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Critical Mass returns (at least in name)

Posted by on June 27th, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Critical Mass - Portland

Critical Mass in Portland, June 2005.
(Photos J. Maus/BikePortland)

After years of telling people that Critical Mass was dead in Portland, it seems I might have to start telling a different story. Tonight, after a nearly six-year hiatus the well-known tactic of bike-centric street activism will return — at least in name if not in form.

Here’s the ride description via the Shift Calendar:

Critical Mass: People, Planet, Peace Over Profit

Catastrophic climate change is already gripping our planet. But Portland is still clogged with cars, our rivers and rails are highways for fossil fuels, and our air continues to be poisoned by the worst polluters in the country.

We have no more chances. With our future at stake, we have no choice other than pedaling for People, Planet, and Peace over Profit.

Bring your bike.

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It might seem like just another ride, but given the sense of ennui among many Portland bike activists these days, and the steady stream of bad news about our climate’s health, we wonder if tonight’s ride will spark a new era in Portland.

To my knowledge, the last time Critical Mass happened in Portland was in 2008. I thought that ride might rekindle the movement, but instead it fizzled completely. There’s even a new documentary by a Portland-based filmmaker that’s screening nationwide called Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland.

PDX Bike Swarm - ALEC F29 protests-2

From a PDX Bike Swarm ride in 2012.

Interestingly, it looks like volunteers with PDX Bike Swarm (FB) are behind this latest incarnation of the ride (traditionally, Critical Mass has no organized leadership beyond a few people who post the ride’s meeting time and place). When we remembered Critical Mass’s 20th anniversary in 2012, PDX Bike Swarm was alive and well following its formation during the Occupy protests.

The Swarm never did really turn into a “movement of its own” as I once suggested it might and it remains to be seen if rallying around the larger concern of climate change and using the powerful mental framework of Critical Mass will spark something with the broader community — many of whom share this worry about the environment and understand the powerful role bicycling should play in our future.

Whether this ride is just a flash in the pan or the start of something bigger, it serves as a reminder that even in Portland, which is regarded by many as a bastion of bicycling and progressive environmental policies, there are people who feel it’s time to head back into the streets.

Here are the ride details:

    Critical Mass: People, Planet, Peace Over Profit
    North Park Blocks, NW Park Ave and Couch St (at the Bronze Elephant)
    5:30pm

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. 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

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davemess
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davemess

So are we now separating Critical Mass for climate changes versus Critical Mass for bike awareness? I know there can be some overlap, but my guess was that Critical Mass has somewhat petered out here is due to cars already being very aware of bikes (frankly bike boxes and lanes full of bikes have a similar effect to Critical Mass). To me it seemed like other cities were more concerned about bikes taking back the streets (with maybe a few in the crowd more concerned with the environmental side of it).
From the article it sounds like this new ride is more focused on environmental impact, is that right?

Joseph E
Guest

I would be interested in going, but I’m worried. In some cities, Critical Mass is just a big, fun, Pedalpalooza-style ride. In other places, it attracts anarchists and revolutionaries who want to practice civil disobedience and make a statement, and at times this can also attract hoodlums who just want to cause trouble.
Does anyone know what this ride will be like? Is it bring-your-kids, or lets-get-arrested?

Swami
Guest
Swami

I remember when the City was not stoked on cycling during the Katz mayorship. Critical Mass was high energy for both sides and many reasons. Shortly after Mayor Potter was elected, he rode in a Critical Mass. That was very exciting. I remember riding with him for a little while, telling him how glad I was that he was participating. The tension between the City and cyclists (and skateboarders) cooled down significantly during his tenure.
I’ve always loved Critical Mass. Even when the pace is dreadfully slow, it’s a wonderful feeling.
I hope it returns and grows.

q`Tzal
Guest
q`Tzal

Need to call it the “Critical Surveillance” ride: everyone has to show up with recording helmet video cameras.

<insert evil cackling here>
That just might have an effect on hooligans AND Dirty Harry wannabes.

Todd Hudson
Guest
Todd Hudson

The purpose of CM *was* to make drivers aware of cyclists. It advanced that agenda…until it became a place where anarchists/hooligans/jackasses regularly show up to needlessly antagonize people.

Years back, I went to a few CM rides out of curiosity. Cyclists were drinking prior to the event and riding with open beers. Riders fired bottle rockets in a densely populated area with lots of pedestrians. A motorist revved their engine at corkers and a swarm escalated the aggression by surrounding the car and pounding on it (it wasn’t moving). Riders took both sides of the street, even though they were going in one direction. Ad nauseam.

Portland doesn’t need a mob tarnishing the image of cyclists – we already have the Oregonian.

groovin101
Guest
groovin101

I never participated in the original movement, but hearing about it after the fact, I always thought of how awesome it would be to get that critical mass (minus the hooliganism that is) in areas that aren’t known for daily riders. My interest leans first towards raising bike awareness, with the environmental impact an important but less focused on outcome that’s realized later.

As daverness points out, “frankly bike boxes and lanes full of bikes have a similar effect to Critical Mass”. Agreed, but this is only true in the parts of Portland where that’s the reality. There are still large parts of our city and metro that aren’t used to seeing bikes regularly, don’t have sharrows, and aren’t graced with bike boxes either. Seems to me there’s still plenty of room for increased awareness.

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

Prior to the Bush and Cheney’s invasion of Iraq I marched with about 50,000 others in the streets of Portland. During that week, Millions of peace loving Americans marched in the streets across the country to demonstrate opposition to the gathering war storm. Of course that came to naught. Politicians are influenced by speech that is money and citizens that are incorporated. Flesh and blood humans don’t factor into their thinking. Climate change is an issue that is orders of magnitude larger than America’s invasion of Iraq. If Millions of peaceful protesters can’t stop an unnecessary war, how can a couple hundred cyclists harassing commuters in the People’s Republic of Portland change the basis for the world economy?

I recall that outside of the Critical Mass clique the movement generated ill will against cyclists, and it was main stream organizations like BTA and the City of Portland transportation that actually enacted change to make cycling better.

Go ahead and ride your bikes for change, but if you need News at 11:00 to explain to the citizenry what was going on then the messaging pretty oblique. It will be policy makers and outliers in many and disparate fields that enact a necessary change. Be that to make change.

Spiffy
Guest
Spiffy

since critical mass is about the visibility of bicycles and their right to the road they would need to ride on the major commuting thoroughfares to get the message across here in Portland… we already have bicycles all over the place, and cars often don’t realize that we’re allowed to take the lane going up Hawthorne or Sandy…

this event is just a mass of climate protesters on bikes… hopefully they have a lot of signs to let people know what it’s about…

they’re hijacking the name of critical mass in order to draw riders…

Spiffy
Guest
Spiffy
Chris I
Guest
Chris I

We have critical mass every day, on the Hawthorne Bridge, on Williams and Vancouver…

Mossby Pomegranate
Guest
Mossby Pomegranate

Sounds like an excuse to wear a black bandana and “stick it to the man”, accomplishing nothing in the process except costing cash strapped tax payers even more money.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

And there are more successful models of CM events out there…I remember riding with 8000+ Parisians and the Marie de Paris for a CM ride in 2003 on Earthday.

The City had outfitted dozens of recycled buses (no seats and wrapped with bike themes) as mobile bike share delivery & repair vehicles to make the event even more accessible to the lay public (this was back before Velib) with free bike rental.

Imagine if Mayor Hales did that!

pixelgate
Guest
pixelgate

I just saw this “critical mass” ride by in Old Town. It was amusingly small.

Todd
Guest
Todd

It’s all a big typo. Kidical Mass. The torch is passed.

apr
Guest
apr

Barry Cochran
…Y’know, it was big enough to take all the lanes as bike lanes, and that’s all that really matters, innit? I come from a part of the world where you are damn lucky to get ten people to do anything at all, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m unsympathetic to your unwillingness to participate if there aren’t lots and lots and lots of people there. I rode, pedestrians (whom we yielded to, as well as transit) applauded us, thanked us, and took pictures, a few motorists became road-ragey, a few more were mildly annoyed, and some (possibly most) took it in stride. Lots of people on the street asked what we were doing and dialogue took place.
Recommended 3

Hmm. Perhaps I saw a different Critical Mass ride, then.

What I saw at 28th and Burnside shortly before 7 last night were riders going around in circles in the intersection and blocking it for everyone — cars, pedestrians, transit, and quite possibly even other bikes who just wanted to get through. The ride certainly didn’t yield to me as a pedestrian trying to cross Burnside. I was stuck until the intersection cleared out — indeed, the ride created pedestrian safety problems there because no one had any idea what anyone else was doing.

The “dialogue” you speak of consisted of riders yelling at people in bars and restaurants along 28th that they were no longer able to drive home since they’d been drinking… followed by loud chants that bikes equal beer. There’s some logic.

What I observed (as a bike-supporter, mind you) was a loosely organized temper tantrum. There wasn’t a single bit of it that was constructive or even basically respectful. It was toddleresque acting out on two (sometimes more) wheels.

So, the more things may have changed with Critical Mass, the more they appeared to stay the same.

Beth
Guest

I ride my bicycle. Therefore I am my own critical mass. Happy riding.

Ted Buehler
Guest

Great ride. Loved it. Bombed down W Burnside from 14th to 2nd. Spectacular. Took 2 lanes of Wiedler, 3 lanes of Broadway.

Some of you may take offence to this, but some cars were slowed down in the process. Perhaps by up to two minutes! And yes, some of them were antagonized. Perhaps even 10% of said drivers.

Bike lanes in Portland are pathetically skimpy.

Want to see big road spaces allocated to bikes, in Portland, within your lifetime (or the earth’s, whichever is shorter?)

The advance of bike infrastructure in Portland is pretty pathetic, relative to what we need to accommodate bike traffic. Ever ridden across the Hawthorn Bridge at rush hour? Ridden up Williams? Had cars take over your neighborhood greenway to bypass arterial gridlock? Last year I did the bike traffic count for Williams at Russell. Often touted as Portland’s busiest bikeway, and one of the busiest in the country. Sure there were bikes, but there were at least 3x as many cars as bikes. And that’s just cars on Williams, not even counting all the cars on MLK, I-5 and Interstate.

If you want to see change, you need to speak up, act, ride, shout, write, participate in civil disobedience, and encourage others to do the same.

My $0.02
Thanks to whoever put this ride on the calender.

Ted Buehler

Ted Buehler
Guest

&, from the same article:

“Every person interviewed for this story agreed on one thing: Portland could be making grander, quicker strides if elected leaders sensed more demand, more outrage, more enthusiasm.

“The 6 percent figure isn’t just stubbornly refusing to move. It’s being coddled into place by the 6 percent of Portlanders who whistle into work each day on our city’s impressive but flawed bike network, without a thought toward demanding things get better.

“If Portland’s bike wave has crested, the momentum for a new one isn’t going to come from the politicians pleading with you to pay a street fee and scrambling to keep control of the city’s water system. It’s got to come, as it always has, from the voices of people who realize what Portland could be, and are dedicated to realizing that potential.

“‘There are a lot of people who’d rather take advantage of the network than pound away for what it’s going to be in 20 years,’ Blumenauer says. ‘We need as many activists as possible at any given point. That’s something the cycling community needs.'”

Ted Buehler
Guest

Jonathan wrote:
“To my knowledge, the last time Critical Mass happened in Portland was in 2008. ”

Something at the back of my mind had been telling me this wasn’t the case.

And, yes, by my assessment, it’s incorrect.

The Pedalpalooza Kickoff Parade in 2012 was a Critical Mass Ride.

It might not have been *called* critical mass, but that’s exactly what it was.

* It met downtown at the p.m. rush hour in the Park Blocks.
* It bombed around downtown, taking all lanes of all streets.
* It had a couple hundred people, easily enough to be adequate traffic to fill the streets.
* It rode around in a few circles, as I recall (rode around the block of a few banks maybe)?
* Cars were delayed. Many cars. For several minutes at times.
* The downtown streets were safe for bicyclists.

Except the lack of militancy (which isn’t my favorite part of critical mass anyway) it had all the elements of a classic 1990s era Critical Mass Ride.

I had a great time, thanks to PDX Bike Swarm for organizing.

Pics here.
http://bikeportland.org/2012/06/08/photos-and-recap-from-the-pedalpalooza-kickoff-72943
https://www.facebook.com/hart.noecker/media_set?set=a.373942996003133.86243.100001623066825&type=1

Gasper Johnson
Guest

One serious piece missing from the conversation. Critical Mass can be for any reason a rider chooses or even no reason.

In the Aftermass interview, the founder of CM, Chris Carlson bristled at the need for every action to be instrumentalized to some other purpose.

Thanks Jonathan for the space to host this discussion. I hope more good thoughts become more good actions!

joe biel
Guest

wsbob
CM failed because the huge numbers people riding together in association with the event, almost completely refused to acknowledge and respect the rights of all road users to use the road, regardless of their mode of travel.
Recommended 1

Can you cite something that supports this assertion?

Ben
Guest
Ben

Portland does still have critical mass. We just call it Bowie vs. Prince, or Midnight Mystery Ride, or Grilled By Bike… same folks, same missions accomplished — showing what the streets look like filled with bikes vs. cars, everyone having fun and waving and smiling, corking for safety — and no cops. Pedalpalooza + shift = big wins for CM goals, without the contentious name or heavy cop crackdowns. My $.02 of course.