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Critical Mass, disruptive mobilizations and environmental awareness

Critical Mass Vancouver June 2008 -270620082658 One of the most powerful manifestations of a democratic society is the ability of citizens to raise their voices wanting to be heard on policy issues. Social movements and environmental non-governmental organization (ENGOs) focused on protecting the environment are part and parcel of a healthy policy regime, where said ENGOs put pressure on governments to be better at their job of protecting natural resources and ecosystems.

I’ve been studying transnational social movements for about a decade, and in my research I have found one of the most used strategies ENGOs tend to use is public protest. I’ve been fascinated by some organizations’ choice of disruptive techniques not because I think they are particularly effective but because I always wonder its effectiveness. In my research, I have found that many ENGOs that use lobbying, letter-writing, sitting on intergovernmental panels and providing advice as influencing strategies are much more effective than disruption.

There has been a substantial amount of discussion in the online realm on the effectiveness of Critical Mass (a bicycling flash-mob-type of gathering once a month where bikers take the streets in an effort to raise awareness about the need for sustainable modes of transportation – aimed to reduce car usage). While I can fully see the value of a movement like this to raise awareness, and I am a big cycling as a mode of sustainable transportation, lately the perception of its impact on Vancouver has been that it has become less effective in elevating the discourse to issues of sustainable transportation and has become more disruptive.

I fully support the core principle behind Critical Mass but I disagree fundamentally with its disruptive nature. Let me make three points.

First, the flash-mob nature of the movement diminishes the degree to which participants are accountable. Without clear leadership, nobody is accountable for the impact Critical Mass can have on people’s lives (for however short period of time). What will happen if somebody is in an ambulance heading towards St. Paul’s Hospital and Critical Mass disrupts traffic and the patient dies? Who should be held accountable and who would be responsible? Nobody, since Critical Mass has “no leader”

Second, the degree to which disruption occurs has diminished its effectiveness as an awareness-raising event. It has become unruly social disorder. Disruptive mobilizations have a place in social movements, but when Critical Mass’ mandate has been overshadowed by the general perception that it alienates people, making drivers furious and leading to confrontations, then it’s time to change the strategy.

Third, the non-cooperative approach of the movement creates confrontations. These face-offs between drivers and bikers preclude finding any solid, sustainable approaches to increase awareness. A sustainable transportation policy by nature requires stakeholders to negotiate points of agreement and common ground. But given that there is no apparent leadership and no accountability, there is no way to create common ground amongst actors.

I asked online – “when is the tipping point? when does disruption become unruly social order?”. I think Critical Mass creators and their proponents should re-think this and their strategies. A democratic society is a collaborative society, not a confrontational one.

I would appreciate your thoughts about Critical Mass in the comments section. Let’s begin the dialogue.

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44 Responses

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  1. @lynneux says

    I think Critical Mass has reached its tipping point–and probably gone past it. At this point it seems the only purpose is to antagonize drivers, and in Vancouver it seems as though it’s almost become a sort of ‘class warfare’, ie. “Annoy the yuppies in their BMWs” as opposed to “Riding bikes is good for the planet”. I witnessed a serious confrontation (physical altercation, police called in) during the last Critical Mass ride at the intersection Georgia & Bute and I can assure you that the epithets being thrown around were *completely* unrelated to the environment 🙁

  2. BlissfulGirl says

    As an alternative to the illegal Critical Mass rides in Vancouver, there has been some planning on Twitter for a Critical Manners ride on August 14th at 6PM in Vancouver. See for details as they become available.

    The Critical Manners rides were established in San Francisco in 2007

  3. Bahtman says

    Dear Raul,

    Thanks for your thoughtful words about Critical Mass and the three points you raised. While I agree that the motivation ought to be about communicating the message of a need for sustainable transportation and that when that message takes a second seat we have a problem, I disagree with your first point about leaderlessness.

    Simply because the mass has no leader doesn’t mean that as a result they would necessarily disrupt an emergency vehicle from getting where it needs to go. I fear there is too much of an emphasis on the requirement of “a leader” in any form of movement, party, or organization. We mustn’t forget that in the absence of a leader (ie, the absence of a hierarchy of command) the riders are still human beings, motivated as much as anyone else to prevent death!

    I’m not an expert in social movements, but from my amature observations and modest participation in organizations that are leaderless, it seems to me that non-hierarchy modes of resistance or activism organized around the idea of mutual aide can be extremely compassionate and effective. So I humbly disagree with your first point, unless you have evidence to support the fact that Critical Mass riders have led to death/delay of ambulances or firetrucks. In a city with far more bicycles and far fewer motorists, Ambulances and Firetrucks would have no difficulty at all getting from point A to B. ( :

  4. Karen says

    I think the disruptiveness of the ride is being overstated. It’s only one evening a month, and it has been going on for years. Last month’s ride was huge but I didn’t see much vocalization online or in the media complaining about it. It’s only since the Vancouver police issued the warning earlier this week that people are all up in arms about it.

    And to be honest, I wish that there were more regular “warnings” asking people not to drive downtown. The majority of vehicles I see going in and out of downtown Vancouver on a daily basis contain single occupants. While I realize that the odd person may actually require a vehicle for their daily work, or live far from reasonable transit routes, the overwhelming majority of these drivers *could* be carpooling/bussing/biking instead.

    Yes, there are always a couple idiot cyclists on the mass ride who cause tension, but there are also no shortage of idiot drivers who act like asses to me when I am out riding my bike and obeying all traffic rules.

    As far as the comment about emergency vehicles – Critical Mass lets them through. We also try not to disrupt transit too much, although some delay is unavoidable. Here’s an excerpt from a message that went out to the Vancouver Critical Mass email list this week:

    “Don’t stay on any given street for very long, so that public transit can pass. And always let emergency vehicles through. The ride is a celebration (not a party or a protest). Take absolute responsibility for your actions and show motorists a better way to travel. A way which is more equitable, efficient, fun and socially responsible than the car. There’s no need to be unfriendly or argue with motorists — our sheer numbers tell the story. Look after each other, speak up, and ride with confidence.”

  5. Karen says

    Joey Devilla states a similar (but somewhat more personal) perspective on why he stopped participating the ride in his provocatively titled post called “Critical Massholes” in 2006.

    it has become less effective in elevating the discourse to issues of sustainable transportation and has become more disruptive.

    I agree that it’s disruptive, and that that is to the detriment of how non-cylists perceive the event, but I disagree that it was ever intended to elevate the discourse in the first place. It’s very noble to say so, but I interpret Critical Mass as having, as its primary goal, to allow cyclists to have fun, when cycling is often, in no small part, a fearful, anxiety-ridden activity, that for some lucky few is mitigated by the endorphins of its physical component.

    I say that having ridden my bike for the longest continuous stretch this year. I don’t like to paint drivers with a broad brush. But just as the actions of the few reckless cyclists (among their number I must admit to being occasionally) spoil the image of cyclists sharing the road, drivers who attempt to cut me off and who endanger me when I am behaving as a vehicle as the law requires me to do make scraped knees and stubbed toes the least of my concerns.

    I usually ride in the Critical Mass, but I think with the temperatures being what they are and the emotions of the bike lane reallocation trial, the conditions for more road rage against cyclists (like this incident a few years back in Toronto) are just about right. Will the joy at being able to ride with a little more peace of mind tempt me into going anyway? It just might.

    I agree with what you say about there being little accountability when there’s no clear leadership; that’s why, ideally, I’d like to see some of the rules modified a bit to making more routine accommodations for pedestrians, for instance. Advocates for Critical Mass will also say that a road full of bikes can squish together and make room much more easily and quickly than gridlocked cars in backed-up traffic. I can attest to the truth of one half of the sentence, as I saw a fire-truck inching forward through gridlock in New York recently.

    Bottom line? There’s not all, but many drivers, act as if they are entitled to using roadspace carelessly – we can look at just incidents between cars to verify that. Even if they don’t consciously and vehemently feel that way, I don’t think the worst behaviour on the road, by cyclists or motorists, will change just through awareness campaigns.

  6. Melissa says

    I think critical mass has outlived its usefulness. It doesn’t evoke thoughts of sustainability or the environment, it just makes people tense. The objective may be to be peaceful and not create conflict, but with each new ride, the tensions grow stronger. Sometimes, even a few idiot cyclists can ruin things for everyone.

    I definitely agree that there is probably a more efficient way to get the message across to larger cross section of people that will have a longer lasting impact on how our city grows/develops sustainable policies.

  7. Tom W. says

    In fairness, Raul, I don’t think your three points indicate that you’re “in full support of the core principle of Critical Mass” at all. CM is at it’s core supposed to be disruptive, it’s about cyclists – or at least a certain portion of them (many cyclists are anti-CM) – claiming the streets for a couple of hours. By definition it’s designed to be a disruptive and confrontational statement against our car culture … no use in sugarcoating it.

    I find your first point to be a red herring; I personally have *no doubt* that if an ambulance came through that CM participants would let them come through (enough cyclists unfortunately take rides in ambulances).

    That said concerns over liability are exactly why there isn’t any “clear leadership”, despite the event being organized. Appointing “clear leadership” would be tantamount to canceling CM, as it would be impossible to insure. The ideal is that everyone attending is culpable for everybody’s actions; not letting an ambulance through and risking the health of an individual would rightly damn all CM participants in the court of public opinion.

    What you seem to be advocating (and feel free to clarify) is some sort of monthly “cyclists parade” whereby official organizers obtain police permits, obtain insurance, planned routes, etc. That isn’t what CM is about.

    As it stands, however, the Vancouver Police is quite cooperative with the CM, especially compared with other cities where the police use it as an opportunity to brutalize attendees. The NYPD is a prime example:

  8. @lynneux says

    To Karen:

    That email is obviously ignored by the vast majority of Vancouver Critical Mass riders, as very few act friendly or respectful of fellow citizens–that is unless you consider shouting, screaming, heckling of motorists and pedestrians alike as ‘friendly’. I live on a major downtown street and have witnessed these rides first hand over the past couple of years and there is a total attitude of antagonism, not celebration. Beyond the serious altercation I witnessed last month my neighbours and I have to put up with insane amounts of shouting/screaming/bell ringing/loud music, seen Critical Mass riders give the finger to motorists–even witnessed riders shouting at a woman with a stroller and small children in hand to “get the f*ck outta the way!!!”, etc. It’s simply appalling and it’s massively disrespectful. These riders seem set on inciting confrontation.

    There may be some in the crowd who are riding to “show motorists a better way” but it would appear that most of the riders taking part view it more as an opportunity to upset people and act like idiots and it’s really, really distracting from Critical Mass’ overall message.

  9. Raul Pacheco-Vega says

    @ Bahtman – One of the respondents here (Karen) is a very close friend of mine, and someone I thoroughly respect. She participates in CM and she indicated (see comment above) that if an ambulance went through CM they would let it go through. I made the comment as a hypothesis, not as something I had known beforehand.

    @ Tom W. – Would you be able to give me the principles of how you define Critical Mass? My understanding of the core principle CM is to demonstrate that there is a need for sustainable transportation methods (i.e. biking). That’s how I understand it and that’s the core principle I support.

    When you say “by definition, CM is disruptive” you are adhering to some principles – which ones? Who said those? Given that there is no clear leadership, there is also no clear set of rules and no clear setter of rules.

    What do you mean by “everyone is culpable for everybody’s actions”.

    I am not advocating for anything, Tom. I am a researcher, not an activist. I study (amongst other things) the behavior of activists. And I can disagree with some of those behaviors, on a personal level, but as a scholar, I am fascinated by them.

    I am puzzled by the choice of disruptive behavior, but not against it from the scholarly viewpoint. I disagree that using this method the movement will actually achieve its purported goal, but as fas as I’m concerned, CM can (and possibly will) continue as is. I’ll continue to observe and see whether it works or not and whether actually it achieves any reduction in car usage.

  10. mehnaz says

    I think the point of living in a democracy is to be able to stand up and make your voice heard, but not to the detriment of others. Just as much as bikers don’t like cars driving in bike lanes because it’s disrespectful (and dangerous), Critical mass is doing the same thing by disrupting cars.
    And on unusually hot days such as this one, angering already cranky people on their way home is less than good sense. It loses its point when it gets to be disruptive.

  11. Mitch says

    I’ve had similar conversations with friends and colleagues, and as a City Planner, the idea of being able to ride bikes safely is something I strongly support.

    Here’s the rub: if cyclists want to be taken seriously as part of the transportation infrastructure, events like Critical Mass need to do three things:

    1. Obey the laws (Bikes are motor vehicles under the Motor Vehicle Act – this means stopping at red lights and yielding to pedestrians for example.

    2. Show some courtesy – just because you ride a bike doesn’t mean everyone can, or will. As a pedestrian I have been jostled, spit on, and yelled at becase I chose to walk, with the light, across an intersection where Critica Mass was going through.

    3. Wear helmets. I am constantly amazed how many people claim to be serious cyclists, yet choose NOT to wear helmets.

    Right now, Critical Mass does more harm than good in terms of encouraging any form of goodwill towards cyclists. And quite frankly, the police should be handing out the tickets and making sure people abide by the law. If CM were to undertake a renovation of their methods and methodology, I think most people would start to see cycling as an alternative – as it is right now, CM comes across as a random protest, with no intent other than to disrupt the lives of others.

  12. Lisa says

    I’m on the fence.
    One one hand I don’t think it puts drivers in frame of mind where they’d be more open to collaboration about sharing the streets.
    On the other hand, it demonstrates that there are a very significant number of cyclists in the city. I think this is important, because I hear increasingly that their (our) number is insignificant (in relation to # of people/chosen modes of transport) and urban planning, funding of infrastructure and the like ought somehow to match.
    But it might be more effective to have the ‘wow, that’s a lot of cyclists’ reaction when they show up about something specific – at a particularly suicidal intersection that needs to be changed, at City Hall about a troublesome policy, that kind of thing.
    I wonder if Greenpeace has done that – kept the rebellious spirit, but demanded specific actions.

  13. BlissfulGirl says

    Many of the Critical Mass rides have gone down Denman Street – at one point in its history pretty much all of the rides ended up coming down Denman Street (either North or South and a couple of times both directions in one ride so there goes the “Don’t stay on any given street for very long.” theory).

    About 3 years ago I witnessed firsthand that the “Mass” did NOT allow emergency vehicles to quickly get through. A firetruck was held at bay for several minutes at Denman & Nelson (lights and sirens blaring) until three of the firefighters got out of the truck and had to physically move several corkers out of the way. The corkers swore at the firemen for moving them and were yelling about police brutality (which I thought was funny given these were firemen not cops), the cyclists that were stopped were also yelling and cursing at the firemen too for breaking up the group. Then as the firetruck attempted to proceed North along Denman they were forced to crawl along because the cyclists couldn’t clear enough space quickly enough to allow the large firetruck to move safely past them as the cyclists were taking up 1.5 lanes of the 2 lanes available to the firetruck.

    Up until that point I had support Critical Mass, now I just think it is an inconsiderate and anti-social event that does the cycling culture more harm than good by alienating other cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. The good cyclists (the majority) get lumped in with the bad cyclists (the minority) in much the same way that the good motorists (the majority) get lumped in with the bad motorists (the minority). The other problem is the mob mentality that happens – good, otherwise law-abiding cyclists allow their normal behaviour to descend to the lowest behaviour in order to be “with” the group and have “fun”.

    I have to add, I am not a motorist, I’m a pedestrian and I’ve quietly and calmly stood by and waited for the ride to pass so I can continue on my way and while I’ve waited, on more than one occasion, I’ve been sworn at, pushed and sprayed with water.

    I guess I and others like me are just collateral damage for the Critical Mass riders who are just having fun.

  14. Tom W. says

    Raul, given its leaderless structure, it’s up to all participants to decide themselves what “defines CM”. It’s obviously a different beast when 3,000 cyclists ride around downtown Vancouver compared when 100 ride around in the Winter in Winnipeg. The larger the CM, the bigger the “tent” is, with Vancouver’s representing a broad spectrum from pro-cycling/sustainability interests to anti-poverty/anti-Olympic politics. Other CM’s (I’ve witnessed one in San Francisco) have different flavours as well. I wish Blissfulgirl good luck in organizing Critical Manners in Vancouver, although I don’t know how it’ll impact the a-hole cyclists they’re trying to shame).

    If a “overall message” exists, it is that cycling in cities is fundamentally unfriendly and alienating for most cyclists. Having rolled over the hood of a car who blocked the bike lane I was riding in (luckily the driver braked in time so I only hit the hood) while biking in Victoria, a city more bike friendly than Vancouver, I can attest to being intimidated by car traffic, despite being a confident and responsible driver. In my case the driver was more concerned about a semi-truck speeding past me to notice that they a) were blocking the bike lane, and b) I was just about passing them on my bike (complete with light and visible clothing). To the drivers credit they poked their head out to see if I was OK but I was far too shaken/furious to accept any assistance.

    My point: having an afternoon a month to flip sides in what amounts to a very one-sided power relationship feels great.

    Finally, guess where there isn’t Critical Mass? In the cycling friendly Netherlands where cycling infrastructure is ubiquitous and almost always separated from motor vehicle traffic. Vancouver has come a long way, but the furious anti-cyclist reactions to the Burrard bridge trial … and nearly any other cycling initiative in recent memory is testament to how far we need to go before everybody in this city can feel safe cycling.

  15. Raul Pacheco-Vega says

    I would encourage everyone to go to the post linked in the trackback where one of the commenters (Jorge) mentions his experience with Critical Mass, and his sentiment towards the critical mass now as opposed to how he felt last year.

  16. BlissfulGirl says

    Just to clarify … I’m not organizing Critical Manners on August 14th at 6PM in Vancouver. I just think it’s a really fun idea given my not so fun experiences with Critical Mass and so feel it is worthy of promotion 🙂

    See for details as they become available.

  17. Raul Pacheco-Vega says

    @ Tom W – I don’t feel safe cycling in this city which is why I don’t put my life at risk doing so. I walk everywhere, and where I don’t walk, I bus, and on EXTREMELY rare occasions, I drive. But behavioral change doesn’t come from confrontation, it comes from working together.

    The really funny thing is, on this thread, there are two very close friends of mine who participate in CM. I don’t agree with the tactics, but I will (as a friend) support their desire to ride CM. I just don’t think it’s really having the effect that CM is purported to want.

  18. Dan says

    “First, the flash-mob nature of the movement diminishes the degree to which participants are accountable. ”
    Each individual is responsible for their own actions. Your argument seems to be lamenting that there’s no leadership to punish.

    “Second, the degree to which disruption occurs has diminished its effectiveness as an awareness-raising event.”
    “Thousands of people peacefully riding through the streets” VS “Thousands of people riding through the streets and causing problems for drivers”
    Only one of those two is going to get in the news. While both may raise awareness the disruptive method is far more effective.

    “Third, the non-cooperative approach of the movement creates confrontations….A democratic society is a collaborative society, not a confrontational one.”
    Yes, of course. That’s why protesters in Iran should stay off the streets. That’s why Ghandi was wrong. A democracy is a way for confrontational views to ATTEMPT collaboration. No one ever promised it would work 100%.

  19. Raul Pacheco-Vega says

    @ Dan – I am not lamenting that there is no leadership to punish (um, the first question would be – is there ANYTHING to punish?) – I am AFFIRMING that this lack of clear leadership means that nobody is accountable for the collective’s actions. Every individual, as you say, is responsible for their own. But the effects of the collective’s actions are, by nature, collective (not individual)

    I actually think with respect to your second point, both will get in the news. As I said, this is not something that is new to me. I’ve been studying mobilizations for a decade, and I’ve seen all ranges of action. Disruption is just one strategy, not the only one, and certainly not the most effective.

    No democracy is perfect, but in any case, I always search for collaboration, not for confrontation.

    Thanks for commenting, everyone. You all raise good points and I’m delighted that the conversation continues.

  20. Dave Johnson says

    Disclaimer: it’s late and I only got through half of the comments so excuse any repetition please. Also I like critical mass as well as the message that it sends.

    First, those that feel the need to drive automobiles and in turn degrade our society and destroy the environment are by no means accountable for their actions and their deleterious effects. There is no leader of the motorist hoards that on a daily basis (not just once a month) clog our city streets impeding emergency vehicles, degrade our air quality, and increase global warming emissions. Why should cyclists be accountable if motorists are not? (if you can even argue that the effects of cycling are remotely comparable to those of car drivers)

    Second, if there were a parade or protest for any cause that occurred at the same time on the same day every month it would be considered disruptive by most and yet well within our democratic rights. Are other disruptive actions equally ineffectual and frowned upon? Should the protesters at Eagleridge have laid down to the oppressive capitalist forces of the Olympiad rather than disrupt “business as usual”? There are so many causes that on the time scale of a month or year may appear ineffectual and yet the end result says otherwise – for example the amazing people fighting in the name of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

    Third, the automobile wielding community is thoroughly uncooperative in that it has even less leadership nor anyone interested in finding sustainable alternatives to single occupancy vehicles spawned from sprawling suburbs. Inaction against the automobile plague is action in itself.

    Yes, a democratic society is a collaborative one; however, the reality is that in a capitalist democracy those who might join a group like Critical Mass are those that are most marginalized in our society with no opportunity to “communicate”, “collaborate” or “find common ground” with the powers that be, forcing them to their bikes.

    Great post Raul 🙂

  21. bobbie says

    Funny isnLt it, all of these ‘strawmen’ that keep being thrown up. First, blissful girl, you do realize what you claim to have seen couldn’t have happened, that is unless you are also going to claim that the two dozen or so bicycle cops and motorcycle cops were also complacent with blocking the fire truck in question.
    A far more likely event in which a fire turck is likely to have great difficulty getting across denman street is the fireworks nights. Just this past Wednesday I sat out and watched the crowds filter home after the show. It was midnight before the cops were able to finally clear the street, but from 22:30 until about 23:15 there was no way any emergency vehicle was going to make it anywhere. Robson was packed, denman was packed, nelson was packed comox was packed davie was packed. And yet no one seems worried about emergency response for the events.
    Never mind car traffic being interrupted for 10 to 20 minutes. The entire westend is shut down starting at 19:00, and nobody complains.

    I think car drivers devalue cyclists out of envy. I make probably just a little more than average. I sold my motorcycle and car years ago. I no longer have the albatross of car ownership tied to a rope around my neck. No insurance, no financing, no parking, minimal maintenance, etc. And car drivers hate this. I used to spend about $500.00 per month on my car, if not a little more. Now that’s money in my pocket. Even when you factor in what I pay for rent in the west end, the benefits of either cycling or walking to and from work on a daily basis are priceless.I still keep my class 5 and 6 current, you never know when one wants to rent a vehicle for a day or two.

    If society could just get of the old mantra ‘only losers ride bicycles’ and if people in general would realize that probably more than 75% of all cars trips are unnescessary and plan accordingly, life would be a lot less stressful. After all, it’s not like you’re taking any of this with you when you die.

  22. Vancruisers says

    Here’s my response:

    The gist of it is that Critical Mass can have a purpose, it just needs to find it. Today it’s adrift without a reason for being when it could be so much more.

  23. Tom W. says


    I think in an ideal world collaboration would be ideal… but in reality what we tend to see “collaboration” between like-minded interest groups, not between groups that disagree with one another. In this day and age many governments conflate “collaboration” with “consultation”, but they’re simply not the same thing.

    Canadian Medicare was the result from intense confrontation between opposed interest groups over the course of nearly two decades for example, with collaboration occurring between opposing interest groups until finally we came to a general consensus that everybody should have medical coverage. The singular moment in that story probably was the 1962 Saskatchewan Doctor’s strike; Premier Douglas took a highly risky and confrontational stance to stay firm, and eventually Doctors came round, to the chagrin of organizations like the National Citizens Coalition (PM Harper’s old employer), whose entire existence was premised on opposing universal healthcare. Collaboration is a great sentiment, and should be encouraged where feasible, but there has to be some common ground to work from.

  24. Tom W. says

    That said …. could you point to some success stories in collaboration? The best local example I can think of is BC’s Land Resource Management Plans (LRMP) process in the 1990s.

  25. Karen says

    I think the media reports leading up to Critical Mass this week caused unnecessary hysteria and greatly exaggerated the supposed issues with the ride. I was not able to attend the ride tonight as I’m out of town, but according to all reports so far it was relatively peaceful and incident-free:

    Critical Mass is made up of a diverse group of people including youths, seniors, and families with young children. The last ride I was on we were escorted by VPD members on bicycles and no one was anything but pleasant to the officers.

    I don’t ride every month, but at the Critical Mass rides I’ve attended over the past few years I have *never* witnessed incidents such as the ones described by some of the above posters (swearing at pedestrians and cops, throwing water, etc.). Events such as these are the exception and not the rule.

    Granted, with a group as large as Critical Mass there are always going to be a few spoilsports and isolated incidents do occur. I have seen several tense arguments between cyclists and motorists. But the overwhelming majority of the attendees are there to have a good time and enjoy the temporarily car-free streets, not to cause mischief.

  26. Todd Sieling says

    @Tom W

    I’m among those cyclists who are alienated by the confrontational attitude that some Critical Massers bring to the events, but I’m wondering how you arrive at these core ideas about the rides, that they’re *supposed to* be confrontational and *supposed to* be disruptive, when the event has no core leadership? Who owns the idea? Those who will push antagonism the furthest?

    Sorry, but Critical Mass is an idea that, at least in Vancouver, needs to evolve. We have the awareness, we have the presence, and we’re getting somewhere. It’s time to leverage that progress into something that gets us long-term and fair outcomes, rather than to reinforce the perception of cyclists as annoying outlaws on a weekly basis.

  27. Todd Sieling says

    Oops – monthly, not weekly, but the point is the same 🙂

  28. Victoria says

    I think Critical Mass is simply a venue for many adults to act poorly while under the blanket of a cause. I’ve driven through an area that was overtaken by CM riders, and while they were breaking the law and illegally disrupting road activity, I could clearly do nothing. I sat, waited, and was heckled for driving. What many of these idiots do not realize is that since the Lower Mainland as a whole has such a poor public transportation system, I, living farther than the bus system traveling to the city reaches, MUST have a car for transport.

    I find it incredibly hypocritical that many of these cyclists just want to stir up inconvenience for motorists, without providing a platform or any useful tactics to avoid such motor vehicle usage. Instead of gathering for a peaceful, safe, legal ride; I see a group consisting largely of people throwing critical words because they have been given a soap box to stand on.

    Most of these cyclists aren’t abiding by the helmet law, either. If I wasn’t wearing a seat belt, you can bet your bicycle spandex I’d be issued a ticket by unsympathetic cops. When it comes to CM gatherings, the police just say ‘don’t get in their way’. What kind of public safety enforcement is this?! It is incredibly irresponsible not to calm this flash mob, if only for their own safety risks they are undertaking.

    Critical Mass has no place in civilized, logical protest. I was a part of the recent Chain For Iran vigil (this took place on West Georgia), and this was an example of an effective and lawful protest against injustice. Much support and attention was received, and I feel that if the CM group took their cause up on an organized, constructive platform that much more could be done; rather than simply pissing off the city’s motorist majority and taking their cause forward one step and three back.

    I’m fully for having mobility options versus vehicle usage, but when mobs like Critical Mass take to the streets it seems that far fewer influential ears are prepared to actually listen to our cry.

    Critical Mass /is/ just that; a mass that gathers to tell us how much we’re doing wrong, without providing suggestions on how to do right.

  29. Karen says

    Okay, I am weighing in one last time and then I’m done with this debate. The local news websites are full of angry comments from drivers claiming cyclists don’t pay for road infrastructure (wrong!), or that we’re all poor hippies who would be driving if only we could afford a car (I bet I make more than they do), or threatening to run us down in their SUVs. It’s depressing and tiresome and like the other Karen I am not going to waste my energy arguing anymore.

    I just wanted to speak to Victoria’s comment about our transit system:
    What many of these idiots do not realize is that since the Lower Mainland as a whole has such a poor public transportation system, I, living farther than the bus system traveling to the city reaches, MUST have a car for transport.

    I have lived in four other Canadian cities, and the lower mainland has by far the best transit of any city I’ve lived in. I consider it to be better than both Toronto and Ottawa’s systems, and worlds beyond Halifax and Hamilton. I’m curious where exactly it is that Victoria lives. I lived in North Burnaby (and commuted to UBC) for three years without a car and I survived just fine.

    I understand that it’s not realistic to expect people to bike from Maple Ridge to Vancouver by bike, for example, but what about driving to a skytrain station and parking your car? I don’t think anyone expects people to live completely car-free in suburbia but if you’re coming into an area that is well-served by transit (such as downtown Vancouver) *don’t* drive there!

  30. BlissfulGirl says

    bobbie what I witnessed did actually happen. It was written up in either the Vancouver Courier or the West Ender (I can’t recall which local paper, but it was one of the weeklies not a daily paper). I could not find an archive of the article to link to but if I find it I will definitely post a link to it. At that time, the police did not accompany the ride with either bicycle cops or motorcycle cops – that is a pretty recent development (just the past few years I think). Rarely would you see a motorcycle cop pulling up the rear of the ride but this incident happened mid-stream of the ride the end of the pack was still back around Davie.

    You should also note that there was a life-threatening emergency on Friday night that the Critical Mass ride had a big impact on. Clearly these types of events do happen during the ride they just don’t always make it into main stream media coverage. Please see this comment for details:

    On fireworks evenings there are traffic police posted at Denman & Nelson who hold back pedestrians if emergency vehicles need to get through. It’s one of the main access intersections which is also made available for emergency vehicles during car-free day too.

    I don’t actually think most people think ‘only losers ride bicycles’ as you said. The largest problem seems to still be that people get pissed off when others don’t follow the rules of the road – doesn’t matter whether it’s a cyclist, pedestrian or motorist. It makes me think of that old lesson we were taught in kindergarten “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

  31. Raul Pacheco-Vega says

    One comment I want to make to everyone is that many of the people who have commented on this post have actually participated as riders in CM. Experiences are varied and obviously there will always be points of dissent.

    Personally, I don’t think it’s a point of “us cyclists you motorists” or viceversa. That’s the confrontational approach that I think alienates people.

    I’d like to share my experience last night downtown. At 6.50pm, I was crossing the corner of Howe and Drake when the CM riders were coming through Howe. I think overall, the whole movement must have spanned like 6 blocks. By 7:00pm that intersection was cleared.

    I did witness some decidedly absurd behavior (no matter how protected you are, I think all cyclists should wear helmets) that made me again question how can we create rules in a non-ruled world. I would have caught all of this on video but unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me. Kudos to the Vancouver Police Department for having police cars escort them at the front of the march, the back and several officers biked along.

    One last thing. There will always be dissenting opinions and I welcome all of those on my blogs, but please always be civilized to each other and try to make your commentaries constructive. Please also respect everyone’s opinion and sometimes, you’ll just have to agree to disagree on a point. I very much appreciate all your comments.

  32. Daniel Kauwe says

    A) Accountability

    Loss of accountability equivalates to loss of agency. How are we effectively empowering the collective when the action results in a reduction of the individual sense of responsibility? One might say that the collective has responsibility of its own, but then we have to ask again, what is the collective responsibly achieving? If the collective is simply acting out in the most literal sense, then there may be little long term good. As any good researcher will assert, at a minimum to even postulate causality, there must be some degree of reliable association. If there’s not even a slight hint of association, then you’re illogically maintaining a nonexistent connection.

    Translation: if you’re maintaining a causal good that results from a collective action, you should be able to demonstrate reliable and clear correlations at minimum between incidence of action and desired results. If you can’t demonstrate that, then you’re just generating a bunch of theatrics and drama, and that’s fine but that’s what we call entertainment, not social activism. If the collective action is in fact associating with clear markers of socio-political change, then great, if not, well…again, maybe people should be honest and admit that the flash mob is more for fun and excitement than anything else.

    B) Awareness

    This is my greater concern. When flash mobs act, and you are purportedly acting for a socio-political objective, then we must ask the following: is the result truly shifting awareness of the objective in the _desired_ direction or are you shifting awareness of something else or worse yet, shifting awareness of your objective in an undesirable direction?

    If a giant clump of people stop all traffic, do you sincerely think that the audience perception is, “Oh, now I get it! Cycling is the way to go!” (btw – I’m an avid cyclist, in fact, I got rid of my car and now I just travel by train/bike. Sometimes I catch rides with friends and family members, so I’m not saying, “I’m more of a biker than you.”).

    I’m saying that while I care very much about commuter issues, mass transit, and cyclist advocacy – I also would wonder about the impact to awareness if I were to experience a flash mob of bikers disrupting my commute. I’d probably think it cute and entertaining if it wasn’t disruptive, however, if it was, I’d probably hate all of those people for disrupting my life. I think this is what I appreciate about Raul’s commentary.

    Envision yourself as both participant and audience member and ask yourself, “How is this affecting me and how do I feel emotionally?” Flash mobs are fun as the participant- it’s just fun to run around and do stuff. However, does that fun extend to the audience or is the audience simply angry, annoyed, and maybe pissed? It may not be so much fun if you’re the audience member that is getting run over or hit by the herd.

    How cooperative do you think that audience will be when you’ve disrespected their time, disrupted their live, and ruined their day? Do you think people will think, “Oh, gee, this giant mass of cyclists just ruined my day, I want to do everything I can do improve cyclist concerns? And now I really want to support mass transit.”

    Another important visualization exercise is this, “How would you respond if that same flash mob operated every single day (not just once a month), and for the entire day?” It is thoroughly illogical to maintain that flash mobs are okay because they happen only once in awhile. That’s like me saying, “It’s okay for me to physically abuse you once a month because I only hit you when you upset me, and you deserve it.” You are doing something that upsets other people, if you did it all the time, those people would probably simply hate you more than anything (vs. sympathize with your cause).

    I’m not trying to deride public protest, I’m merely pointing out that if the public protest isn’t accomplishing anything beneficial (and I mean, can you actually pinpoint measurable changes that correlate with and only with flash mob behavior), then maybe the flash mob is more a form of collective acting out. Throwing a temper tantrum is something we all do, however, doesn’t it suck when you’re just hanging out and another adult starts throwing a fit about the stupidest of things? How much worse is a massive group of people throwing a fit?

    C) Cooperation.

    This is where I like to return. Flash mobs are very cool and interesting in idea. I’ve seen fun displays of flash mobs that I did experience as fun and awareness shifting. So I know that it’s possible to execute a flash mob in a socially effective manner to engage the audience. I think this is what we’re all dancing around in this discussion. Is X achieving social improvement through thoughtful engagement of the audience, or is X simply pissing off the audience?


    The precarious edge of mob behaviors is that they can feel incredibly overwhelming to the direct observer and if executed poorly, any progressive socio-political objectives will simply be lost in the ensuing flood of negative reactions.

    I would imagine this is the point of refining the flash mob towards considerate and compassionate behavior – which I think is why I like the idea of a Critical Manners ride, mentioned by BlissfulGirl

  33. bobbie says

    Okay, here I go again.
    I rode in the CM yesterday for the first time in eight years. Now that my right knee has healed up I’ve been back in the saddle for the last three months.
    Damn did I ever miss cycling.
    Anyways, I was surprised at the number of cyclists that not only turned out for the event. But that the vast majority were wearing helmets. Same can’t be said for a small majority of car drivers that only belt up when driving past a Road Check.
    And pot smoking cyclists. Hrrrrrm, last week I observed a super high end Bimmer getting onto the Trans Canada at 1st. The driver had a Corona and his passengers were busy partaking in BC’s best export.
    But hey, when it comes to villifing a group of people why not use the minority to tar and feather the majority

    If you want to observe the typical motorist’s sense of entitlement, come down to the fireworks tonight. I dare you.
    As soon as the fireworks are over you’ll see the most shocking display of childness ever seen.
    People who drove down to the fireworks and who have parked on the west side of Denman will actually try to force and bully their way through the crowd of 400,000 .
    Can they turn their engines off and stay parked for an extra 20 to 30 minutes while the crowds dissapate?
    Hell no, horns ar blaring, profanitites are hurled and they force their way through the crowds emboldened not only by their sense of right but with the sense of might that 2,000 lbs of metal conferes.

    And talking about emergency vehicles. Yesterday firehall no. 7 had to send a couple of vehicles across Robson. Critical mass stopped and the emergency vehicles flowed. After CM I rode to the fire hall on Thurlow and asked the batallion chief if they have ever been stopped or delayed by a CM ride, he said “no” and he said when it came down to it, car traffic is far worse to get through as the car traffic can’t simply part the same way a crowd of cyclists or pedestrians can.

    I had my Handycam rolling for much of the ridre and I’ll be posting the videos ASAP. It was really a festive event and very enjoyable.

    Ta-ta for now

  34. bobbie says

    First thing Blissfulgirl, a private automobile is not an emergency vehicle. So to say that the CM ride blocked an emergency vehicle is stretching it a bit, don’t you think.
    Blissfulgirl, if someone is having a medical emergency that last thing you do is rush them to a hospital. You call 911 and have an emergency crew sent out.
    I have severe allergies to shell fish and tree nuts. My doctor will not prescribe an epi-pen. Why not? Because I live in an area well served by ambulance services.
    An epi pen will not intubate me if the reaction is to severe nor will it perform CPR if I go into cardiac arrest due to the attack.
    My doctor will and has prescribed me an epi pen for when I go up north, where the chance of me eating a trigger is small but the chance of more than a ten minute wait for an ambulance is even better.

    Look at it this way. What would the person driving the other person to the hospital have done if the stung person started going into convulsions or started having severe difficulty breathing? Drove faster?
    If this person was stuck on the other side of the fireworks or the pride parade then what?
    This person would have done much better if the went to a ‘medical clinic’ as there is no gaurantee that St. Pauls would have been able to admit this person. They can only admit what they have room for. Only an ambulance would have had this info right from the start.
    That’s why for some ambulance calls, some go to VGH and some even end up going out to UBC. Lucky the person driving the bee sting victim didn’t drive them to Mount St. Joesephs. That emerg closes at 19:00 every night.

    And finally, you mentioned that there are police stationed at Nelson and Denman to help emergency vehicles through. Well, I just happened to be at Nelson and Denman filming cars forcing their way through the massive crowds when their green lights came on because they thoguht the crowd would stop for the red light on Denman. Not a single cop to be seen. And yes, I will be posting the videos shortly. One of the videos even features a fire truck start it lights flashing at Nelson and Guilford, but it was stuck because the cars infront of it had no where to go. The cars had doubled up on nelson. The fire truck eventually made it through, but then the jerks in the cars followed it through the intersection (completely illegal). Not a single cop to be seen for blocks.

  35. BlissfulGirl says

    bobbie a few things …

    1.) I did not say an emergency vehicle had been blocked during this ride. I posted a link to someone else – not me – who told their story about being blocked during their own medical emergency.

    2.) Of course I would call 911 if there was an emergency. I never suggested I wouldn’t. I don’t know the circumstances behind why that person did not call 911. I don’t even know if they didn’t call ahead. Maybe they did. Who knows. They really should have, but I don’t know them personally and don’t know their whole story.

    3.) This is not a discussion about how well emergency vehicles can or cannot navigate crowds at various events – at least not for me. I related my own personal experience of having witnessed with my own eyes the delay that a crowd can cause. It doesn’t really matter what type of crowd it is (pedestrians, motorists or cyclists) they all have the potential to cause these types of delays and they all do cause these types of delays. Critical Mass is no exception.

    bobbie you obviously have a very strong opinion about Critical Mass and I respect that. Lots of people (many of my friends included and even me twice) have ridden in it. I disagree that it is a useful approach on a monthly basis to ride in this way as well as being really concerned about the few riders who chose to be overly antagonistic to both pedestrians and motorists and so I stopped participating. I do not believe it moves the “better conditions for cyclists” and “getting more people cycling” agendas forward. My personal experience with Critical Mass was that there is a small but very vocal and determined group of cyclists who antagonize and attack anyone who disagrees with their almost anarchistic approach Critical Mass approach here in Vancouver which gives the concept of critical Mass a black eye. Not all communities where Critical Mass occurs have the same problem. In Budapest they only hold the Critical Mass ride twice a year rather than monthly and they have had up to 80,000 people participate (although I think the average participation is around 30,000). They have a far greater impact because of this far higher rate of participation and there is a lot of speculation that the participation is so high simply because it is not a monthly event. They also have a predetermined route because their ride is so large and that allows people in the area to take the ride into account when planning their activities on ride days. I personally don’t think Critical Mass should be disbanded entirely in Vancouver, but rather it needs to be modified. It is effectively a victim of its own success. It now creates more antagonism toward cyclists than good will which sort of defeats the purpose and probably endangers cyclists more. My opinion is that there is a better way to promote cycling and a more car-free environment – it involves working together toward realistic goals to make our communities more bike and pedestrian friendly, educating all those involved (pedestrians, cyclists & motorists) and holding all of them all accountable when they cause problems by breaking traffic laws. Critical Mass does not bring all aspects of our communities together to create a good alternative – it seems to antagonize and alienate us from one another effectively disrupting and slowing down the solutions that we could potentially come to together.

  36. Morten says

    I don’t think people fully realize how well thought through your opinions are Raul. And I applaud you for putting them out there because they are not popular ones. Over the years I’ve been involved with a multitude of political and non governmental organizations and movements and I can tell you from experience that you are right on the money with your criticisms.

    The problem with these movements is that they – almost by default – have an anarchistic (or as they would like to call it “decentralized” or “grassroots” organizational structure). For this reason there is no cohesive goal nor strategy and this leads to a messy approach with lots of noise and little impact. As the Secretary of Education in Norway told me some years ago: “Two well spoken people with a plan showing up at my office have far more impact than 10,000 angry students marching in the streets.”

    The problem with this reality is that it goes against what the people involved in these organizations believe in. The very foundation of these movements is the decentralized and grassroots approach and without it few would join. As a result those who do join has a built in aversion toward any type of leadership based in the utopian and unrealistic notion that the masses are better equipped to do the right thing than people in power. It’s a nice thought but fundamentally flawed because most people are not equipped to actually make decisions that are for the betterment of everyone – in the end we are all pretty selfish!

    Boiled down to the bones Critical Mass is actually a massive manifestation of collective selfishness: The thought that just because you feel your mode of transportation is better than another does not give you the right to shove it down the throats of everyone else. And it definitely does not give you the right to prevent other people from living their lives, even if it is just for a couple of hours. In reality what Critical Mass and movements like it are doing is no different from what they claim those they demonstrate against are doing, and it doesn’t work.

    Imagine if all these people had come together to mount a proper campaign to make Granville and Robson streets pedestrians only – if they had come together to form a cohesive group with proper leadership, an agreed upon strategy, a marketing campaign and lobbyists. That would actually make an impact and would quite possibly lead to actual tangible results. But this type of strategy goes against the very nature of these movements because deep down it’s mostly about the protest and not really about the cause.

    If it was safe, I would bike to work every day. But it’s not so I don’t. I take the SkyTrain. Even so I refuse to support Critical Mass simply because what they do is counter productive. If you want a better world for cyclists you need to use the established channels to get it, not try to force it with stupid stunts. Right now you reap nothing but contempt.

    I can only hope that people read your article and realize that there are better ways of changing the world. Raul, you deserve a standing ovation!

  37. Janis says

    Here is a view of their meeting place at Vancouver Art Gallery. The 360 angle view of that place gives an idea of how many people are meeting up there.

  38. Rodger Levesque says

    There is a major bias or false foundation in all the arguments against CM here. (except Morten who doesn’t express the bias at all. He clearly sees our reality.)

    I’m talking about the uncritical acceptance of a democratic society.

    Raul starts with this statement: “One of the most powerful manifestations of a democratic society is the ability of citizens to raise their voices wanting to be heard on policy issues.”

    Is this really one of a democratic society’s most powerful manifestations? That’s it? …the ability to raise your voice wanting to be heard? How do you define democracy? How do you define what is not? One problem with empirical research lies in its inability to discover the unrealized possible. I’d contend that democracy is a Utopian notion worth creating, and that the society in which we’ve found ourselves (selves created and socialized, prior to that discovery (I’m just saying..)) is not democratic.

    It, that we don’t live democratically, comes through in what Victoria writes: “I’m fully for having mobility options versus vehicle usage, but when mobs like Critical Mass take to the streets it seems that far fewer influential ears are prepared to actually listen to our cry.” We live in a society where a larger number of bodies are classed ‘mobs’ and where a lesser number of bodies are classed ‘influential’. And it is through obedience to this smaller influential class that our cries will be answered. This is not democratic, but pastoral society.

    The expression of desire by the multitude in a pastoral society will logically lead to conflict. but Victoria writes: “Critical Mass has no place in civilized, logical protest.” And in a confused society, one that names things what they are not, maybe protest can be civilized, whatever that means to you, but in our world, where civilization is an imposition, sometimes called colonization, and to be civilized is to be obedient, protest can never be that.

    The society in which we’ve found ourselves and its institutions are not democratic. (Morten gives a good example to show this. And then he writes: “the utopian and unrealistic notion that the masses are better equipped to do the right thing than people in power. (sometimes called democracy!) It’s a nice thought but fundamentally flawed because most people are not equipped to actually make decisions that are for the betterment of everyone – in the end we are all pretty selfish!” Morten doesn’t believe in the possibility of democracy!!) That we believe society and it’s institutions to be democratic confuses our perception of nascent democratic (self-determining) practices like Critical Mass. Do you know what democracy looks like?

  39. Raul Pacheco-Vega says

    @ Rodger – I may be idealistic in believing that we live in a democratic society (and raising our voice is only one of the manifestations of democracy – tyranny would certainly negate any manifestation). I’m open to hearing how YOU define democracy. I can certainly see how democracy can be a concept like sustainability (which I have indicated is a Utopian goal – nothing is fully sustainable, we only can aim to reach sustainability.

    I don’t think I have expressed any bias, quite frankly. Perhaps my idealistic notion that Canada is a democratic society may be wrong. Perhaps you’re right and we are only moving in the direction of democracy but we are not there yet. I’m open to being convinced.

  40. Rodger Levesque says

    Riding in Critical Mass I feel democratic.

    I’d define democracy, like sustainability, not as a concept, but as a practice. I also see the Critical Mass ride as a democratic practice/act. This democratic practice has been called “illegal” and a “criminal act” by the monopoly capitalist media in Vancouver (see and ) What researcher of social movements would miss the trend towards the criminalization of dissent? (And in the history of social movements tyranny hasn’t quieted democratic voices. Voices don’t cry out to be heard because some form of government allows it. And if it is grudgingly “allowed” today it is only because we cannot be stopped.)

    Are you open to being convinced of your bias, or that we do not live in a democratic society? If you define democracy as rule by anyone or everyone, then the descriptions of our society by Morten and Victoria showing us (the mob) being ruled by the few should be enough to convince you that we are not ruled/governed democratically. What’s interesting is that both Morten and Victoria are opposed to Critical Mass in much the same way, but Morten clearly opposes democracy in favor of a rule by those in power (the entitled few) while Victoria sees the same thing, the same way and understands it as democracy.

    I wonder if I could convince you of your bias… I also called it a false foundation. I could also call it a presupposition. If you desired a democratic society, that would be idealistic. Believing that we live in a democracy is false, not idealistic. A false belief, is paradigm shifting, and a bias is clearly expressed in your conclusion: “I asked online – “when is the tipping point? when does disruption become unruly social order?”. I think Critical Mass creators and their proponents should re-think this and their strategies. A democratic society is a collaborative society, not a confrontational one.” Raul, you show a bias toward social order, an order you falsely believe to be a democratic society. Our contemporary social order is heavily mediated by money and power. It is exclusive, unequal, and hierarchical. In our society where the titled expect compliance, the untitled voices/democratic voices can be nothing other than confrontational. If you re-think your foundational paradigm, that a collaborative society is a society of equals is a democratic society, not a confrontational one, you’ll hopefully recognize your error. We are not a society of equals and as such the political order of the day is confrontational. We must assert our voices, against an oligarchical regime of money and power who call us “illegal”. Our voices are untitled and deemed illegitimate. This regime must be confronted until every and any voice is legitimate, until democracy.


  41. Raul Pacheco-Vega says

    @ Rodger – not quite convinced but I think this discussion on democracy could be better had over beers at The Lamplighter 🙂 maybe after Media Democracy Day?

  42. bobbie says

    Rodger, I love you!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Critical Mass / Critical Mess « (we) Can Plan Vancouver linked to this post on July 30, 2009

    […] Pacheco has a really interesting post up about the same topic – I encourage you to read it! Click Here. *** Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Critical Mass Bikers Rule the […]

  2. From Critical Mass to Critical Manners linked to this post on July 31, 2009

    […] and eat plenty of ice cream. If you are interested in my actual thoughts on the event, I left a comment at Raul’s blog that sums it up […]

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