Still we ride? A review of Critical Mass in Toronto

Critical Mass in Toronto during sunnier, more well-attended times. Photo by Martin Reis.

Still we ride?

Critical Mass is going strong around the world. So why are Toronto's numbers dwindling?

Guest blog by Brennan Doherty

Photos by Martin Reis

I almost rethink my decision to join Toronto's Critical Mass ride after the third fire engine in two blocks howls past me on my beat-up Schwinn bicycle. Riding west on Bloor Street, checking directions on my phone in between onslaughts of passing cars, and trying to avoid wiping out on construction debris is a challenge for a cyclist like me, used to Oakville's pristine asphalt paths and wilderness trails. It's my third time ever riding in the downtown core. And my first time at Critical Mass: a leader-less group bike ride that takes place on the last Friday of the month in over 300 cities worldwide.

When I arrive at the departure point I survey a small cluster of completely mismatched bikes around the south-east corner of Bloor and Spadina. There's a hefty Vanda, tires fat as boot soles, shivering on its kickstand in the wake of passing traffic; an Italian Fiori that crowns a pile of other skeletal road racer frames; and there's even a homemade moped, sporting a two-stroke engine the size of a handbag, resting against a garbage bin.

Knots of cyclists as varied as their machines mill around the sidewalk and Matt Cohen park, waiting for the September Critical Mass ride to kick off at 6:30 p.m. Some are post-secondary students, but the rest are from all walks of life: web designers, business owners, baristas, activists, couriers, professors. After a few minutes, we have about fifty or more cyclists gathered. Nobody is in charge. There are no leaders, sponsors, or spokespeople. There's no set route or end time. The Mass is fluid and organic, reminiscent of a flock of birds or a school of fish.

The moped becomes a conversational icebreaker. People gather around, chatting about the legalities of riding a bicycle at the high speeds of an electric scooter, in between listening to the owner's story of his first ride on it, from Toronto to a Greek Orthodox monastery in Michigan: "I was scared shitless," he says repeatedly.

Finally, it's time to ride. Dozens of cyclists mount their machines, and swerve into the intersection, just two minutes behind schedule, and head south on Spadina. Horns honk. Motorized traffic slows to a crawl as the Mass stretches wide across both lanes. Grant, a local mechanic, is pumping under-inflated tires. "Hey, where's everyone going?" he yells.

Nobody slows. He'll catch up. The Mass doesn't move that quickly, after all.

Critical Mass has come a long way from its origins on the streets of San Francisco in 1992. Twenty years after Chris Carlsson and Hugh D'Andrade organized the first "Commuter Clot" (renamed to "Critical Mass" in fast order), the movement has spread to cities on nearly every continent. Turnout varies, from six riders in Toronto this past November, to a record-breaking turnout of over 100,000 riders (including the Hungarian President) in Budapest back in 2008. Cyclists ride en masse on busy downtown streets like Yonge and Bloor (and once, in 2008, the Gardiner Expressway) to proclaim the simple manifesto of the movement: We are traffic.

"When we stick together, we are powerful," says Snappy Homefry, owner of Playhouse Studios and an occasional Mass rider with links to the Toronto cycling community. "That, to me, is the greater message."

That one crazy time Critical Mass in Toronto went on the Gardiner Expressway. Photo by Martin Reis.

Sticking together could currently be the problem in Toronto. "The numbers are definitely down," says Martin Reis, a long-time Mass rider, cycling blogger and photographer (and long-time dandy contributor). It could be that the broadness of Critical Mass's manifesto is blunting the ride's focus on cycling activism for the sake of community building. Critical Mass's original manifesto was: we aren't blocking traffic, we are traffic. Low turnout could also be partially due to a lack of advertising: a problem not really seen in other cities.

Toronto saw its first Critical Mass in the early-to-mid-90s, partly as a protest action, partly as a reason to party. But it was days after the death of local cyclist Erin Krauser at the corner of Bathurst and Queen, following her funeral, when Mass got particularly political and two cyclists were arrested for holding up traffic at an intersection. They were later released, but Critical Mas rides have continued in Toronto ever since with little or no police intervention. Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists (ARC), a local cycling activist group involved in the organization of some of the first mass rides in Toronto (and also responsible for the white 'ghost' bikes you see placed as memorials for cyclists that have been killed) used to advertise for the Mass alongside the Toronto Cycling Committee by handing out fliers and putting up posters. A group called "Bike Friday" was even spawned in the mid-2000s for the less-hardcore-more-morning-commuter bike types to ride to work en masse in the mornings, where local politicians and coffee shops would join in. "I think a lot [of the problem] is that there isn't anyone actively promoting the ride now," Reis says. "You sort of have the law of diminishing returns: it's the same people showing up, and you don't replenish with a new crowd."

Benny Zenga rides a tall bike he made with the Winking Circle through the Toronto Eaton Centre during a particularly fun Critical Mass ride.

The local 'zine community helped to spread the word—and still does. But only a loosely organized Facebook group currently exists to 'promote' the ride. But to some, this is all part of the plan to keep Mass under wraps. "I almost feel like we'd lose a little bit of integrity of it was something so [organized]," says Homefry. "I don't know if [we would] want it to be 10,000 people riding across the city on their bikes. It would change what it is."

Not everyone agrees. "I always wish there was more publication around these sorts of events," says Emma Baron, a barista at Jet Fuel Coffee Co., a Cabbagetown coffee joint known as a hub of Toronto's cycling community.

And, some cycling activists feel that the lack of coordination and focus could do harm to the reputation of the cycling community. "Critical Mass is like a party on wheels," says Wayne Scott, a retired courier and Toronto-based cycling and pedestrian activist. He feels that respect for cyclists is currently more important than awareness in our city.

Back on College Street, the September Mass ride I joined in begins to string itself too thinly between intersections. Jeremy—a hefty, bearded bike racer sporting a leather jacket and riding a slick road bike—decides to hold up traffic at an intersection anyway. He drifts five, ten, then twenty feet out of formation alongside the vanguard of twenty-or-so riders coasting to a stop at an upcoming red light. Two sets of streetcar tracks barely slow Jeremy as the 506 College Street streetcar rumbles behind him, droves of commuters pressed against the windows to see what's going on. Jeremy holds up the streetcar, single-handedly, as the Mass rolls on, barely interrupted.

"Corking" at Toronto's Critical Mass. Corking is when a cyclist acts as a kind of parade official and stops traffic at intersections, helping to ensure the procession stays together.

But while the Mass doesn't advertise, or make any universal demands on behalf of cyclists, the movement is still a tour de force in Toronto's cycling advocacy community. Members have demonstrated at protests, documented Toronto cycling, and helped commemorate cycling and pedestrian culture. Regardless, without focus or advertising, the Mass in Toronto has the potential to become history.

September's ride rolled down Yonge Street past Queen, Adelaide, and Wellington to the tunnel under Union Station. A sharp drop and a few horn honks later, the whole ride is hanging on their bells and yelling. Inside the concrete tunnel, the noise is deafening. The traffic relentless. Gerry, and older-but-sturdy bike activist, isn't impressed. "We used to have 200 people go through here. All of them would drop their bikes… to stop traffic completely," he says. "I can't even hear my whistle over the [car] noise. It's like a jet taking off in here."


Brennan Doherty is a second-year journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto. When not riding a beat-up Schwinn mountain bike to classes, he's a reporter at The Eyeopener, occasional writer at The Folio, and an intern at the Ryerson Transmedia Zone (TMZ). Find him on Twitter @Bren_Doherty.


Related on the dandyBLOG:

Remembering Fallen Cyclists

The Long Road to a Bike Path (Archive from issue one)

The Winking Circle (Archive from issue two, photo shoot by Molly Crealock done after a fairly well-attended Critical Mass during a freezing February in 2009.)

Activist profile: Wayne Scott (Archive from our food issue)

Avoiding the Zombie Apocalypse by bike

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