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What Was Portland Critical Mass?

A recent article on Bike Portland and the re-release of a Critical Mass video featuring Portland mayoral candidate Charlie Hales has Critical Mass on my mind a lot lately. The mere words Critical Mass can cause a lot of excitement in people, often rather angry-negative, though at times excitement with a positive fervor – a desire to get together and ride bikes.

Either way, Critical Mass had a very positive influence on Portland, just not necessarily in the ways the founders and riders anticipated.

And that is okay.

I don’t love how Critical Mass ended in Portland

(many people stopped going for fear of being ticketed), but I do feel it served us well and faded out at a time when it was no longer necessary. We’re beyond Critical Mass. We would not be where we are today without it. Critical Mass gave Portland bikers a place to gather and meet and brainstorm, plan, revolutionize.

And then other projects started happening and Critical Mass lost its effectiveness.

Some people call CM a protest against cars, which I’ve always found to be ridiculously negative approach.

I prefer to celebrate bikes and liked to think of CM that way. But I don’t think we successfully motivated drivers to get out of their cars and onto bikes. Blocking them during rush hour, eh, not an effective way to inspire someone.

But all the events we have these days, perhaps most notably Pedalpalooza, are fantastic ways to get people excited about riding bikes. Accessible, fun, welcoming, positive. That’s a perfect way to incite change, to inspire. Fun on bikes! Who doesn’t love fun?

Critical Mass gave us a chance to meet each other, rally around our cause, and grow to where we are today.

It was absolutely essential to Portland’s bike growth and is a useful “new bike culture” tool other places can still take advantage of, but we have outgrown its usefulness.

Did CM (directly) achieve the goal of promoting the use of bikes? Maybe a little. Does that matter? Not really. The resulting projects of Shift, BikeSummer, mimbikesummer, pedalpalooza, KBOO Bike Show, Portland Bike Club, more supported rides, etc etc etc (!) are what I view as the positive results of CM.

And now we need to move on to finding more and better ways to encourage people to be on bikes with us.

Seeing throngs of bikers vying for front position during evening rush how on Williams is admittedly annoying but certainly inspiring. Having so many people of all ages and body types on myriad styles of bikes is surely an effective way to motivate more people out of their cars.

Thank you to everyone who helped get us to where we are today.

Those of you who met with the mayor and the police to try to ease relations, who got ticketed, who introduced yourselves to each other and helped us form the projects we have today.

Let’s keep going; there’s way more fun to be had.


Background: I was a Critical Mass rider and advocate for many years, even going so far as to help get Critical Mass rides started in Champaign, Illinois.

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One Response to “What Was Portland Critical Mass?”
  1. xracerbob says:

    I always thought of the riders as a bunch of young punks who just wanted to get in the way of the cars to mess things up cause trouble get high off the rush or something. I like your tactic of looking at it from a historical context and that all makes sense to me now. I only got into it once and it was okay.

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