By Gail Marlene Schwartz, a member of 350VT’s Writing for Climate Justice group
Here’s a mini-quiz: define the word “transportation.”
Pretty straightforward right? I thought so too, before learning about Critical Mass Bike Rides. Last Saturday’s celebration of biking in Montpelier, the first of three rides scheduled for this summer in Vermont, is helping complicate the answer, in a joyful and sustainable fashion.
Critical Mass veteran Dave Cohen, who helped plan last Saturday’s event, spoke about expanding transportation’s meaning at a gathering following the ride.
“The words ‘transportation’ and ‘metaphor’ have the some root meaning: ‘to carry over,’” he explained. “There are some metaphors that are really, really bad and others that can transform our experience and help to see the world with new eyes, ears, noses, tongues and skin organs. Same goes for transportation. I just think that the word could really be so much more sexy and meaningful if we gave it a bit more mindful significance other just than getting from point A to point B.”
Brattleboro’s next Critical Mass is Friday, June 28, followed by Burlington on Friday, July 26.
As I was reading Dave’s email Monday morning about the ride, I felt my own excitement build for Burlington’s Critical Mass, in which my 9-year-old son Alexi and I will participate. But before this month, I had never even heard of “Critical Mass.” If you had asked me what the term meant, I might have guessed that it was a weight requirement issued by the FDA.
In fact, a Critical Mass bike ride is an event in which a group of bikers ride en masse in a particular location, functionally taking over the streets. The first large-scale Critical Mass happened in San Francisco in 1992, and Dave Cohen was one of the 40-odd participants. The movement spread around the globe and activists in Vermont are catching the spirit.
I spoke with Dave before Montpelier about what it was like to be part of the early Critical Mass movement.
“It was interesting. The Internet existed but that was just starting up. Advocacy groups had planned the rides before Critical Mass, but Critical Mass came out of many ideas including outrage at the gulf war, but it was also very social, a time for catching up with friends, and it was fascinatingly anarchistic. We had something called the xerocracy, meaning nobody was in charge and anybody could come up with flyers and a route, which meant there were no leaders for police to find. It even became religious: people would ask, ‘Are you going to mass?’ And what was truly amazing was how the Critical Mass idea spread around the world from what was originally a gathering of 45 of us in San Francisco!”
Dave explained to me that when Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco came out against the ride in the late 1990s, participation tripled. To learn more, check out We Are Traffic!, a documentary by Ted White about San Francisco’s early Critical Mass story.
There have been thousands of riders in San Francisco with intensely political messages and strategies, drawing attention to the damage and destruction caused by automobile culture and showing that an alternative exists. Here in Vermont, the rides are also part of a larger effort to encourage and enable biking as transportation, one of many solutions to the climate crisis.
Sometimes described as a protest and other times a celebration, my sense when I spoke with planners is that the culture and tone of the Vermont rides is friendly and joyful.
“The Brattleboro ride is based on the ‘Kidical Mass’ mass model which was created by Shane MacRhodes, a friend I used to work with,” said Dave. Kidical Mass is a ride geared toward families and fun to encourage and celebrate biking.
Mother Up! Coordinator and 350Brattleboro Node Leader Abby Mnookin is part of the organizing team in Brattleboro, which launched the first of what will be monthly rides in May. The next ride will happen on Friday June 28th.
Abby told me a bit about Critical Mass’ history in Brattleboro. “Before May, we had been having Critical Mass rides periodically since last September. The first one corresponded with the international event, Rise for Climate, and we have more than 100 riders! There was so much enthusiasm, and we have a couple bike gurus in the area, so we decided to keep going.”
The ride last September was deliberately inclusive. “Some people walked and others did a different route. We met up at a common place for a rally and a speak-out,” Abby explained.
Although the rides weren’t happening monthly, they did happen, some even over the winter. “Even if there were 24 people, we did it. The goal is to have a minimum of 20, to make it feel like a critical mass. Ideally, if we can grow it, would have 50+ riders,” Abby said.
The events with more riders tend to coincide with larger actions around the country. Brattleboro is using monthly themes for their Critical Mass rides to draw attention to intersectionality. Abby said, “May was reproductive justice, to address the anti-abortion laws,” said Abby. Riders had signs or tee-shirts. June is LGBTQI+ Pride. We want it to be fun and festive, with rainbow colors and flags. There’s also a Pride Dance that night.”
Before the May event, the group joined with Campout for a Common Cause, where people camped out on the Brattleboro Common to bring attention to homelessness and housing insecurity.
According to Abby, feedback from the Brattleboro community about Critical Mass rides has been very positive. “People honk and wave. They cheer us on even if they aren’t riding. We had a few negative responses from cars but nothing big. Now that we’re doing it monthly, I’ll be curious to see if we’ll get pushback.”
Last Saturday’s event in Montpelier was also received positively. “Passing in front of the State House with some 80-odd riders and especially the kids that came along was so special,” said Dave. “I felt that the Statehouse building needed to experience us in that way, and I look forward to hearing about more rides in front of that golden dome, especially with legislators out there to witness the power of the Mass.”
Critical Mass presents a vision of the world where bikes, not cars, flood the streets. “Our children can’t even move freely because of the domination of this machine we’ve let loose. It’s like a drug: it forces everyone to dissociate from its impact on every creature not in a car.”
Interested in redefining your definition of transportation, or in just experiencing an exhilarating celebration of biking? Join Brattleboro’s Critical Mass on Friday June 28th or Burlington’s on Friday July 26th. Along with enjoying the ride and connecting with old and new friends, I’m hoping to get more information about an e-assist bike to continue reducing my dependency on cars. Let’s all join a Critical Mass of people creating solutions to the climate crisis!
Interested in the possibility of infusing your concept of transportation with sensory pleasure and meaning? Dave Cohen is also the founder of the organization VBike, whose goal is to shift culture towards bike shops as green mobility centers, and the bike as something we use for transportation rather than only recreation or fitness. VBike has a contract with the Vermont Department of Transportation (VTrans) to provide free consultations for Vermonters to get onboard with the new bike designs and technologies, like e-assist and cargo bikes, to help Vermont become a leader in practical and fun transportation solutions. Check out their website for more information!