By Jesse D. Palmer
Let me start by saying that I love to ride my bike. When I think about the climate crisis — that human extinction is now on the line if humans don’t immediately and dramatically decarbonize and otherwise reduce our foot print — one of the first things I think the universe will miss if humans go extinct is the bicycle. Bikes could be the greatest human invention — simple, efficient, powerful and yet still fun, humble and human scale. Our technology may be the thing that destroys our species, but bikes are one of the tools that empower individuals and communities and free us to reach our full potential.
So it is fitting that bikes have a role in the grassroots resistance that is building against sleepwalking off a climate cliff. We have run out of time waiting for governments and corporations to decarbonize. If humans stay on our current unsustainable course — where everything we do day-to-day degrades the earth — we’ll soon cross climate tipping points, and rapid ecological change will be out of our hands. There’s a slim chance that if we quickly reverse ecological damage, we can save ourselves, and what’s lacking is massive political, cultural and social will. We need urgency, speed and collective action. The price of inaction must be constant and overwhelming resistance and disorder in the streets.
The Friday For Future student climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg is just the type of disruptive action that can help as it expands and diversifies so that it’s not just students but everyone refusing to sit idly by while our house is on fire.
One small piece of raising the cost of climate inaction could be rush hour mass bike rides — a fun and legal way to tie up traffic and block business as usual with a clear message: if you keep destroying the world, we’ll shut you down. In California and most other places it is legal to ride your bike on the street, but because bikes are slower than cars, just a small group of legally moving bikes function like a mobile freeway accident. Traffic is already stressed at rush hour and a small hiccup can tie up the commute big time.
In the 1990s I was involved in huge Critical Mass bike rides that happened Friday nights during rush hour. They weren’t (and aren’t) protests — CM has no demands, no leaders and no meetings. Because big bike rides are so disruptive and because just daring to ride a bike in a car dominated world puts you so far outside the mainstream and at odds with the powers that be, Critical Mass at its heyday was more effective than any protest bike advocates could have organized.
Riding your bike with a big leaderless group is fun. Not knowing who is in charge or what is going to happen next is a rare experience in our pre-programmed lives. Humans yearn for excitement, spontaneity, and the sense of community that exists on a CM ride when everyone can talk to anyone and individuals takes responsibility for the whole. Rides have music and costumes and a few simple tips help make it work: the people in front shouldn’t ride so fast that it gets spread out and cars get into the mass. If you’re in front its up to you to select a good route to avoid going in circles.
Some bike advocates hate Critical Mass because it is unruly and can antagonize drivers, cops and city officials. But chaos works — there’s plenty of reason to credit CM in the 1990s and early 2000s with increasing pressure to improve bike infrastructure.
Around the Bay Area, Critical Mass still exists in San Francisco on the last Friday of each month at 6 at Justin Herman Plaza. But it has dwindled in numbers and social weight and no longer exists at all in many other cities. Locally, CM has mostly been replaced with Bike Party: huge, fun and diverse bike rides that happen well after rush hour, on a pre-planned route, with rules of conduct and a division of labor between leaders and participants. I get that Bike Party is organized to avoid disruption and conflict with cars so it can be just a fun bike ride, and that’s fine.
But its really time to reclaim Critical Mass or better yet, something with a new name that uses the basic tactic of a rush hour, mass disruptive ride, but goes beyond CM’s (reasonable) refusal to unify around an articulate political goal other than “we like to ride our bikes” and “bikes are good.”
Bikes are good and it’s great that there are better bike lanes and bike parking some places. In the 1990s, us “critical massholes” were aware of climate change but it wasn’t clear that it was an existential threat. It wasn’t clear that no matter how bike friendly cities might get, there’s no bike commuting on a dead planet.
Do we call it Friday Bike for Future or Climate Mass or is there a better name you can think up? Climate bike rides can be a leaderless movement but with a clear political message: massive action is needed to decarbonize and the status quo is unacceptable.
Protest tactics that are also fun and that build community are win-win-win situations — they help avoid burnout because they add joy as opposed to actions that feel like a grim, boring duty. To really increase political pressure, movements need to grow exponentially and be infectious by self-creating their own energy and having tactics that automatically attract new members.
Right now youth-led groups like the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion and others are figuring out how to raise the stakes. Many of these activists weren’t born during CM’s heyday so its useful to share tactics that worked.
During street protests groups often get pushed onto the sidewalk or to a less visible location by police — largely to avoid disrupting traffic. A bike contingent with just a few dozen people can out-flank police lines. Bike groups are mobile, swift and so long as they are moving in traffic they’re usually legal.
It all goes back to bikes being special. When you ride you’re almost flying, you’re in balance. Bikes don’t need a sign. Emissions-free, healthy, and joyful is part of a future worth having, or at least worth struggling for.