When Two Wheels Take Over Four – Interview with Chris Carlsson

In towns and cities all over the world, Critical Mass (CM) rides are marked on the calendars of many. Typically taking place once a month, cyclists and people on many forms of non-motorised wheels gather to tour the streets – drawing attention to how unfriendly the streets are and taking direct action against the dominance of cars. Chris Carlsson is credited as one of the founders of CM and is the editor of the book “Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration” released in 2002. In an interview with Carbusters, he explains how it all began, the movement’s aims and evolution, and the importance of two wheels taking over from four.

Critical Mass rides are typically held once a month in over 300 cities around the world. Why do you think it is such a popular event?
The problem with many big cities across the world is they are totally dominated by capitalism and cars, which has resulted in many people not finding the time or having the social space to do things they want. But people are now looking for alternatives – new ways and safer places to travel. CM is a great public demonstration for this.

When the ride started I didn’t imagine that it would become such an important public event. What I like about it is that you are always discovering new places, even if you think you know an area so well. When riding in the streets together there’s a euphoria that takes over and the whole sense of the city changes. Most people enjoy this and want more. It is a great event to meet friends and have many interesting conversations, and an important social aspect of the ride is that new communities emerge in every city where it occurs.

You helped launch the first CM in 1992 in San Francisco. What led you to this and how have you seen it evolve?
It’s come along way since the 1990s. It began because there were so many frustrated citizens on the streets pushed to the side by cars. I got together with a group of people, we were talking about bicycles and politics for months, and from that informal process the idea emerged to meet up once a month and “ride home together” – filling the streets with bikes and thereby displacing cars. This monthly mass seizure of the streets has had a powerful effect in altering imaginations and creating political energy for deeper changes in city life.

We decided not to seek attention in the mass media. Our plan was never to talk to the media, but instead this ended up attracting more media interest. Our activity is rooted in face-to-face, direct experience. Of course that itself can become interesting to the mass media, especially if the participants are indifferent to such attention. Generally media coverage is predictable, misinformed and skewed to the perspective of mainstream (car) culture. Only when they experience a ride do they portray the experience in a friendly light.

Which has been your most memorable ride?
Well that’s a really difficult question because I’ve been on so many and they’ve all been so different. I’ve been on probably no less than 50 fantastic rides in San Francisco – it’s a great city with so many enjoyable places to ride and so full of hills. But one of the very memorable rides was a big CM in Rome (Ciemmona in Italian) in 2008, where for three days we rode, ending at the beach on Sunday.

During this ride we entered the freeway and rode a long way before heading back into the centre of Rome and past the Piazza del Popolo. Another great ride was in New York City in July 2003, where more than 1,000 cyclists rode through Manhattan and across the Queensboro Bridge to end up at a big party. The weather was perfect and everyone was quite euphoric.

Is there a specific need for CM?
There is not one specific goal for all rides. They are demonstrations in different places for many different reasons. I think one of the important things to emphasise is that CM is not an instrumental event; that is to say, it has no further purpose than to exist. It is a chance for cyclists to meet in public, to reinhabit the city on a new basis, and to form relationships out of which new political initiatives might grow.

In San Francisco, where it first started, the ride does not have such a political culture right now, but there are about 1,500 participants in each ride. They come for all kinds of reasons, some to party, some to make an ecological statement, others to demonstrate the rights of cyclists to use the city streets. There is little advertising into this event, but we still attract new people to the rides, and of course there are always the old-timers who come along to nearly every ride. It’s frustrating to me that there’s not more political culture and xerocracy* and I look forward to it being more engaging politically someday.

What are the current challenges for CM?
One of our biggest challenges is to transmit the culture to new riders, explaining what we’ve learned over time and how the ride is better or worse, depending on internal dynamics, self-management of conflicts and so on. At one time we were very hands-on and would bring flyers to every ride, full of news and advice and suggested routes and themes. But nowadays there is little of that going on, the ride just happens, and everything about it is spontaneous and unpredictable. Which is fine, of course!

There are other issues the demonstration helps bring attention to, such as the need to build suitable bicycle infrastructure around cities, like more bike parks and lanes. But that’s never been its “purpose”. In San Francisco, there was a court injunction to stop all bicycle improvements, from bike lanes to parking racks. CM continued to ride throughout the two years since that injunction, and now city planners have decided to double the number of bike lanes. The local Bicycle Coalition spent a lot of time and energy organising pressure on local politicians and the bureaucracy to make those changes, and you could say CM helped by reminding everyone every month that there are a lot of cyclists out there.

Has the downturn in the world economy had an effect on CM?
Well, I don’t think it has directly affected it because so many people are passionate about bicycles and this is not going to change. The downturn has certainly magnified the problems and what needs to be done – people want improvements to old systems of transportation, as well as new methods of transportation. In many countries governments are promoting cycling much more, and many individuals are choosing cycling instead of using the car – a simple act making a change for the better.

How has CM influenced the transition towards more sustainable, carfree societies?
CM opens a door for people to think about space and how to use public space more effectively. I don’t think it can change everything alone, but it is a step in the right direction. It helps shape the imagination of many people across the world to think of other possibilities for transportation – bicycling is a more sustainable method of getting around, and a social and fun alternative to the car. It is an important event – not only because of the use of bicycles, but because it changes people’s way of thinking and perception of how they can use their public and social space.

What projects are you currently working on?
My current work is rooted in the ecological and social history of San Francisco, looking at how the choices made in the past shape our choices in the present. Some of that is transportation-related, but not all my work focuses on cycling or “carfree” activities.

What’s your advice to someone starting a new CM?
The best advice I could give is that you can’t do it by yourself. A group is what makes a CM. I would recommend asking yourself first, what are the reasons for your ride and from there you can find others who are interested for the same and other reasons. There are many websites that can give you useful advice on how to hold a CM, what works and what hasn’t.

What do you predict for the future of CM?
That’s a good question. I really don’t know! CM has a really vibrant life, which is different from city to city. When it is suppressed, that tends to make people unhappy and frustrated, but when people are able to ride freely, new relationships and new thinking can develop. I think in big cities as well as in small towns it will continue to grow, as it helps improve quality of life. People all over the world join CM to make friends and make connections, and shape the way their city looks like.

Interview by Jane Harding

Useful links: www.critical-mass.org

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