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Critical Mass is an event held typically on the last Friday of every month in cities around the world, where bicyclists, skateboarders, roller bladers, roller skaters and other self-propelled people take to the streets en masse. Critical Mass has no leaders, and no goals other than to meet once every month and enjoy the security and companionship of riding, rolling and travelling through the city together. The one worldwide slogan, chanted by riders in probably all cities where the ride take place is: "We aren't blocking traffic; we are traffic." Critics have claimed that this is a deliberate attempt to obstruct traffic and cause a disruption of normal city functions, asserting that Critical Mass refuses to obey the vehicular traffic laws that apply to cyclists the same as they do to drivers of other vehicles. Some Critical Mass fans defend the lawlessness of cyclists based on their belief that typical laws governing bicycle road users are unfair and different from those governing pedestrians and motorists, and that traffic law heavily favours motor vehicle use in many cities. However, cyclists are typically treated by the law similarly to drivers of other low-power and/or slow-moving vehicles, though many cyclists and motorists, and sometimes even those in law-enforcement, are often unaware of cyclist roadway rights.
The purpose of Critical Mass is controversial and oft-maligned by its critics. This is mostly due to its Anarchistic origins and structure. The purpose of Critical Mass is not formalised beyond the Direct Action of meeting and carrying out the event, creating a public space where automobiles are displaced to make room for alternatives. The one agreed upon slogan is We Are Traffic. All participants, being equal in leadership, are thought to have equivalent claim to their own intentions and the purpose of the ride. Critical Mass is undeniably linked to the environmental movement which cites private automobile use as catastrophic to our global and local environment, in physical and social terms. Generally, the purpose of the event as indicated by the actions of the riders are meant to oppose the domination of the automobile over our urban culture, or to create something different. However, these things are often interpreted very differently and some riders may even disagree--for example, one might not ride at all for environmental purposes, but because of social justice theories. Many do not ride to oppose anything; they ride to celebrate in the streets and be social.
History and organization of the rides
The first San Francisco Critical Mass ride began in 1992 and its name soon began to be adopted as a generic label by participants in similar but independent mass rides which were starting to occur worldwide at around the same time, and some before then. It is estimated that there are Critical Mass-type rides in more than 325 cities to date.
The term "critical mass" was adopted from an observation made by American Human Powered Vehicle and pedicab designer George Bliss while visiting China. He noted that in traffic in China, both motorists and bicyclists had an understood method of negotiating unsignalled intersections. Traffic would "bunch up" at these intersections until the back log reached a "critical mass" at which point that mass would move through the intersection. This description was related in the Ted White documentary Return of the Scorcher (1992) and subsequently adopted by the Critical Mass movement. The first San Francisco rides in 1992 were in fact titled Commute Clot, though this awkward moniker was changed quickly after the Ted White movie was shown. Of course, Critical Mass is also a reference to various social theories which posit that a social revolution is achievable after a certain critical mass of popular support is demonstrated. This reflects the often unsaid ambition of many ride participants that the balance of mobility in our cities will change towards bicycles or other modes of transport away from the private motor car.
Critical Mass differs from many other social movements in its rhizomal (rather than arboreal) structure. Critical Mass claims to be an "organized coincidence", with no leader, no organizers, and no membership. For example, the term xerocracy was coined to describe the process for how the route for a Critical Mass is decided: anyone who has an opinion makes their own map and distributes it to the cyclists participating in the Mass. Some rides are decided "on the fly" by those at the front of the pack. Other rides are decided on the day of the ride before-hand by a popular vote of suggested routes. Still other rides decide the route by consensus. These methods free up the movement from the overhead costs involved in a hierarchical organisation: no meetings, no structure, no internal politics, and so on. In order for it to exist, all that has to happen is that enough people know about it and turn up on the day to create a "critical mass" of riders large enough to safely occupy a piece of road to the exclusion of motorized road users.
Critical Mass participants are required to lead their own event, since there is no formal leadership. In order to moderate the flow of the group, riders carry out a quasi-legal action known as "corking", which involves blocking cross traffic so that the riders can freely proceed through red lights and other intersections. It is thought to be safer for the riders to stick together and disallow automobiles in their midst. This also minimizes the disruption to other traffic, though for very large critical mass rides of many hundreds or thousands of participants, this may not be the case. The corking dynamic is similar to that of a parade. When explaining the principles of corking to newcomers, many riders use the metaphor of a large bus travelling with a group of people who should not be split up, even if the light turns red after the group has entered the intersection. In most cities mass rides try to accommodate and yield to emergency vehicles and even pedestrian cross traffic; unlike a group of cars, space can be made quickly. Critics argue that the practice of corking is contrary to Critical Mass' claim that "we are traffic", since ordinary traffic (including bicycle traffic) does not usually have the right to negotiable red traffic lights, unless issued a parade permit or residing in jurisdictions where bicyclists have this right (such as Idaho : Idaho Bicycle Law). The act of corking also gives the Critical Mass participants an opportunity to talk to drivers or onlookers about what is going on, or why they are being asked to wait. Sometimes, corking has translated into hostility between motorists and riders, which has even erupted into violence during some Critical Mass rides. However, most rides pass off peaceably. In Vancouver Critical Mass (see Vancouver CM) some cyclists work with police to report dangerous drivers threatening Massers.
After the 2004 Republican National Convention coincided with the August 2004 New York City Critical Mass, many court cases resulted regarding the legality of the ride, confronting issues of whether police have the right to arrest cyclists and seize their bicycles, and whether the event needs a permit. In December of 2004, a federal judge threw out New York City's injunction against Critical Mass as a "political event."  On March 23, 2005, the city filed a lawsuit, seeking to prevent TIME'S UP!, a local nonprofit direct-action environmental group, from promoting or advertising Critical Mass rides. The lawsuit also stated TIME'S UP! and the general public could not participate in riding or gathering at the Critical Mass bike ride, claiming a permit was required.  
As of September 2005, Critical Mass in London, UK, is the latest to find itself in conflict with public law enforcement. 
Criticisms of Critical Mass include:
- The undefined goals of Critical Mass are not worth the confrontations that inevitably occur when a large group acts out of the ordinary in public.
- Critical Mass generates more ill will than goodwill towards cyclists, cycling and alternative forms of transportation.
- Critical Mass encourages lawless and dangerous traffic cycling techniques.
- Critical Mass is sometimes dismissed as nothing more than a politicised party; some Massers turn this criticism on its head, embracing it with the slogan "We're not going to the party, we are the party!"
- Critical Mass - maintains a worldwide list of Critical Mass rides
- Worldwide Critical Mass Hub - maintains a worldwide list of Critical Mass rides
- Critical Mass News and Discussion Forum - Topix
- Wikipedia: Critical Mass