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Critical Mass Map

John Greenfield /

Critical Mass route proposals, like this one, are voted on by participants the day of the event, and can often change mid-ride.

Critical Mass pedals awareness, but bikers need to pump the brakes, critics say

by Alex E. Weaver
Jan 26, 2012

Critical Mass Corking

"Corking" is a technique used to block drivers from driving through the cyclists. It's intended as a safety precaution, but it's illegal.

Is it possible that a monthly cycling event, by way of its success, has become a hypocritical mass?

Hundreds of bicyclists will swarm downtown streets during peak rush hour Friday, all in the name of pedal-pusher awareness. But some experts say this traffic-snarling “party parade on wheels” does more to hurt its cause the bigger it gets.

“Illinois requires cars and bikes to share the road. Motorists often don’t get that,” said Brendan H. Kevenides, a Chicago attorney who focuses on bike-related accidents. “But Critical Mass is not sharing either. It is bikes taking over the streets in a sort of ‘in your face’ way.”

Critical Mass, in Chicago and worldwide, is intended to be a demonstration, a visual representation of how many bikers actually exist in any one place, tangible proof that bikes are traffic, too.

Though there is no formal hierarchy, no appointed leaders or official organizers, safety in numbers seems to be the favored vehicle of change for month after month of Critical Mass rides.

“It was definitely one of my first introductions to biking in the city and with a group of people where I felt safe,” said Julie Hochstadter, owner and director of, an online community for regional cyclists. “If anything, it is showing cars that there are a lot of cyclists in the city.”

Critical Mass pedals safer bike conditions by becoming a force of traffic itself, comprising a range of participants month to month, from as few as 100 in the cold winter months to well into the thousands when the weather warms.

Steven Lane has been involved with the ride as a participant and volunteer for the past 12 years. The September ride of 2007 – the event’s 10th anniversary in Chicago – saw more than 5,000 riders, according to Lane. This September will mark its 15th anniversary.

No matter how many riders turn out, the atmosphere is one of spontaneity and free will. The route isn’t decided until just before the first kickstand goes up and can often change mid-ride.

“That's the beauty of it,” Hochstadter said. “If you can convince people, anything can happen. There are no rules.”

According to some experts, this may also be its greatest undoing.

Illinois state law requires cyclists to adhere to the same traffic laws as cars, meaning stop signs and red lights hold the same weight whether you’re steering a Trek or a Toyota.

Promoting such awareness is one of the main charges for the Active Transportation Alliance, a Chicago nonprofit cycling advocacy organization. But the approach Critical Mass takes isn’t one they fully support.

“While we support the goals and spirit of Critical Mass, we can’t overlook breaking traffic laws that are designed to keep everyone on the streets safe,” said Ethan Spotts, marketing and communications director with the Active Transportation Alliance.

It’s a contradiction that has nipped at the wheels of Critical Mass for years. How can cyclists advocating safer streets and bicycle awareness choose to compromise the very rights they’ve worked so hard to earn?

“If they’re not obeying traffic laws, it is an issue,” said Steve Schlickman, executive director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Urban Transportation Center. “It can be counterproductive to other people’s attitudes towards bikers.”

The riders’ defense is that keeping the mass together requires running red lights, and a fractured group is less impactful than a consolidated one. But when the group grows too large, the effect on commuting traffic is palpable.

“Corking” refers to the technique of select riders blocking opposing traffic while the rest of the riders navigate an intersection. It’s a safety measure, but it can be confusing and annoying for motorists. It’s also illegal.

“It is an unlawful activity and the riders who position themselves in front of vehicles place themselves in a dangerous position,” said Lt. Maureen Biggane, commanding officer of Chicago Police News Affairs. “Our officers are directed when they observe this to instruct the rider to cease this activity and continue riding.”

Gin Kilgore, a local bicycle advocate said, “I like to compare it to a Cubs’ game or Bears’ game traffic … it’s part of the city culture. If we can deal with that, we can deal with Critical Mass.”

Instead of simply dealing with it, is there a way that non-cyclists can get the Critical Mass message without also being inconvenienced?

“[Cars] create rush hour every day,” Lane said. “We do this once a month.”