourish here. Unfortunately, it gets presented as an antagonistic anti-car, anti-cops, anti-establishment protest that attracts people who just want to act out.

    I witnessed the WTO \”riots\” in Seattle. There were many people assembled to intelligently speak about unions, worker rights, the environment, the perils of globalization, etc. When the zit faced, rock throwing, bandanna masked anarchist losers starting destroying Starbuck\’s and Niketown then all hell broke loose.

    CM attracts the same thing. A handful of angry jerks see an opportunity to start fights, scare drivers, and bait cops. The media then only reports on the bad elements and, voila, all cyclists are car hating, law breaking a-holes.

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    Moo January 25, 2008 at 11:05 am

    The \”look at me\” generation has passed by already…just by more people biking everyday would seem to be enough to do and to prove, without all the hijinx and kill-joys.

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    the "other" steph January 25, 2008 at 11:06 am

    a few folks were talking about this last night. i feel Critical Mass should go where it\’s needed. anyone want to do some outreach into Beaverton or Gresham or Hillsboro and get some of those Bike Commute Challenge veterans to bikepooling en masse? because bikes in droves could use some play there.

    i remember when living in New York that folks liked Critical Mass because it was the only time they felt safe biking in NYC. this is the incredible value of CM – it\’s an opportunity to demonstrate that bikes are a viable mode of traffic. when well-attended, CM proves in visual numbers the importance of recognizing bike as transportation, not just recreation. sorry i haven\’t been out at CM much here, mostly owing to early BonB brewing times.

    so who\’s up for getting Intel folks to bikepool together on a friday evening?

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    Matt January 25, 2008 at 11:09 am

    My impression has generally been that it\’s too easy for a destructive few to leverage the mass for their own purposes–you\’re relatively anonymous and empowered in a crowd and can act like a jackass. So, you know, if whatever power the mass derives from your participation is just going to get hijacked, you think twice about riding in it.

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    Todd Boulanger January 25, 2008 at 11:25 am

    Yes sometimes the streets of Portland feel like a beautiful CM event during those warm sunny rides home from work (or shopping)…what with as many bikes on some ofthe arterials and bridges as drivers.

    And then again CM can have alot of positive political reinforcement for bicycling…I have ridden in CM rides with the Mayors of Paris and Portland.

    Our ride with Mayor Potter was the last local CM ride I have done.

    The \’Marie du Paris\’ brought free shared bikes, sag wagons/ repair mechanics, a social fun environment as part of the carfree days along with police enforcement of safety laws…generally working in favor of bicyclists and pedestrians during the event. Versus just only bringing police enforcment and black helicopters…as seems to be the US solution to CM demonstrations.

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    SkidMark January 25, 2008 at 11:26 am

    There is no need or desire for a WaCo Critical Mass. There was one a few years ago, and it was great, we had bicycle cops corking for us, cooperating with us and not trying to nail us for moving violations. The control issue was annoying, but the realization that the Police were sincerely there to help made it obvious that a CM was not needed. Drivers for the most part out here are courteous, there is the occasional redneck in a pickup or smart-ass teen, but I encounter way more rude and dangerous drivers in Portland.

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    SkidMark January 25, 2008 at 11:36 am

    In Portland you have people being run over by trucks and Police looking te other way, except for when you are riding a track bike, then they will pull you over, make you STOP, and then give you a ticket for no brakes. You have priviledged assholes in Hummers* following you around and intimidating you and then getting out and taking swings at you. I had a person in a Subaru Tribeca with eco-liberal stickers on the back of it tell me to \”get the f**k out of the road\”
    CM is needed in Portland, unfortunately because of the Police harassment it gets and because of the way many people drive there, desite the fact that there are so many bikes on the road.

    *no I am not jealous of affluence, I just don\’t like obnoxious displays of it. I would buy a CNC lathe/and mill and some welding equipment if I had the cash for a Hummer.

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    Dabby January 25, 2008 at 11:52 am

    Carl so funny.

    He is trying to taunt me…

    He has before asked me to write something explaining my sentiment on this subject, but it appears now some of the rest of you feel the same way…

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    deadlyvernis January 25, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    I am confused by all of the hostility towards organized bike groups. Where is the love and friendship?

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    steve January 25, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    Critical Mass an \’organized\’ bike ride?

    HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!

    If I thought that is what it was, I would probably be confused too.

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    Donna January 25, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Deadly, I thought Critical Mass was adamant about not being an organized bike group? I\’m confused…

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    Mmann January 25, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    I generally share the sentiment that CM has accomplished much of its goal in Portland\’s core. But like \”other steph\” (#9) I\’d really like to see more mass in the outlying burbs. A CM in Gresham sounds weird but if the goal is to make motorist aware bikes are traffic, they need it out here. CM could meet at Max end of line station and loop Burnside/Powell/Eastman (or Main street)/Division. All these major streets have \”bike lanes\” so taking a car lane might frustrate some drivers, but it could also draw much-needed attention to the need to see us. I\’m trying to give them practice but I could use some help!

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    edjukator January 25, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    My last mass was in summer of \’06 – there were some out-of-towner-gutter-hipsters (they said they were from SF) – the ride was choppy, thin, non-aesthetically messy, and two of the SF children tried to take on the PPD with Braveheart-esque battle cries, telling the rest of us to support them \’WE\’LL NEVER DIE!!!!\’

    I watched one of them go to the ground with a bumblebee on top, probably got his hands zip-tied. I had mixed feelings – a. I\’m not a fan of heavy handed policing – b. I would expect similar treatment from a block watch granny if she was being so dehumanized based on occupation.

    Obviously is not so clear cut.

    I left that mass early with friends and got pizza at Roccos. CM seems like an angry high schooler event, in Portland.

    I have not returned to a CM, neither have my friends. Why not have a Critical Zoo Bomb?

    I don\’t mind if CM dies, bike movements lived before CM and will live long after…

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    tOm January 25, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    I read in Bicycling magazine last night about a trend in other cities called Critical Manners. A Critical Mass for people who enjoy riding en masse, playing by the rules, making a statement, but don\’t want to associate with anarchists and two-wheeled hooligans. It takes place on the second Friday of every month. Something to consider in P-town.

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    Carl January 25, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    Dabby,
    We\’ve talked about this before. For the most part I agree with you. Critical Mass is frequently counterproductive, especially in Portland. Where I think our beliefs diverge is that I\’ve witnessed positive Critical Masses and you believe that they\’re inherently negative.

    There are good reasons I stopped going to CM here in Portland. Discussions with you only helped bolster those reasons.

    I\’m going tonight with my fingers-crossed because I\’m an optimist.

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    Eric January 25, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    As I read the history of \”scorching\” and of conflict over sidewalks & roadways in Portland in the 1890s, I\’m struck by the perception problem: The perception of flouting the law seems to entrench & inflame opposition rather than enlist support or change. Here\’s a letter to the editor from 1899 and an editorial about a month later.

    Bicyclist a Law Unto Himself

    PORTLAND. (To the Editor.) – The communication addressed to you by “Citizen” a few days ago, voices the sentiment and meets with the hearty approval of a vast majority of the residents of the East Side who were afflicted with the bicycle nuisance last winter. The bicycle rider seems to be a law unto himself, and, although the 1st of November is not yet here, I notice that the last day or two of rainy weather has produced a good-sized crop of bicycle riders who violate the law regarding sidewalk riding just as they do the ordinances regarding lamps and bells. It is dangerous to permit bicycle riders to use sidewalks at any time of the year, as they have no regard for the rights of pedestrians, and the section of the ordinance in force last winter, requiring the cyclist to dismount before passing any pedestrian, was habitually disregarded. The city council has given the riders a chance, and now should protect the pedestrian public. KICKER.

    The editorial (even allowing for the hyperbole!):

    The real sufferers from the scorcher who rides down women and children are the great army of careful bicyclists who take their manners with them on their wheels just as the scorcher takes his boorishness. But what have these respectable persons done to discredit or discipline the offender who brings the whole cycling world under censure? The answer is that they have done absolutely nothing. Their only action in the matter is to bristle up when the ruffian scorcher is denounced. Instead of joining in denunciation of him, they make his cause their own. A ruffian on a bicycle is not deserving of the aid and sympathy of a gentleman on a bicycle, but he seems to get it.

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    Gustavo January 25, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Bicycle activism is riding your bike whenever possible as a normal part of your life, and encouraging your friends, relatives, neighbors, etc to do so as well. Its helping people look beyond car culture by example, not by confrontation.

    It most certainly isn\’t obstructing other people as they go about their business, being confrontational, or making an ass out of yourself in any number of ways.

    I\’m not going to miss CM if it dies a lonely death here.

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    Dabby January 25, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Carl,

    I know what you are saying, and I actually like the way you put it above in your first comment….

    And I also have always thought that if done properly, could be a more positive experience, as we have discussed.

    The reality of that has just proven to be exactly the opposite, time and time again. And has built Critical Ass (see note about Phil below) into a media nightmare, from which the cycling community could possibly only recover fully by having it never rear it\’s ugly head again.

    I am reluctant to go into it much more, even though I know my thoughts are on the mark.

    On a lighter note;

    I personally would advise you to surround Rev. Phil with a group of riders, and have a blanket ready to throw around him when he rips his clothes off, and stands in the street blocking traffic. (Sorry Phil, but I know you too well!) (Don\’t get me wrong, I love Phil, but still like to give him a hard time)

    Have a good day!

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    Zach January 25, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    The anarquistas ruined it for everyone else, who just wanted to ride bikes, be traffic, and have a good time….

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    Dabby January 25, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Also , in Eric\’s cut and paste above, I think it is important to note that in 1899, after a couple of days of rain, the streets would be nothing but mud. This would be churned up and deepened by wagon and horse traffic, making travel on a bone shaker (high wheeler), or much of any bike available at the time, all but impossible anywhere but on what must have been wooden sidewalks.

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    organic brian January 25, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    My feelings about CM are conflicted for a simple reason: I feel it\’s hypocritical to campaign for drivers to obey the law (something I\’ve done in the past and will do in the future) then hang out at an event that for many the purpose is to flout the law (in relative anonymity of a crowd) and actively harass motorists. On the other hand, I remember the August (BikeSummer!) and September 2002 PDX CM rides, which had about 800 and 1200 riders as a happy, look-at-how-much-fun-we\’re-having mobile party. There were incidents with the police, of course there will be with this large a ride, but the goal for most was not to dominate the lanes or to spite automobile drivers.

    Since then, and probably as a result of such massive attendance, the PPB had undertaken a coordinated campaign to reduce the CM popularity by making the event as inhospitable as possible. They would not have been able to carry this out without the token hotheaded cyclist, creating public support and some legitimacy for their \”escorting\” but more like harassing of the ride.

    As far as I\’m concerned, those who want to ride because they \”hate cars\” can start their own event and not hijack and pollute another established one.

    Anyone who would like to know more about the history of CM and the intentions of the original CM riders can watch the movie \”We Are Traffic: A Movie About Critical Mass\” by Ted White.
    http://www.tedwhitegreenlight.com/cm.htm

    Also, there is a local CM discussion list here:
    https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/pdxcriticalmass

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    joe adamski January 25, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    CM was liberating when I first started riding. Not so much anymore. For all the reasons stated above, but mostly because it divides people over superficial lines, such as owning a bike vs owning a car. Truth said, most cyclists drive at least as much as they ride, mile riden vs miles driven. Whether we ride or drive, developing consciousness that as a user of roadway, we all have a responsibility to each other. Confrontational tactics dont achieve that goal. CM has been more confrontational than liberating. Too bad.

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    1886 January 25, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    don\’t pigeon hole anarchists as counter-productive, destructive, dangerous, youth. your assumptions are ageist, baseless, arrogant, and just plain wrong. if it weren\’t for anarchists, y\’all wouldn\’t have your 8 hour work day, among a long list of accomplishments. unlike SOME of you…
    i am not taking a step to the right.

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    revphil January 25, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    find out what it is like in person

    im heading there right now, cause i like to ride my bike and have fun!

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    Anonymous January 25, 2008 at 6:59 pm

    Not trying to stir up trouble, but…

    My experience with Critical Mass in Portland (while driving my car) in the past leads me to believe that \”Share the Road\” is a one sided request.

    That\’s simply not a message I want to be a part of during this cruicial time in transportation reform.

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    Randy January 25, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    Jonathan, Thanks for talking about the elephant. We need a regular large, albeit peaceful ride here in Portland. Portland needs bikes more than most people know. Bike are pollution neutral and for the most part quiet. The sooner we get more bikes and less cars on the road here, the sooner we\’ll breathe easier. History can help: the southern part of a neighboring state recently opted for more cars and now has some of the worst air in the county.

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    revphil January 25, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Whoa, that was pretty friggin sweet. Something I have not done in portland for… well for some time.

    no cops. (well, one very polite cop in a car)
    no aggro bull shit
    just pedestrians waving and motorists smiling and everyone having a good time.

    its like the mass reborn!

    presently a crew of riders are headed to see:
    \”Chervona\”
    When: Friday, Jan 25 , 9pm
    Where: The Crown Room, 205 NW 4th ave
    FREE

    go have fun, ride bikes, you know… what we talk about doing.

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    chops January 25, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    all your talk
    all your talk
    this ride was rad
    crybabys go away!

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    Anonymous January 26, 2008 at 7:02 am

    Regardless of the roads being mud in the 1890\’s the editorial and letter do strike very close to home.

    This forum becomes an us vs them forum on a regular basis. Just because a situation involves a cyclist doesn\’t mean the cyclist is in the right but we jump to the defense without regard for the facts.

    Jonathan wrote about a situation where he was buzzed by a cyclist with no regard for anyone but himself. And what did we get on this forum, the same old crap about cyclists being able to subvert the law at will because they know better.

    Until we stop condoning bad, unsafe, unlawful behavior we don\’t have any right to point the finger at drivers for bad behavior

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    Todd B January 26, 2008 at 7:48 am

    And as for CM rides in the burbs…a group of Clark College students organized a CM ride in Vancouver for a few years (2004/5). It was good clean fun riding around safely as a group during art events and such.

    One of the more funny rides was not even the ride itself…but when the mayor heard about the ride (ride #5 or so)…asked the VPD to go check it out…I rode up to see two cop cars with officers bored and confused as to why they did not see any dangerous types and only bike commuters and a family with kids on bikes in the park. They soon left to attend to more important traffic safety issues.

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    BURR January 26, 2008 at 11:17 am

    Some CM history: Mayor Vera Katz, Police Chief Mark Kroeker and PBA Chair Kim Kimbrough were the three people most responsible for the 2002 – 2005 police crackdown on Critical Mass.

    The traffic squad officers known today for their mistreatment of bicyclists got their start ramming, tasering, pepper-spraying and breaking the teeth of peaceful Critical Mass participants during that time period.

    The traditional meeting spot for CM rides was under the west end of the Burnside Bridge, the meeting spot was moved to the elephant on the north park blocks when BES started the westside \’big pipe\’ sewer project and the Burnside Bridge location became unavailable.

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    Mike January 26, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    I think the problem is to many of you own cars. 😛

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    Dabby January 26, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Todd,

    I was on the first of the Vancouver Critical Mass rides actually.

    I ended up leaving it.

    For reasons involving another cyclist on the ride. Actually due to an older Vancouver cyclist. I was with 4 people, who also abandoned the ride with me.

    While I am glad (for cycling in general) that last night\’s ride did not have any obvious bad effects, it does not change the fact that every ride of this manner will have a negative impact on cycling in our city.

    Just because you do not see the effects during the ride, does not mean they are not there.

    Sometimes is it difficult to see beyond your bubble.

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    Ayleen January 26, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    I believe that Portland is beyond Critical Mass.

    While many people ride Critical Mass in hopes of showing how fun bikes are, and thus motivating people to drive less, from my many years as a CM rider and organizer, I\’d have to say it really never does that.

    CM isn\’t to be written off, however. I think CM is a great way for cyclists to meet each other, share resources and feel a sense of community.

    But come on, don\’t we have a free bike event nearly every week to do just that?

    So the damages of CM, angering drivers and frustrating people, are those damages worth it? Do we ever get ahead toward our goal of creating friendly streets when we hit the streets and frustrate drivers?

    Let\’s skip CM and move on to the other incredible events we\’ve created in this town. CM had it\’s time and place (and is still relevant in some other cities), but we\’re a mature bike culture and we\’re beyond CM.

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    BURR January 26, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    I don\’t think we\’re beyond CM until it can happen without reprisal

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    Ayleen January 28, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Beyond…. as in: no longer need.

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  • […] while in Bicycle City USA Critical Mass is anything but controversial. This from an article on BikePortland.org back in January: Critical Mass — that enigmatic, fun, controversial, “defiant celebration” […]

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    Icarus Falling June 30, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    \”While in Bicycle City USA Critical Mass is anything but controversial\”

    That is a crock.

    Critical Ass ere is dying because it is controversial, and not what most want to see happen.

    Get your facts right if you are going to blog it buddy….

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