By Jürgen Klute
Actually, the bicycle tours of the “Critical Mass” movement in Brussels take place on the last Friday of the month – since 1999. On 25 September 2022, however, there was an exception. On this day, there was a “Critical Mass” tour in Brussels on a Sunday for the first time. And the tour did not start at 6 p.m. at Place Trone, as usual, but at 2 p.m. at the Quadriga in Parc Cinquantenaire. And there was another special feature: Not only people from Brussels were invited this time, but cyclists from all over Belgium. In addition to Brussels, there are also “Critical Mass” activists in the cities of Aalst, Antwerp, Charleroi, Ghent, Namur, Leuven and Sint-Niklaas. From Parc Cinquantenaire, the tour first went towards the city centre and then along the canal to the Thurn und Taxis site. There, the tour ended with a small celebration – a birthday party, if you will: The “Critical Mass” movement turned 30 on this Sunday!
Exactly 30 years ago, on 25 September 1992, the very first “Critical Mass” bicycle tour took place in San Francisco. Within a few years, the “Critical Mass” movement has developed into a worldwide movement. There is no fixed organisation. But there are committed people who regularly call for bicycle tours. In the meantime, there is also an open source mobile phone app called “Critical Map”, which participants can use to exchange information and see where and how many people are taking part in “Critical Mass” around the world.
The Wikipedia article on “Critical Mass” describes the origins of the movement and the name as follows:
Critical Mass-like bike tours with hundreds of participants took place in Stockholm, Sweden in the early 1970s. But the first ride within the present wave took place on Friday, September 25, 1992, at 6 pm in San Francisco. At that time, the event was known as Commute Clot and was composed of a couple of dozen cyclists who had received flyers on Market Street.
Shortly after this, some participants in that ride went to a local bicycle shop for a screening of Ted White’s documentary Return of the Scorcher, about bike culture in the Netherlands and China in comparison with that of the United States. In that film, American human-powered vehicle and pedicab designer George Bliss noted that, in China, both motorists and bicyclists had an “understood” method of negotiating intersections without signals. Traffic would queue up at these intersections until the backlog reached a “critical mass”, at which point that mass would move through the intersection. This term from the footage of the movie, was applied to the name of the ride, and the name caught on, replacing “Commute Clot” by the time of the second event.
The first activists of the “Critical Mass” movement in San Francisco certainly did not think that they had initiated a movement that would one day span the entire globe and is still very much alive after 30 years. And that this movement can now boast successes. Sure, it took a lot of staying power. But it was an important step in the direction of the now ever stronger transformation of mobility: Brussels, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Copenhagen, Oslo, Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, Barcelona, Vitoria, etc. are cities that give pedestrians and cyclists more and safer space on the streets and that are pushing back car traffic step by step.