Critical Mass vs. Bike Party: leaderless doesn't mean disorganized

Berkeley’s Critical Mass bide ride – the leaderless bike parade that joins the evening commute on the second Friday of each month – turned 18 years old this spring and it is amazing how much conditions for cyclists have improved over those years. You see more and more people of all kinds, ages and purposes riding all kinds of bikes on East Bay streets. Berkeley and other cities have created networks of bicycle boulevards with improved crossings and safety features. There is more bike parking, although never enough to keep up with heavy demand from more cyclists.

And yet the Berkeley mass rides, which gather at 6 pm at Berkeley BART, are much smaller these days. The decline is in stark contrast to the rapid rise in popularity of the East Bay Bike Party – another group ride that starts two hours later on the same night as Critical Mass. While both rides appear similar from the outside, they are organized differently and their relative popularity points to the challenges facing non-hierarchical organizing.

Both rides seek to fill the streets with bikes to build community between cyclists and just for fun. But whereas Critical Mass is leaderless and provides a rare and dangerous opportunity to participate in on-the-fly group decision making which puts responsibility for the outcome of each event onto all of the participants, the Bike Party is a hierarchical exercise. Mirroring mainstream society’s division of people into managers or consumers, the Bike Party follows a pre-determined route published in advance on the internet. A team of organizers with bullhorns tell participants when to turn and enforce a “how we ride” list of rules: “stop at red lights” and “stay in the right lane” so auto traffic can pass.

The Bike Party stops at two or three pre-determined spots along the ride to dance and socialize while Critical Mass stops less, mostly if there is a problem. Both rides have bike trailers with sound systems blaring music and some level of bike decoration. The Bike Party has a theme each month. March was “The Big Lebowski.”

At the moment, people are voting with their peddles for the Bike Party organizing style. The Bike Party rides have been wildly successful and a lot of fun. The Bike Party has solved some of the key problems that have plagued Critical Mass for years: unnecessary and ugly confrontations with motorists that can make the ride feel more like a battle than a celebration, poor route decisions made on the fly by whoever ends up at the front of the ride, and the ride splitting apart because the people in front go too fast. Perhaps because the Bike Party is consistently fun and mellow, it seems more diverse to me in terms of age, race, and the type of cyclists who attend. You see cycle commuters, spandex weekend warriors, and most of all lots of hipsters.

Despite the things I like about the Bike Party, something is missing. The last ride I was on felt cold and anonymous – I noticed people weren’t talking to each other as much as on a Critical Mass ride, but instead were mostly in groups talking to the other people in the group they had come with. Because the ride is organized over the internet, it feels less organic, less like a real community, and more superficial. The vibe was familiar to many social situations – sort of passive and disengaged because someone else had taken responsibility for making the decisions in advance and all you had to do was go along.

Several times a big group rode along mostly in silence, not knowing what to say except when someone would yell, “bike party.” People kept yelling that – what does it really mean? It almost underlines the stubborn refusal of the Bike Party to mean anything, even though any big group of bikes riding in the street cannot avoid challenging auto domination, no matter how much the organizers want it to be non-disruptive to cars and “just fun.”

In contrast, riding in Critical Mass is always electrifying, participatory, spontaneous and social. Because no one is in charge and anyone can lead just by being at the front, debate between strangers to figure out what to do next breaks out at almost every intersection as well as back in the body of the ride. Having these discussions with strangers builds a sense of solidarity and shared responsibility for the ride. It feels like a community. Sometimes having responsibility and yet no actual control can be frustrating and exhausting – you don’t always get your way and you often feel like other people are making unfortunate decisions. Yet the process is engaging, raw and real. You never know what is going to happen next, which is a rare feeling for most of us. Not only does it feel out of the ordinary to fill the streets with bikes, it feels out of the ordinary to be in a large group making collective decisions.

The difference between the Bike Party and Critical Mass is like the difference between being in a boring, scripted peace march organized by ANSWER and running with the black bloc.

What does it mean for anti-authoritarians that one of the longest running regular leaderless public gatherings is declining, to be replaced by a managed, programmed, obedient bike parade?

Many people – including anti-authoritarians – are so used to being directed by leaders and bosses that when there is no boss, they act as if having no boss means “I should act the fool” rather than figuring out a way to act responsibly and cooperatively with others. The main problem with the Critical Mass rides – which has been successfully addressed by the Bike Party – is the tendency of a few hyper-macho hotheads to use the ride to work out their own anger issues. People don’t want to go on a bike ride that yells obscenities at every car, engages in dangerous moving violations and gets into fists fights.

Despite the flaws inherent in Critical Mass, it is worth going, working to revive it, and taking responsibility for making the ride more functional while you’re there. To build a world without bosses where we organize things on our own, we need more opportunities to practice. Many people are putting their energy into collective businesses, communal houses, and DIY projects which each give us chances to create our own realities with others. Group process while sitting in a meeting is a lot different and less intense than group process in a group of hundreds of people you don’t know while you’re moving over the pavement.

The psychological level of social transformation is key. The system hopes to keep us passive – in public schools, as employees, as passive viewers of concerts and sporting events, and as customers at malls and restaurants. And the system seeks to train some of us as managers. Are the Bike Party organizers falling into the trap? The counter-culture gives us too few chances to transcend our normal roles and practice something different.

Join San Francisco Critical Mass (which is still huge) the last Friday of each month at 6 pm at Justin Herman plaza (Embarcadero BART). Berkeley CM is the second Friday at Berkeley BART at 6. The East Bay Bike Party (fun and worth it) is the second Friday at 8 – check the website for location. There is also a San Francisco Bike Party (first Friday) and a San Jose Bike Party (third Friday) – I haven’t been to either yet. For info, or