Historical Significance of Critical Mass

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A Brief Primer of Critical Mass in New York City and its Historical Significance

The bike ride that changed the whole city.

During the 1990’s, bicycling in NYC was extremely dangerous. Bike lanes were a rarity. Cyclists were largely invisible to motor vehicles and they had no voice in policy decisions. The number one complaint of cyclists was safety. In 1992, the first Critical Mass took place in San Francisco, inspiring the formation of the photo by Peter MeitzlerManhattan Critical Mass one year later, both with the premise that the best way to promote cycling visibility and safety was to ride together in a group. These monthly rides were safe and fun, and steadily, more new cyclists were attracted to Gotham’s streets and many gained the skills to become everyday cycling commuters. Around the world, Critical Mass became a successful leaderless phenomenon, and dozens, then hundreds of rides were established worldwide.

By early 2000, the New York City Critical Mass gained in popularity. Due to its celebratory spirit and safe community environment, the number of cyclists grew Bike Summer 2003 by Peter Meitzlerinto the thousands, all the while building a strong grassroots voice for non-polluting transportation. Riders of all types – messengers, weekend cyclists, families, bike commuters, novices and racers – gathered together the last Friday of every month, as they do in hundreds of cities around the globe, to celebrate the joys of urban cycling.

The cyclists’ collective frustration with the lack of safe bike infrastructure started to change as headway was being made by continuously putting pressure on the City for more bike lanes, bridge access and green infrastructure that most cities around the world already were enjoying.

Shortsightedly, in 2004, the NYPD suddenly, without warning or justification, attacked the Critical Mass riders with a vengeance. The NYPD, under Raymond Kelly’s command, tried everything from arrests, ticketing, undercover agitation, a lawsuit, and even going to the extreme of stealing locked bikes and other dangerous and unconstitutional tactics to squelch the burgeoning movement. The cyclists acted in solidarity and adopted slogans like “Still We Ride” and “Cycling is Not A Crime”. The NYPD’s harassment campaign toward Critical Mass resulted in global media embarrassment and a string of failures in court for the city.

In 2006 the Mayor released the PlaNYC 2030 for a ‘greater greener New York”. The cycling community’s determination to make positive change increased and their ability to negotiate with the city strengthened.

The tide began to turn, and soon after, Mayor Bloomberg appointed a new bike-savvy DOT Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, who has a powerful vision. New bike lanes were added everywhere and other ground-breaking improvements to the city’s bicycle infrastructure followed shortly thereafter.

Today NYC’s streets are a safer and better place to ride. Cyclists and pedestrians alike enjoy the benefits of this progressive vision. In fact, the very spot in Times Square where each month thousands of cyclists celebrated the exhilaration of Critical Mass by raising their bikes over their heads is now an auto-free zone.

Thank you, NYC Critical Mass riders who kept up the battle – because of your dedication to a cleaner, just and lovable city, New York is realizing its potential as truly bicycle-friendly city!

The Critical Mass is a positive celebration of what our streets could look like – and it has just done that.

CLICK HERE for NYC Historical Critical Mass Time-line through 2006

CLICK HERE for additional photos of past NYC Critical Mass rides

CLICK HERE for additional videos of past NYC Critical Mass rides