Rights of Passage

Critical Mass is sending the city a message: the revolution will not be motorized.

By Michael Glab

Michael won’t tell me his last name; in fact Michael may not even be his first name. He says he doesn’t want the police knocking on his door in the middle of the night. “If you look back at the history of Chicago, you’ll see a lot of examples of the police being overly zealous about things,” he says. “We live in a society that some might describe as a police state. Whenever you’re doing something out of the ordinary, you’re taking chances.”

Certainly Michael’s preferred mode of transportation is out of the ordinary–he travels by bike. Were he a resident of Canton or Kuala Lumpur, this wouldn’t be unusual. But here in Chicago, pedaling regularly on busy streets makes him a revolutionary, and along with a few hundred fellow bikers, Michael hopes to send the city a message: the revolution will not be motorized. As part of a worldwide phenomenon called Critical Mass, hundreds of bikers will gather this Friday at 5:30 PM in the Daley Center plaza to take a leisurely ride through downtown streets at the height of rush hour.

The bikers hope that their demonstration will become a monthly ritual and that these actions will eventually allow them to claim a slice of the pavement as their own. Michael, for one, is tired of being harassed by drivers. “Yesterday someone in a car actually swerved in my direction, trying to intimidate me,” he says. “I have to deal with that a lot. It’s very stressful. And then two or three times a month I come within inches of being doored. When you’re cycling, passing cars give you maybe five or six feet of room. The problem is if there are parked cars, someone might swing a door open and you have three seconds–less really–to stop or run into the door, probably flip over it, and maybe break your back. My brother in San Francisco was doored not too long ago, and he was in the hospital for a few days. So I ride out a little in the traffic lane. But the cars feel like you’re taking up too much of the road. You’ll get honks. You’ll get catcalls. The cars feel like they own the road.

“When a few hundred of us get together, it’s a totally different feeling. It’s not like the cars own the road anymore; it’s the cyclists owning the road. We’re just turning the tables a little bit, making people think about why they’re in their cars and we’re riding bikes.”

The first Critical Mass demonstration took place five years ago in San Francisco, and this past July some 5,000 Bay Area bikers snarled downtown rush-hour traffic, leading to frayed tempers, cold dinners, and a few dozen arrests. Bike rallies have been held in Seattle, Minneapolis, Ann Arbor, Phoenix, Portland, Boston, London, Sydney, and Bergen, Norway. At Chicago’s first Critical Mass, held Friday, September 5, about 200 riders gathered under the Picasso, reveled in their numbers, and headed east on Washington to State, where they hung a right toward Jackson. They took Jackson west to LaSalle and then rode north. The massed bikers eventually got on Milwaukee Avenue and pedaled to the intersection of Milwaukee, North, and Damen, where, not so coincidentally, the streets were filled with patrons of Around the Coyote and a few TV minicam vans. The bikers took over the busy six-cornered intersection for about five minutes–a “holdup”–waving placards, sounding horns and bells, and lifting their bikes over their heads.

“It’s a very empowering thing,” says Michael. “It was a celebratory thing too. The reaction of the drivers was mostly positive, because it was like Mardi Gras.”

Michael could be described as an organizer but disdains the term; he’s hard-pressed to state Critical Mass’s manifesto. “It’s not an official meeting. It’s not a parade. It’s just a coincidental convergence of bike riders. It’s just people who happen to get together to go on a bike ride.” The movement has no officials or leaders. Word gets around through a grapevine of coffeehouses, bike shops, bars, and other meeting places for commuters, athletes, and hobbyists. “No one’s trying to lead this thing.” Nevertheless, Critical Mass flyers have been popping up all over town, especially along the city’s main bike routes and its diagonal streets–Milwaukee, Elston, Clark, Broadway. “We’re creating a culture here called a xerocracy. People circulate flyers. Others xerox route maps.”

Chicago bikers tried several times to organize Critical Mass rallies before September, but each attempt drew only a few dozen riders. According to Michael the police bullied the sparse turnouts, making several arrests each time. But once Critical Mass makes good on its name, traffic is affected, passersby take notice, and the police are nearly powerless to stop the wave of riders. “That’s why the one last month was billed as the first Critical Mass for Chicago,” Michael says. “Accordingly, the police were very cooperative. They actually blocked off traffic for us–which we didn’t ask them to do. We have people that carry signs saying, ‘Sorry for the delay–Critical Mass–Next time ride a bike.'”

The bikers aren’t interested in making formal arrangements with the city. That’s another reason why Michael, a developer of low-income housing who lives in Wicker Park, is cagey about revealing his identity. “In other cities where this has taken off, the police and officials are trying to find who the leaders are. They want to negotiate things. We don’t want to do that; we just want to ride our bikes.” Even so, Michael is pleased that Mayor Daley is a frequent biker (not on the streets of his city, but around his cottage in Michigan). “There are a lot of really good things that have gone on in this city for bikers,” Michael says. “There are bike lanes now. Bike racks are up all over. These are moves in the right direction. But cars don’t universally respect the bike lanes, and there’s no police enforcement. And I’m not so happy they’re keeping bike racks off State Street. Also, they’ve redone the parking meters on Clark Street near Wrigley Field and elsewhere, so you can’t get a Kryptonite lock around them. I hope these rides will raise the awareness of policy makers and the public so maybe these things are taken into consideration.”

Subsequent Critical Mass rides are planned for the first Friday of every month. Michael says their main point is to raise people’s consciousness of bicycles as a viable means of getting around. “I bike everywhere. I have a car but I drive it two or three times a month. I’d much rather bike because it’s much more efficient. It’s a better way to get around, better for your health and better for the environment. One of the reasons I participate in Critical Mass is to emphasize bicycles as an alternative transportation. Others get involved because of the confrontations bicyclists have with drivers.” Despite their varied agendas, the bikers make a statement simply by letting their numbers be known. “It’s really exciting when you’re with 200 or 300 other cyclists; there’s this feeling of solidarity. It’s a positive thing.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.