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Chicago's Critical Mass

Principle: You are never finished

By Meg MacIver

April, 2009

Just before dusk on the last Friday of every month, hundreds of cyclists converge into a dense pack and ride through Chicago’s streets.  Known as Critical Mass, this event is a hub for the city’s bike community and reminds everyone that two wheels should always have a place on streets dominated by four.

“During the Mass, the minority becomes the majority,” explained Nico West, a frequent Critical Mass participant. 

For some, “the ride is definitely a political thing,” explained Hadley Eblen, as she rode along with some of her friends.  “They ride because they say they want to ‘take back the streets’ from car traffic.”

Critical Mass happens once a month, but it is a call to rethink the way our streets ought to be used every day. “The event reflects what I understand to be the principles of good urban planning,” said Bobby Zacharias, a rider from Hyde Park. “Pedestrians come first, people-powered vehicles are second, and motors come third.”

As Placemaking Principle 11 suggests, “we are never finished” imagining the best and highest uses for our city’s public spaces.  As a unique meeting point for Chicago’s cyclists, Critical Mass also affirms that our streets, the most public places, are more than just avenues of passage; they also can be used for community gatherings.  The night is “a great way to experience bike culture,” said Gary Buchanan, a frequent rider.  “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you do – if you like bike riding, then we can share something.”

The ride begins when, at around 6 p.m., one of the hundreds of riders gathered in Daley Plaza sounds a trumpet.  A chorus of bike bells chirps back and within moments riders roll out into the surrounding streets, a jostling tangle of wheels, spandex and helmets.  Soon the mass is dense enough to block traffic, and cars must pause in place until the bikes roll past.

The rides generally last about three hours and follow a new route each month. Sometimes the course is set by the riders at the front of the pack, and sometimes independent groups come up with routes and print them on maps that are distributed before the ride gets going. 

Most participants don’t actually know where the path will lead and, as Zacharias pointed out, that’s part of the fun: “All of the times I’ve done the ride, I’ve never had any idea where it is going to end up and that doesn’t bother me at all.  I’m happy to follow the route to the end.”

Unlike many other social events of this scale happening in Chicago’s public spaces, Critical Mass has no significant operating costs. The only real infrastructure it needs – the city’s streets – has already been built.  Publicity isn’t an expense either since Critical Mass, which has been called an “organized coincidence,” is a monthly ritual.  Similar rides happen each month in over 300 cities throughout the world. News of the event spreads by word of mouth and the Critical Mass web site,  The police, too, know to expect the monthly ride and “are in cooperation with us,” said Gary Buchanan. “They ride along, sometimes the whole way.”

“We’re not here to be antagonistic,” said Nico West.  Political or not, riders like Eblen say their reasons for joining Critical Mass are simple and pure:  “I come back because I just love to ride.”