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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Critical Mass 20th anniversary book – call for submissions

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Photo by Will Keats-Obsorn from the Vancouver Critical Mass flickr pool.

Photo courtesy of Will Keats-Obsorn from the Vancouver Critical Mass flickr pool.


When writer and community organizer Chris Carlsson proposed that the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) start a group ride home together on the last Friday of the month, the idea was cautiously embraced by the ad-hoc group of cyclists who would meet at the back of a Chinese restaurant in the early 90s.

The SFBC had no interest in sponsoring the event, Carlsson says, but that decision set the course for the spirit of the ride: it would be a spontaneous, unstructured event powered by the collective energy of its participants.

On the last Friday of September 1992, a group of 48 cyclists gathered at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco for its first group ride that would become a monthly tradition. Critical Mass was born. The event soon spread to other cities, and the number of participants grew exponentially with each ride.

Now, Critical Mass takes place on the last Friday of every month in hundreds of cities around the world.

September 2012 will mark the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass. Between then and now, Carlsson says, thousands of people have started riding their bikes as a primary mode of urban transportation.

What do more bikes on the road mean for our society? Here’s an excerpt from Carlsson’s speech at the Second National Congress of Urban Cycling in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2009:

“Reclaiming our means of transportation on the basis of local, self-propelled, socially and ecologically aware technologies is a great start. But we have to apply that sensibility to the whole of life.

Why do we do what we do? What work is worth doing? How do we create a good life for all, while ensuring ecological sanity at the same time? What technologies can we work with, which ones should we reduce and eventually discard? Why are these questions so absent from our public life?

In Critical Mass, on bicycles, we are finally beginning to ask them. The answers are still ahead, but at least these ideas are starting to emerge at this historic moment, when so many things are changing so fast.”

What does Critical Mass mean to you? Carlsson and Critical Mass co-founders have put out an open call for submissions to a book that will commemorate the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass, in conjunction with a weeklong 20th anniversary festival in San Franscisco in September 2012.

Submission details below.

20th Anniversary Critical Mass Book Project

Deadline for submissions: January 15, 2012

Please send your article proposals, drafts, flyers, photos, etc., to

From Chris Carlsson, Hugh D’Andrade, LisaRuth Elliott, and friends

The 20th anniversary of Critical Mass is coming in September 2012. The first-ever ride was in San Francisco in September 1992, so we’re inviting everyone from around the wide world of Critical Mass rides to come to San Francisco next September for a week-long festival to celebrate twenty years. During the week-long festival we hope to have daily group rides, film festival, art shows, discussions, music, and more. (Send us a message if you’re planning to come, and let us know how many people are planning to come from your city/country).

In conjunction with this anniversary we also want to produce a new book of essays, cartoons, photographs, and documents, capturing the dynamic and powerful social movements that have emerged from, or embraced the Critical Mass phenomenon. To that end, this is an open solicitation for material for the book.

Predictably we have no budget to pay anyone, but we hope to create a historically important volume documenting the emergent bicycle movement over the past two decades, and its relationship to Critical Mass. Any proceeds of sales of the book will go to funding events for the anniversary and after that, for ongoing Critical Mass-related printing and communications.

We’d love essays anywhere from 2000 to 8000 words, and we’re open to other kinds of materials too. We are especially interested in essays that go deeper into the larger political questions surrounding Critical Mass specifically, and the bicycle as a signifier and tool of a broader social transformation.

Please contact us to let us know if you’re going to write something, or if you have photos, flyers, or other material to contribute to this. Authors or groups published in the book will get a free copy, and if we’re lucky, we’ll find publishers in other languages to produce the book in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. If you have contacts with publishers in other languages, please do let us know.

Here are some questions to get you started:

1. Please describe the history of the Critical Mass experience in your city with the following questions as a guide:

When did it start? How many people participated in starting it? Did it come out of a pre-existing network or political association? Or did new friends come together to start it?

Give us the details of your ride: where does it start from, when does it roll, how long has it been going? How often does it happen? Monthly?  How do you think your ride is unique vis a vis other rides you have heard of, or maybe personally experienced?

2. How does Critical Mass manage itself in your city? Do you have monitors and communications that are sustained by the same people month after month, or do new people emerge regularly to help produce a good experience? What kind of debates characterize your Critical Mass experience? Do people discuss and argue about the nature of the ride during the ride? Do you have xerocracy (printed documents circulating among the riders)? Do you have pre-planned routes or do you move around the city spontaneously? Do your rides split up into multiple rides sometimes? Tell us about the lived experience and the tensions within your ride, and related to other organized bike rides in your city (if any).

3. Can you describe stories of personal transformation that people have experienced as a result of riding in Critical Mass? Who rides in Critical Mass in your city? Has the population of your ride changed over time or is it the same as it has been since the beginning? What kind of future does the ride have in your city, in your estimation?

4. How would you characterize your city’s bicycling scene? Was it pretty big before Critical Mass? Did Critical Mass play a key role in expanding it? How does your city feel differently today than it did before Critical Mass started? Or does it feel different at all?

5. Are there formal bicycle advocacy groups in your city (or region)? How do they relate to Critical Mass? Do they support it and participate in it? Or are they hostile? What kinds of dynamics have taken place where you are?

6. Are there free food, gardening/farming, housing/squatting, free radio, hacker spaces, or other kinds of similar efforts cross-linked to Critical Mass in your city? What is the relationship of Critical Mass to other political and social initiatives in your city, if any? Can you write in depth about those relationships and how they have fed each other? What is the relationship in your city between formal and informal political groups?

7. Outsider journalists and writers often pose the question, “What has Critical Mass accomplished?” Our answer in SF as co-founders has generally been to emphasize that Critical Mass is an ongoing event, an ongoing seizure of public space by hundreds and thousands of cyclists, and is not an organization—nor even a coherent movement—with a specific agenda. So to speak of “accomplishments” is to frame it incorrectly. How do you respond to this question? Describe how you experience the meaning and coherence of the Critical Mass phenomenon in your city.

8. What kinds of journalism, blogs, writing, and/or art has emerged from the Critical Mass movement in your city?  Please submit some examples and tell us about them (can be weblinks, photos, artwork, books, zines, stickers, posters, etc.  If you are sending a url, please be specific about which page/blog/art you mean, and describe how it relates to Critical Mass, the ride).