We have come together in our shared enthusiasm for bicycling. At one time or another in our lives, each of us came to identify bicycling as the key to social change. Or we concluded it was the key to unraveling the dangerous traffic nightmare plaguing most of the world’s cities, or to reclaiming a more convivial public space from the domination of private cars. Or we connected bicycling to a refusal to participate in oil wars; or a refusal to accept the mountain of debt associated with car and oil dependency; or a refusal of the massive pollution by fossil fuels that is wreaking havoc with the world’s climate.
On a simple level, most of us learned to bicycle when we were children, and quickly discovered that bicycling unlocked nearby streets and neighborhoods, and eventually entire cities that we could reach by riding our bikes. Personal mobility, a freedom to move independently through space, is an intoxicating pleasure and is a right of all humans, or should be.
This freedom of mobility has been thoroughly colonized by the marketing engineers of the automobile industry for more than 100 years. Bicycling lost the argument in the early 20th century, an argument that bicycling itself had started with demands for good roads covered in asphalt in the late 19th century. As cars came to dominate personal transportation, displacing walking, bicycling, and streetcars and having streets widened and reorganized to accommodate faster speeds and more parking, bicycling was redefined as a child’s first vehicle on their way to a mature embrace of the car in adulthood. Most people across the planet have been convinced to accept this, or at least they were until about a generation ago.
Starting in 1992 in San Francisco, Critical Mass emerged as a monthly “organized coincidence” in which first dozens, then hundreds, and eventually thousands of bicyclists took to the streets to “ride home together.” While cars clogging our streets in endless daily traffic jams is treated as inevitable and natural, part of the unavoidable “weather” of city life, dense masses of bicyclists are anomalous, some kind of strange unnatural aberration, an unexpected emergence of rebellious creativity. Though we always said “we aren’t blocking traffic, we ARE traffic!” most participants, bystanders, and motorists understood that this was something more than mere traffic. I like to say it was a Defiant Celebration. We discovered that by bicycling together in a celebratory mass seizure of the roads we were cracking open the closed public space of city streets, reclaiming it from the decades-long enclosure of our thoroughfares by the forces of “motordom” and their successful marginalization of other transit options. We also opened a self-governed space free of commerce, where coming together in conversation and shared activity was a natural experience not requiring permission, licenses, or the purchase of products.
Since that auspicious turn a generation ago, bicycling has returned to the world’s cities in a way no one could have predicted. Picking up enthusiasm from a wide swath of the population, literally hundreds of thousands of people are bicycling every day now instead of driving in cars. This is an amazing outcome of a slowly snowballing collective decision to change life that started small in one place, then spread to other places, and eventually led to millions of people in hundreds of the world’s cities changing their everyday behavior.