Sydney Critical Mass
Critical Mass Frequently Asked Questions
Last Updated: 4 May 2008
This document has been created for Sydney Critical Mass. It refers mainly to Sydney's conditions, but some of the text has been extracted from Critical Mass events elsewhere.
Critical Mass is an organised coincidence where large numbers of cyclists and roller bladers happen to ride in the same direction, at the same time, through city traffic.
Every participant rides in Critical Mass for their own reasons, and there are almost as many reasons as there are participants. However, some common reasons to ride are:
Having fun. (Seriously, would we keep turning up on the last Friday of every month if it wasn't!)
Meeting up with friends and making new ones.
Getting to enjoy bicycling/rollerblading/skateboarding on the smooth city roads, without the cars.
Showing off flashy and unusual bikes and clothes.
Being seen and vocal about creating a vision and experience of a possible future.
Networking with like minded people and organising similar activities.
Educating people about sustainable transport - cycling, roller blading, walking, public transport.
Show that all sustainable forms of transport can be used in the city, and that we need to sharing the road with each other.
Campaign for safe, use able cycling facilities.
To create a space that is Car-free in the centre of our city.
To reclaim the space street space for people
To encourage thought on Clean Air and healthier living.
The list goes on and on ... Turn up and ask some of the people
Nobody organises Critical Mass in the sense that they control the event - what happens at the ride is up to all the individuals. However, some individuals are usually more involved than others, in printing and distributing leaflets, organising press releases, thinking out the route, organising corkers. However, they only do the work, and don't have any authority over anybody else - their only power is to make suggestions. The Mass is usually most successful if many people get involved and do these things on their own accord - it takes the pressure off the few and makes Critical Mass more of the spontaneous event it is meant to be.
Trying to pin down organisers of Critical Mass is just like asking about the organisers of the daily rush-hour. It's an absurdity.
Critical Mass started in San Fransisco in 1993, and now takes place in more than 60 cities worldwide, including:
- San Fransisco
- Rio de Janeiro
- Poznan (Poland)
Critical Mass happens in Sydney (and most other Australian capitals on the last Friday of every month, at 5:30PM. Sydney's mass starts every month at the Archibald Fountain at the northern end of Hyde Park.
Traditionally, Sydney's mass goes to Bondi Beach in January, and we cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge (on the road!) in November. (The Harbour Bridge ride has always been very popular. In 2007, there were about 1000 participants.) In other months, someone will suggest a destination. (Feel free to plan a route and turn up to lead the mass!) This may be discussed on the mailing list.
In principle, Critical Mass is nothing different from a bunch of cyclists taking a slightly convoluted way home from work, or just cruising around the streets, all of which is perfectly legal, however there are a few traffic offences which could be used against cyclists in a court of law.
Critical Mass continues through traffic lights after they turn red. This would be legal if we got a demonstration permit from the police, however that has not been required in the past.
Continuing through traffic lights is done for the safety of cyclists. A car stuck in the middle of the mass can become dangerous, and it can be intimidating for the driver to be stuck in the midst of hundreds of cyclists.
Michael Chow (a Lawyer) writes:
Police General Power
Section 2 of the General Traffic Regulations provides that in all cases not expressly provided for by the General Traffic Act and Regulations, any member of the police force may give such reasonable directions to all persons driving, riding etc as in his opinion may be necessary for safe and effective regulation of traffic.
Riding Two Abreast
Cyclists can legally ride two abreast if they are within 1.5 m of each other. However, the catch is that if there are more than two abreast, EACH cyclist is guilty of a breach of sec 71 of the General Traffic Regulations.
There's nothing specific in the Traffic Regulations about corking. However, there's is an offence of obstructing traffic, ie wilfully preventing in any manner the free passage of a person, vehicle etc in a public place. Maximum penalty $400.
Using Multiple Lanes
"Regulation 3(1) of the Traffic Regulations (NSW) requires vehicles to keep as close as practicable to the left boundary of the road, EXCEPT where there are two or more lanes for traffic travelling in that direction (in which case you can use any lane). "Regulation 65 of the Motor Traffic Regulations is in the same terms and applies to motor vehicles.
Critical Mass Sydney has had a relatively good relationship with police. So far, no one on a Sydney Critical Mass has been arrested. If the police don't show up, that's fine - Critical Mass polices itself. If they do turn up, cooperation is normally much better than confrontation. (We've even suggested that Sydney's cycle cops should come along for the ride.)
Pedestrians are our friends, and many pedestrians are supportive of our aims. It is very important that we do not alienate them by cycling on pavements or going through pedestrian crossings.
You will often hear,
"Let the pedestrians through", being yelled out while Critical Mass is going through a pedestrian crossing. Cyclists stop, let the pedestrians through and then keep going."
On one of these incidents someone yelled,
"Clap the pedestrians and sustainable transport."
This was taken with much cheer by both pedestrians and cyclists.
Buses are also our friends. A proper public transport system is essential to reduce traffic pollution and congestion. When buses are stuck behind the mass, cyclists will often let them through.
Taxi drivers are a form of public transport as well. In a society where fewer people own cars, people will need taxis for those occasions where walking, cycling or taking the bus is not possible.
Towards other motorists?
Individual car drivers are not the enemy. People are often forced to drive by a system of poor public transport. Give the driver the benefit of the doubt. Often the front of the mass will try to let cars though before they are caught waiting for the mass. It is much better publicity to offer this token of friendship. Car drivers are often sympathetic to our cause, and give us a friendly honk. Some drivers can be actively aggressive. It is best to be firm but non-aggressive with these drivers. Reassure them that we will be out of their way soon. It is very important not to return aggression, because not only will it alienate the driver you are yelling at, but you are also likely to alienate all the onlookers as well.
Motorcycles create noise and pollution, but they do not take away space from other road users and are a much more sensible mode of transport in urban areas than cars. Also, motorcyclists experience many of the same problems as cyclists do - being vulnerable in accidents, abused my motorists and not respected as equals in the traffic. So motorcyclists are better seen as friends and allies of cyclists than as rivals or enemies.
Since motorcyclists, like cyclists, can easily pass on the outside or through a gap in the mass, trying to keep them back would be futile even if that was what the mass wanted.
Towards the bicycle section of the RTA
Any cycling facilities that are built for us will need to be built by the bicycle section of the RTA. Consequently it is in our best interests for the bicycle section of the RTA to be made a strong voice within the RTA.
Sadly, the RTA appears to be more interested in the motor car than anything else.. Thus it's also in our interests to launch a corporate take-over of the NSW govt and install ourselves as RTA planning-dictators. :)
Towards roller bladers?
Many roller bladers join the mass. Roller blading is another viable form of sustainable transport that shares many of the advantages of cycling. In fact, we just love roller bladers.
If passions do run high between a motorist and a cyclist, a very effective way to avoid a punch-up is to 'hustle' the cyclist back into the group and away. The motorist is left with the backs of a group of uninvolved cyclists to try to argue with. Verbal abuse contests do nothing for a good image or for the Critical Mass cause. If something nasty like reckless driving is involved, get the police or report it.
There are many hot-heads out there, staying reasonable is often more effective than being antagonistic.
Does blocking the traffic achieve anything?
Critical Mass participants don't block the traffic - we are the traffic. Cyclists have a legal right to be on the roads. If you've ever tried to drive through rush-hour traffic in Sydney, you'll realise that cycling is generally faster anyway (yes, really it is).
Moreover, cars clog up the streets twice a day 29 days a month, so a lot of cyclists doing the same on a limited scale once a month cannot be a great source of complaint. In fact, it's rush-hour for bicycles!
Indeed, Critical Mass often finds itself held up by the traffic jam caused by motorists going about their 'usual' business. For most participants slowing the traffic is incidental to their primary aim of raising the profile of cycling, having fun or creating a car-free space. This cannot be done without blocking out cars from the mass. What Critical Mass does achieve, is to make people take notice of cyclists as road users. If it is good-humoured and not aggressive, it can put cycling and transport issues on the agenda where they would otherwise be ignored.
If the mass is big (> 40-50 cyclists) it will easily be broken up at red lights. This can create dangerous situations, as cars get caught between the front and the back of the mass and may try to force their way through.
Corking is the blocking of side streets (or lights) to allow and the mass pass through as one body. If the mass is small, it can proceed slowly up to the lights, gather at the red lights and go through while the lights are green. If it is bigger, it may be necessary to stop and wait while the lights are green to give everyone the chance to catch up. Where the police do not allow passing through red lights, we will have to accept the inevitability of being broken up. If we do not want to maximise the crisis, the front will then have to wait immediately after the lights.
Critical Mass is a spontaneous gathering of cycling individuals with a wide range of opinions and from many walks of life. It is not an organisation. We cannot assume that everyone will agree with the aims of some other campaign, especially if it is not cycling-related. So making other campaigns a central point of a Critical Mass is a bad idea.
Sometimes, the mass can make a very brief stop somewhere along the route to ring the bells, lift the bikes or something similar in relation to an external issue. Anything more than that will make people feel uneasy, dilute the focus of Critical Mass and may also get out of hand if the mass is large (since radical elements may want to bring the issue to a head).
Carry banners and hand out fliers to let observers know what Critical Mass is. Keep moving. Travelling too slowly will lead to hot tempers at the back, and make it boring for the rest of the mass. Jogging pace is a speed that all people can keep up with. Keep together. Keeping together reduces the amount of time cars are delayed at intersections, and hence reduces confrontation. It makes a stronger visual impression to onlookers to see a dense mass of cyclists. It also means less gaps in the mass that cars can squeeze into. Try to avoid letting cars into the midst of the mass. It is dangerous for the cyclists, and potentially intimidating for the driver. At the front, let cars coming from side streets go in front of the mass. It will buy good will. Remember, individual car drivers are not the enemy. Use corkers to block off all side streets to prevent cars entering the mass. When the mass catches up to stopped cars, do not slip between them, or occupy the lane next to them. Otherwise cars will become enveloped by the mass through no fault of their own. If a car becomes caught in the mass, try to let it out if possible. Otherwise use corkers to prevent it moving. The back is where most of the aggro from drivers will be seen. Despite this, do not yell abuse. Remember that we are in the public spotlight and we will win more support if we are friendly. The back should have a straight line across the road to prevent cars pushing into the mass. A video camera should be carried at the back of the mass. An irate motorist is less likely to ram cyclists if they know they are on camera, and if they do, then you have good footage to take them to court with.
Aim for: "Maximum Publicity, Minimum Aggro". This is almost a contradiction in terms because the media loves conflict. There are mixed opinions as to whether any publicity is better than no publicity, however positive publicity is preferable to negative. Minimise Confrontation. Many cyclists and bladers are wary of joining critical mass because they don't believe in deliberately antagonising motorists. By minimising confrontation, we increase the number of participants. Similarly, a motorist is more likely to be sympathetic to our cause if the mass is peaceful and non-aggressive. Plan the route. Unplanned rides tend to go along the roads people know, ie main roads, for long stretches, causing irate motorists at the back. It is easier to avoid dangerous turns, or one way streets if the route is planned. A spin off of planned routes is that it is much easier to sell Critical Mass to the media if they know where the mass is going so they can get the best pictures. Check out what's on, and if there is a fun event happening, then why not ride to it. Ride past crowds. Critical Mass needs an audience to sell our message to. Change direction often. This means you don't get motorists stuck behind the mass for long periods of time getting increasingly frustrated, and also means more people see us. Where possible, turn left rather than into oncoming traffic as this is generally safer. When riding though a bottle neck (like a bridge) or causing a disruption to traffic for a publicity stunt, make it quick. Get in, let the media take their photos, and then get out before any major confrontation occurs. Don't worry, the media will exaggerate the extent of traffic disruption on your behalf. Keep it short. Although the unofficial organisers may live for Critical Mass, many of the participants are out to make a political statement, but have something else to do on a Friday night. About an hour is good. Fun Atmosphere. Music is always good. Finish with food. Eating is a good way to develop Critical Mass as a social occasion. Outdoor food markets are good because people do not have to leave their bikes unattended. The finish location needs to have a mall or park or similar big enough for all the cyclists to get off the road. Similarly, the start point needs to be a place where lots of cyclists can mill round. It is good to have a photogenic start location because a lot of your news footage will be shot at the start. You should always start from the same location. This will ensure everyone knows where to start from. New Route each month. Gets your message to more people, and variety is fun.
How can we build Critical Mass?
It is very hard to pinpoint what makes people participate in Critical Mass, and how to boost numbers. Some things that can help are:
Aggro - Keep it to an absolute minimum. You can do this by:
Planning a route which changes direction often. Keep the mass together. Give pep talks at the start and in newsletters about the benefits of non-aggression.
Open up lines of communication:
The more people talk, the more good ideas are flushed out, the more people volunteer to do more. A list-server (using email) is probably the most effective way for lots of people to communicate. This can also be tied into a fax service. Unfortunately, most of the riders will not have access to a computer. A newsletter is again a good way to keep people up to date. Probably the most effective way to build the mass is by personal invitation from a friend.
Make it count:
People want to know they are making a difference. Get into the media, and let riders know how much coverage they are getting (via newsletter, email etc).
Make as many contacts within the mass as possible. Find out where peoples abilities and interests lie, and how to contact them. With this knowledge it makes it much easier to organise workshops, publicity stunts, ... anything.
Get people working:
Cycle Activism works best when there are lots of people doing small things. A lot of people are prepared to take on something small. Find something that they are interested in and get them working. Organisers who get things done are rarer, and worth their weight in gold. These people should farm off smaller jobs wherever possible and hence make the whole movement more effective. However, they shouldn't hold onto the power and glory. The more power you give to people, the more important they will feel, and the more volunteers you will get.
Media Training. Teach people about writing press releases, interview techniques, etc. Banner and Tee Shirt Painting. Non-Violence.
Organise publicity stunts:
The media is in the business of entertaining, so if you want to get into the media you need to be entertaining. Be new, different, visually stimulating, shocking, exciting. Stunts can be part of current Critical Mass rides, or separate events. 5:30pm on Friday is not a good time to beak a story if you want to get on TV news. You are more likely to get onto TV on a Sunday (slow news day) or if you pull your stunts in the morning, giving the TV stations time to edit the footage.
Critical Mass can run successfully with no money at all, however a little money can be very useful for raw materials for press stunts, press releases, banners, posters, fliers etc.
This is a severely plagiarised document. Cut-and-pasted from hundreds of bits of email, stuff snatched from lots of other web sites, and the occasional witty comment thrown in just to see if you're still awake. Please send comments, corrections & flowers to Web Collective. Send spam and flames to someone else (preferably the relevant ministers for transport and civic planning).
Critical Mass is nothing if not you, the cyclist, the bus or train-traveller, the guy who walks for fun or fitness. Nothing in this Universe is immutable. Not even the car culture. Not the politicians and 'leaders' who conveniently ignore the fact that freeways cost lots of money and only stave off the traffic disaster for a year or two.
You, fellow traveller, are the instrument of change. All it takes is a few of us to get together, go for a ride, make our presence known. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a Friday afternoon spin through rush-hour chaos in an island of tranquility known as Critical Mass.