At the end of every month, bicyclists in over 200 cities around the world gather for Critical Mass and ride through rush-hour traffic like a swarm of bees. There are numerous individual reasons for going on these rides, no official platform for which the event stands, and no official organization keeping it together. When passers-by witness the spectacle of hundreds of cyclists jamming through a city street, ‘Massers’ hope these people will begin to consider navigating the city on vehicles other than automobiles.

Since the first Daley Plaza Critical Mass bike ride in 1997, Chicago’s Critical Mass (CCM) has been facilitating a strong community of everyday cyclists. The ride itself is a mobile party. There are occasionally confrontations with drivers, but the regulars discourage such behavior. Most participants describe an ideal city with fewer cars and more people cycling. This ideal compliments the City of Chicago’s efforts to reduce the number of automobile trips in the city to lower congestion on city streets. Bike cops are often seen participating amicably in the mass. Occurring in a city with a bike friendly mayor and relatively progressive cycling infrastructure for the city’s large size, it is becoming safer for people to ride on many Chicago streets. However, many recreational cyclists still fear riding in traffic. A CCM ride takes over city streets and creates safe space dominated by bicycles for two hours a month. The ride empowers riders and the cycling community that has emerged from the rides creates a social network that enables many cyclists to start realizing their ideal city through the practice of everyday, human-powered transportation.

Critical Mass is a social phenomenon that spreads its ideas not only on the streets but also in cyberspace. During the rides, human agency is taken back into the streets where individuals control the city space by being in a mass of other cyclists. A pro-bike message is disseminated across the city on public streets. Multi-media facilitates the compression of time and space, the sample of video clips on this site along with the chosen maps illustrate the expanse of city streets that have served as a stage for Critical Mass.

The site
This Web site is a multimedia ethnography based on research conducted in 2001 and 2002 for my Master's in the Social Sciences from the University of Chicago (Anderson 2003). The combination of images, videos, maps and artifacts from the ride with a critical analysis of CCM as a social movement provides a rational and sensual understanding of the power of the movement.

You can use this site to find out a bit more on CCM: why people keep going on rides, watch a video to hear and see what people experience in the mass, how CCM impacts policy in Chicago... If you're interested in social theory, you can also follow the hyperlinks to read my analysis critical social theory, postmodern geography and multimedia forms of representation to illustrate the social and virtual networks that CCM generates to promote its politics of movement against the spatial hegemony of capital. Here are my findings:

  • By moving its message across city streets, Chicago’s Critical Mass serves as an empowering, sensual experience for riders, while also challenging the form of Chicago’s urban landscape.
  • The space used during Critical Mass to spread its message is also the urban space that it hopes to transform to a more bike-friendly environment. During the ride, streets normally used for individual transportation in automobiles are transformed into a human social space.
  • The experience of riding in mass creates solidarity amongst bikers and converts many recreational riders into more full-time users of their bicycles for transportation in the city.
  • Individual empowerment and the social community created by this loosely organized social movement attract loyal riders and thus make the impact of the movement on city spaces stronger.
The Ride
CCM & Social Space
Critical Mass Art Show
Bike Maps
links & resources