The Columbus Critical Mass bike ride on the last Friday of each month usually includes no more than 50 cyclists. But yesterday participants from the Bike!Bike! 2014 international conference at the Third Hand Bicycle Co-op swelled the ranks of Critical Mass to well over 200.
Critical Mass rides take place in over 300 cities around the world. The first Critical Mass ride took place in 1992 in San Francisco to draw attention to how unfriendly the city was to cyclists.
The Critical Mass Columbus page describes the movement as "dedicated to increasing the awareness of bicycles on our streets and their use as an alternative form of transportation. Basically, it's a method of demanding rights and safety for cyclists, and hopefully opening people's eyes to society's dependency on the environmentally destructive use of internal combustion vehicles (cars)."
The organizational structure of Critical Mass is non-hierarchical. There are no leaders or formalized agendas, so there is not a consensus in the movement as to its purpose, beyond using non-violent direct action to raise awareness of cycling as sustainable transportation, and providing safety in numbers to cyclists. The only practical requirement for a ride is to have a group of riders with enough density ("critical mass") to occupy a piece of road to the exclusion of motorized vehicles.
The leaderless structure and spontaneity of Critical Mass help it to avoid clampdown from local authorities. In Columbus, the route is different every month, chosen by consensus as the ride progresses.
Some practices of Critical Mass have generated controversy and public opposition, in particular the tactic known as corking, when a few riders block traffic so that the mass of riders can proceed through red lights as a cohesive group. In cities where Critical Mass riders number in the thousands, corking is the only way the ride can proceed en masse without an official route or sanction. But some in the cycling community have argued that the subversive nature of Critical Mass may undermine public support for cycling.
Yesterday's ride in Columbus was about six miles — from the Ohio Statehouse to Lane Avenue on the OSU campus, back downtown, and ending with a buffet dinner at Franklinton Cycle Works on West Broad Street. There was a lot of corking along the route.
Columbus police intercepted the ride near the end. They told organizers that they must get a city permit and notify the police if they plan to block traffic again. Critical Mass riders typically don't notify the police or ask for permission.
On Sunday at 3 p.m. participants in the Bike!Bike! conference will join a ride for fair food from Third Hand Bicycle Co-op, 979 East 5th Avenue to two Wendy's locations to urge the fast food chain to join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Fair Food Program. Everyone is welcome to join the ride.