Critical Mass Starts Sixth Year with Average-size Ride

On April 28, around twenty-five people participated in the first Grand Rapids Critical Mass ride of the year. Critical Mass–a monthly mass bike ride–has been hosting monthly rides during the warmer months of the year since 2006. The ride, which has been held consistently for several years, is facing several questions about its future–both in terms of the particulars of the actual ride as well as its long-term goals.

Last week Friday, Critical Mass—a monthly “mass” bike ride—held the first ride of the year. The ride was attended by about twenty to twenty-five people, a number that has become fairly consistent in Grand Rapids, as the ride has generally had between 25 and 35 participants. The ride itself was fairly non-eventful with no reports of aggressive drivers and no harassment from the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) allowing the Mass to travel through downtown and the Westside of Grand Rapids for an hour with ease.

Critical Mass Grand Rapids is now in its sixth year, with the first ride being held back in June of 2000 and rides occurring fairly consistently throughout the past few years on the last Friday of every month. While its consistency is noteworthy in a town that generally has a history of short-lived political projects, for example Food Not Bombs in the late 1990s and in 2005, Critical Mass’s consistency also threatens to border on stagnation as the ride continues to attract a small group of people given the comparatively large population of the Grand Rapids metropolitan area. However, many of the people attending the ride typically show up for a year or two and then stop coming because they move out of the area, creating a situation in which the ride lacks continuity.

Back in 2002 some participants in Critical Mass, who were generally frustrated with the ride’s lack of direction, did attempt to use Critical Mass as a means of improving conditions for bike commuters and urban recreational cyclists in Grand Rapids. Organizers produced a video on biking in Grand Rapids featuring interviews with Critical Mass participants and other cyclists so that there would be some documentation of their experiences—good and bad—in using bikes as transportation. The video was passed along to various planning entities and following a City Commission meeting at which several Critical Mass participants demanded that the City of Grand Rapids spend more money on bike lanes, the group of cyclists was granted a seat on a committee dealing with bicycle issues in Grand Rapids. While the committee focused most of its attention on extending recreational trails such as Kent Trails and participants did succeed in gaining a minor degree of potential influence over bike policy, participants on the panel quickly became frustrated with the lack of progress on bike lanes and stopped attending the meetings. However, in light of the new “cool cities” initiative, some current and past Critical Mass participants have informally stated that they believe building a “bike friendly” with bike lanes and more bike racks may be an achievable goal that Critical Mass could be involved with in order to avoid the current level of stagnation.

Of course, such an involvement is complicated by the fact that Critical Mass Grand Rapids—following both police harassment involving the targeting of perceived “leaders” and the emergence of such “leaders”—has made a conscious effort to become as decentralized as possible, making it largely impossible to make collective decisions. The lack of a system for making decisions has also already been a problem this year, with several participants expressing frustration as to whether or not the group should obey traffic lights and whether or not the group should ride two abreast as specified via Michigan law. The traffic light question, which has in the past been handled on the fly by the people in the ride, generally revolves around the question of whether or not the ride should proceed through a red light if the first half of the group has already made it through the light in order to avoid the potentially more dangerous situation of being split into two small groups while the question of riding two abreast is largely irrelevant as Grand Rapids has a city ordinance that requires cyclists to ride single-file. In the past meetings have been scheduled to try to come to some consensus on these and other issues facing Critical Mass, but they have typically been attended only by two or three people and consequently lacked the participation to make decisions collectively.

Moreover, the ride has also suffered in terms of outreach of the past few yeas. While the situation has improved so that a number of different people are putting up flyers around town, the outreach still lacks coordination and seems to outside observers to be fairly haphazard with posters attached to telephone and utility poles but few attempts to reach cyclists directly. In the past, some members of Critical Mass have put up flyers at area bike stores and worked to form relationships with environmental groups, and while the successes of such efforts were mixed, they have not been pursued for several years. Moreover, there has never consistently been outreach during the ride—aside from a few rides in which participants affixed signs to their backs or wore Critical Mass t-shirts, there has been little effort to explain the purpose of the ride to motorists and others. When people have asked about the ride, there has been little time to give an adequate response. In other cities, Critical Mass participants frequently distribute leaflets explaining the ride to motorists stopped in traffic and, based on experiences in a couple of cities, generally do a better job of explaining the purpose of the ride.

In response to some of these issues, some participants have expressed interest in holding a meeting to discuss ways in which the ride could be improved. People interested in participating in a meeting are encouraged to send an email to cmassgr ( at ) For more information on Critical Mass, visit the Grand Rapids Critical Mass website.

Critical Mass Takes the Streets of Grand Rapids

Reprinted from The Rant (October 2002)

On September 27th, a boisterous crowd of forty cyclists took to the streets of downtown Grand Rapids. As they rode through town they enthusiastically shouted slogans such as “no blood for oil,” “we want bike lanes,” and “consider the earth, ride a bike.” The monthly bike ride celebrates pollution-free transportation, advocates cycle awareness, and draws attention to the fact that bicycles are viable modes of transportation in the city. Critical Mass rides have been organized in Grand Rapids on the last Friday of each month for the past three years, as part of a decentralized movement in which simultaneous rides occur in over three hundred cities worldwide.

September’s ride was particularly noteworthy as it was the tenth anniversary of the first Critical Mass in San Francisco. In celebration of the ten-year anniversary, a book titled Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration was released featuring articles, essays, fliers, and photos from dozens of contributors from around the world documenting the movement’s history. Critical Mass was born out of a multiplicity of issues, among them concern for the environment, the need for bicycle lanes, the orientation of American society toward an impersonal “car culture,” and for simple celebration. Many Critical Mass participants ride bicycles as their primary mode of transportation and view the monthly mass bike rides as a way of showing that they exist and promoting driver awareness of bicycles. In major US cities such as San Francisco and Chicago, it is not unusual for Critical Mass rides to have over a thousand participants.

Realizing that mass bike rides are not going to bring about change, a coordinated effort has emerged out of the Grand Rapids’ Critical Mass to make the city’s transportation policy more inclusive of cyclists’ needs. In the summer of 2001, work began on a bicycle advocacy video designed to share cyclists’ experiences biking in the Grand Rapids area. The video features voices from dozens of cyclists explaining the need for bike lanes and bicycle friendly transportation policies. Recently local activists attended a city council meeting and spoke about the need for bike lanes in Grand Rapids. They cited the fact that many cities of comparable size have bike lanes and that bike lanes increase the number of cyclists thereby reducing traffic congestion in the city.

In a continuation of this campaign there will be a public screening of the bicycle advocacy video on Tuesday November 12th. The screening will be held at 6pm at 207 E. Fulton St. After the video screening cyclists will be attending the City Commissioners meeting to advocate for bike lanes and other cycling issues.

The next Critical Mass ride will be on October 25th at 5:30pm. Cyclists will meet at Veteran’s Park at the corner of Fulton and Sheldon in downtown Grand Rapids. In response to the increasingly likely war in Iraq this ride will be based around the theme “No Blood for Oil!,” highlighting the role oil plays in current US foreign policy and the how individual transportation decisions create demand for oil. It is also the annual Halloween ride and participants are encouraged to wear costumes. If you would like more information about Grand Rapids’ Critical Mass, you can email to be added to the mailing list.