How do you get folks who don’t usually ride a bike, to go out on the streets and give it a try? The first step (or pedal rotation) is always the hardest, so we need to make bicycling safe and comfortable, but also fun.
This is exactly what climate organization 350Vermont and others are doing this summer--launching a series of Critical Mass bike rides throughout the state. Last month’s celebration of biking in Montpelier was the first of three rides scheduled to help build community, have fun, and get more folks interested in active transportation.
I’m looking forward to joining this Friday’s Critical Mass ride in Burlington with my 9-year-old son Alexi. Until I rode in Montpelier in June, I had never heard of Critical Mass. If you had asked me what the term meant, I might have guessed that it was a weight requirement issued by the FDA.
In fact, a Critical Mass bike ride is an event in which a group of cyclists ride en masse in a particular location, functionally taking over the streets. The first large-scale Critical Mass happened in San Francisco in 1992, and VBike founder and director Dave Cohen was one of the 40-odd participants.
According to Dave, the original Critical Mass rides “came out of many ideas, including outrage at the gulf war, but it was also very social, a time for catching up with friends, and it was fascinatingly anarchistic: nobody was in charge and anybody could come up with flyers and a route, which meant there were no leaders for police to find. It even became religious. People would ask, ‘Are you going to mass?’”
In the past 16 years, there have been thousands of riders participating in Critical Mass events in cities around the world, with intensely political messages and strategies, drawing attention to the damage and destruction caused by automobile culture and showing that an alternative exists. Here in Vermont, the rides are also part of a larger effort to encourage and enable biking as transportation--one of many solutions to the climate crisis.
Sometimes described as a protest and other times a celebration, my sense when I spoke with planners is that the culture and tone of the Vermont rides is friendly and joyful.
The Brattleboro rides are based on the ‘Kidical Mass’ model, geared toward families and fun to encourage and celebrate biking. Mother Up! Coordinator and 350Brattleboro Node Leader Abby Mnookin is part of the organizing team in Brattleboro, which launched monthly rides that began there in May.
Abby told me a bit about Critical Mass’ history in Brattleboro. “Before May, we had been having Critical Mass rides periodically since last September. The first one corresponded with the international event, Rise for Climate, and we had more than 100 riders! There was so much enthusiasm, and we have a couple bike gurus in the area, so we decided to keep going.”
The rides continued sporadically through the late fall and winter, with different sized crowds at each. The events with more riders tend to coincide with larger actions around the country. Brattleboro is using monthly themes for their Critical Mass rides to draw attention to intersectionality. Early rides focused on homelessness; May’s ride focused on reproductive justice, and June on LGBTQI+ pride. This month’s theme is celebrating summer.
According to Abby, feedback from the Brattleboro community about Critical Mass rides has been very positive. “People honk and wave. They cheer us on even if they aren’t riding. We had a few negative responses from cars but nothing big. Now that we’re doing it monthly, I’ll be curious to see if we’ll get pushback.”
The Montpelier ride was also received positively. “Passing in front of the State House with some 80-odd riders and especially the kids that came along was so special,” said Dave. “I felt that the Statehouse building needed to experience us in that way, and I look forward to hearing about more rides in front of that golden dome, especially with legislators out there to witness the power of the Mass.
Critical Mass presents a vision of the world where bikes, not cars, flood the streets. “Our children can’t even move freely because of the domination of this machine we’ve let loose. It’s like a drug: it forces everyone to dissociate from its impact on every creature not in a car.”
Interested in redefining your definition of transportation or experiencing an exhilarating celebration of biking? I hope you’ll join Burlington or Brattleboro critical mass rides on Friday July 26th. Brattleboro’s Facebook event describes the event as a “unique way of energizing folks around bike mobility, transportation solutions, and amplifying our collective ability and power to begin reclaiming our streets and communities.” Burlington’s event page gives simple instructions: “Come ride your bike to promote active transportation.”
Along with enjoying the ride and connecting with old and new friends, I’m hoping to get more information about an e-bike to continue reducing my dependency on cars. Let’s all join a Critical Mass of people creating solutions to the climate crisis!
An earlier version of this essay was published in June, 2019 on 350Vermont’s web site
Gail Marlene Schwartz is a writer and founder of Gail Writes. She provides writing and editing services to businesses and organizations including 350VT, Parvati.org, Resonance Global, Montreal Dialogue Group, International Playback Theatre Network, and Naz and Matt Foundation. She is Cobalt Press’ Fiction Editor and teaches at CCV.