“Critical Mass is an organised coincidence. It happens when a lot of cyclists happen to be in the same place at the same time and decide to cycle the same way together for a while” - Cardiff Critical MassThis Saturday 4th December is the anniversary of the revival of Cardiff Critical Mass. Critical Mass events have been happening in the city for many years but the regular meetings were restarted by a tireless group of activists in December 2009. It now meets by the Museum steps at 11am on the first Saturday of every month.
The first Critical Mass happened in San Francisco in 1992 and was originally known as 'Commute Clot'. A group of cyclists came together at a set time and cycled together as a block taking over the road and for a brief moment replacing the sounds and smells of combustion engines with music, the ringing of bells and the honking of bike horns. It has since spread to over 300 cities across the world. Although some individuals get more involved with printing and distributing flyers or discussing possible routes, Critical Mass is 'horizontal' and so has no leaders or 'organisers'.
Some call it a protest but participants more often than not refer to Critical Mass as a 'spontaneous celebration of the bike'. However, people attend for a variety of reasons: Some want to raise awareness of the safety issues around city cycling, some do it to highlight the health benefits, others want to encourage more sustainable forms of transport for environmental reasons. Some come simply to get their own back on the motorists that dominate the road during their daily commute. I and many others attend for a mixture of these reasons but one of the most exciting and empowering things about Critical Mass is reclaiming the street as a public space and making it safe for a fleeting moment of carnivalesque celebration.
With awareness growing of the connections between the unrestrained consumption of fossil fuels with climate change and socio-political problems, the bicycle has become an obvious and attractive tool for all sorts of protest movements. It's fluffy, fun and visual enough to achieve public support, yet with a cheeky, almost menacing potential for easy road-blocking, coupled with a side swipe at car culture. It is an appealing and mischievous way to give the middle finger to business as usual with virtually no risk of arrest.
Several protest movements have used the same 'go slow' bike block tactic to raise awareness of their concerns. For example in 2006 during the campaign against the Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) pipeline that was subsequently built through swathes of the south Wales countryside, and anti-G8 rides in the summer of 2005.
Bike block tactics have also been used successfully in conjunction with other mobile blocks to take spaces and hold them such as during the 'swoop' for the 2009 Camp for Climate Action and 2010 Party at the Pumps in London.
Although the regular Cardiff Critical Mass rarely takes in other protest issues despite attempts by some members earlier this year to organise an anti-EDL ride, its purpose is to challenge the dominance of the car over the bike in our cities.
Since the industrial revolution the focus of western society has been on economic growth, driven in large part by the use of oil and the private motor vehicle. Our cities are therefore designed with the movement of the car and the endless consumption of resources prioritised above anything else. As we realise that economic growth comes with negative consequences for our standard of living there is a growing desire to reign in car culture and all it symbolises.
In order to make our towns and cities safer, less polluted, happier places we must begin to de-prioritise motorised transport wherever feasible. Critical Mass can serve as a reminder that small changes must be made to all aspects of our lives in order to realistically tackle global and local issues from all angles.
Cardiff, on paper at least, is a perfect city for cycling. It's almost completely flat, compact, and from my own observations cycling has definitely increased since I moved here 10 years ago. There is little doubt that the recession has helped encourage the shift to virtually free transport, and schemes such as cycle to work have made getting a good quality bike much easier for a lot of people. Despite this, the number of people that use a bike as their primary mode of transport around the city remains dismally low.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the more cyclists that are on the roads the safer the roads become to cycle on. By encouraging more and more people onto their bikes we also improve safety for all cyclists, from the beginners to the veterans.
According to Cardiff Council's bike officer, Jo Sachs-Eldridge, the number of people commuting by bike in Cardiff is increasing, but still makes up just 7.4% of journeys to and from work. And whilst the local authority is making efforts to encourage more cycling, such as through the proposed new cycling network , it's only by raising awareness of the unhealthy dominance of car culture and highlighting the alternatives through events like Critical Mass that we can begin to achieve a significant shift towards happier, cleaner and safer cities.
You don't have to be an anarchist, an environmentalist, or 'anti-car' to join in. Many of those that participate regularly in Cardiff Critical Mass are car drivers themselves, although for most their preferred mode of transport within the city tends to be a sturdy bike. They may have many reasons to come on the rides but a universal concern is that the city's infrastructure needs to be much more bicycle friendly.
Join Cardiff Critical Mass at the Museum steps at 11am on the first Saturday of every month. Along with cyclists, skaters, runners and anyone else who can keep up using non motorised transport. You can also join our facebook group There are also groups for the regular Critical Mass rides in Aberystwyth and Swansea.