Joe Biel et. al.
Critical Mass is a monthly bicycle oriented event that occurs in most major North American and European cities, as well as in many mid-sized cities and at other locales around the world. The event originated in mid-1990s San Francisco (although it has its origins in earlier events held in Mexico City, plus it takes some of its inspiration from cycling practices observed in urban China) by Chris Carlsson (editor of Processed World magazine, and more recently author of the book Nowtopia) and a group of cyclist friends. The basic concept for the event is that cyclists congregate at an agreed-upon time and place to embark upon a meandering ride through the city streets, preferably during the evening peak traffic period. The basic intention of the event is to assert that the bicycle has a place in a contemporary urban environment that has been designed (rather inefficiently) for the automobile. Participants are free to bring whatever motivations they have to the ride, as it is leaderless, and no one is authorized to impose onto riders an adherence to a particular ideology or will. Many riders participate in the mass because it has the potential to provide an opportunity to unbind aggressions, many riders participate because its a relatively fun and safe way to bike through the city.
Critical Mass is inevitably a contentious event, as many individuals presume that the urban road is strictly for motor vehicles. Therefore plenty of drivers think that cyclists have no business occupying part of it if it leads to their minor inconvenience. Naturally, such an event, which most likely appears to be spontaneous to drivers, where cyclists ride en mass through the streets without a unifying goal or purpose, is incomprehensible and utterly transgressive. Furthermore, the average critical mass is full of normal people who simply like cycling but the mass is essentially represented by its sloganeers who shout things like “we’re not blocking traffic, we are traffic,” thus giving the event the sheen of political protest.
Critical mass is NOT strictly a political protest organized around radical bicycle advocacy, (although it is that, among other things) but it does call up linkages to a number of interesting theories developed by radical thinkers. Such theories include Hakim Bey’s concept of a temporary autonomous zone, a term which refers to a limited opening in space and time within which greater levels of freedom are enjoyed by its inhabitants. The critical mass also touches upon the Situationist concept of psychogeography, under which individuals are cognisiant of the effects of different forms of the city upon the mind. Furthermore, this CTheory article, Urban Meanderthals and the City of "Desire Lines" by Matthew Tiessen discusses the roving object (the author refers to an individual but his idea also works with a cycling horde) that slowly moves through the urban space forces others to take up alternate routes to reach destinations and therefore find new ways to engage with the city.
Joe Biel’s Bipedal, By Pedal is essentially a primer of the critical mass rides for people who are potential participants, or simply interested in what can be said abut the events. Bipedal is a zine offered by the author as a companion to Chris Carlsson’s 2002 book Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration, which is probably the essential informational resource on the subject. Carlesson’s book is a collection of reports, news items, and musings on the monthly bike ride, from a variety of sources. Biel’s 43 page zine does not venture too far, conceptually, from Carlsson’s text, although Bipedal is mostly told from Biel’s own perspective, with additional writings from some of his zinester friends. Like their motorized counterparts, bicycles are the technological centre for a number of interesting cultural forms, and the genre of bike zines is among them.
The structure of this zine is similar to Biel's, and collaborator Bill Brent’s, instructional text, Make a Zine!, in that Biel’s own thoughts are buttressed by some brief textual pieces written by friends. As the founder of Microcosm Publishing, Biel is plugged into an underground of interesting writers and artists who can provide complementary texts to his own honest writings. There are many bike/critical mass related graphics and illustrations, some of which (including the cover, I think) are by Matt Gauck and other friends, and some images are appropriated, also appearing in Carlsson’s book.
Unfortunately, Critical Mass is not an event that can adequately be explained primarily from a single perspective. The mass of each city has its own character, and that character can shift from month to month. Issues that Biel discusses from the rides he’s been present on in Portland and San Francisco are not necessarily present at the rides in Toronto and Ottawa (where I have riden) and its likely that other cities critical mass rides may have their own issues that are altogether absent in the four cities already mentioned. This is not to say that Biel’s thoughts are irrelevant but a reader should consider that his perspective is connected to places and times. Overall Biel understands Critical Mass, as he expresses his understanding that the ride has no central goal even though he’s frustrated when people come to the event motivated to ride with a purpose different from his own. I’m sure that, because of the ideologically divergent nature of the event, most riders have felt (and overcome) such frustration to some extent.
Bipedal, By Pedal! (which won an award for Best English Language zine at the 2007 Expozine event) covers the basics of the critical mass ride, and serves as an informative introduction to the monthly event. Biel addresses issues that anyone should know are routine aspects of the ride, including aggressive participants and conflicts with authorities and municipal politicians. Furthermore, while Biel provides an overview of the event, his writer friends supply opinions that demonstrate the variety of attitudes and motivations people may bring to it, with documentary filmmaker (and CM co-founder) Ted White advocating for the ride to be a spectacular celebration of urban cycling, while Scott Larkin (author of the zine, Go By Bicycle) laments the event’s lack of political force. The zine conveys, in textual form, the short-lived tensions and community of the rides that come into being for a few hours at the end of every month.