Critical Mass!

Buffalo’s Bikers Take The Streets

 By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 6/20/02

 Anyone who has bicycled in Buffalo is all too familiar with the hazards, obstacles and annoyances of biking in a car town.  For starters, there’s the potholes, acres of broken glass and construction debris that litter the streets, turning roads into obstacle courses.  There are the stinking busses and the stinking oil burning blue fog belching taxis, adorned with rooftop ads for cheesy topless bars for misogynist losers and other assorted masturbators.  Then there’s the Buick factor – it seems like they’re all out to run you down.  There’re the SUVs, piloted by insignificant twerps and corpulent insalubrious losers with no conception of their own automotive girth or mass, careening through the streets like out of control bulldozers on speed. 

Bellowing Like Stuck Pigs

Drivers in general are a problem.  They either want to drive up your ass, often honking or bellowing on like stuck pigs, essentially wailing about their own ignorance of the traffic rules, or they just plain want to run you off the road or kill you.  They come in various forms, with the pass on the left, turn right into the bike variety topping my shitlist this week.  And there are the door openers, throwing open their car doors in the paths of bikes, scooping up bikers like dolphin in a tuna net. 

Then there are the cops.  Some of them are just plain butt stupid, ordering bicyclists onto the sidewalks in violation of state law while turning a blind eye to the motorized terrorists running bikers off the roads.  Some of the cops are mean spirited, confiscating “unregistered” bicycles (Buffalo law says bikes need city licenses – cost 50 cents).  There are also the tellers at bank ride-through windows, discriminating against your transportation mode and often violating their own employers’ policies by ignorantly refusing to serve you because you lack a motor.

No doubt seasoned Buffalo cyclists will add to this list.  And these are just the fair weather gripes.  Add wind, rain and snow to the mix of ignorant drivers and unplowed streets, and biking becomes downright deadly.

Bike or Die

Still, we need to bike.  It’s a way to celebrate life.  Our lives.  It turns transportation from an irresponsible act of consumption, ecological destruction and imperialism (wars for oil – remember?), into a healthy stress reducing exercise break.  Biking slows us down, gives us a chance to see our own neighborhoods, and hence, builds community.  Drivers might take notice as they wiz past a friend.  Bikers stop to say hi. They celebrate life rather then buy into a culture of isolation, alienation, and death. 

Despite daily terror at the hands of psychotic drivers – small people encased in big machines they wear like armor – Buffalo’s bikers persevere.  To bike rather than drive is a cultural choice.  For some, there’s no choice at all, it’s the only option.  Either way, Buffalos cyclists constitute a population under constant attack.   There is, however, a breather in this onslaught.  There’s one evening every month when Buffalo bikers band together and form a critical mass – a mobile community large enough to fill the streets with cyclists and squeeze cars out of the picture.  That evening comes on the last Friday of the month and it’s called “Critical Mass.”

On this last Friday of every month, year round, cyclists meet at 5:30 PM in front of Buffalo’s City Hall and take to the streets.  Similar celebrations occur in cities around the world.  There’s no group or organization to co-opt, cancel or commercialize the event.  There are no leaders who can sell out, or conversely, be arrested.  There’s no one to praise or sue.  Critical Mass is not an organization – it’s a movement.  The rides are simply facilitated coincidences – lots of cyclists showing up at the same place at the same time and riding on the same streets.

A Right to Ride

Journalists have described the phenomenon as a “protest.”  It’s not.  It’s a celebration of the bicycle. Plain and simple. It’s the visualization of a utopian state, where cyclists fill the streets and ride through the city without the constant threat of autos.  It’s the liberation not of space, but of time.  It’s what anarchist theorist Hakim Bey calls a Temporary Autonomous Zone, or TAZ.  Cyclists have liberated the moment, and in doing so, demonstrated that another world can exist. 

Police often claim the cyclists are “blockading traffic.”  This is also false.  Critical Mass is not about bicyclists “blockading” anything.  It’s about cyclists becoming traffic and hence, lawfully filling the streets where they legally have a right to ride  – a right that is often denied them by reckless aggressive ignorant automobile drivers.  Hence, Critical Mass is also about education, as the monthly rides serve to educate drivers and police officers about the rights of bicyclists.

Dumbfounded Cops

In Buffalo, this education turned out to be badly needed.  During the first Buffalo Critical Mass in the Spring of 2000, the Gang Suppression Unit of the Buffalo Police converged on the 50 or so riders as they headed south on Delaware Ave near Gates Circle, macing the unfortunate cape-wearing rider on what was, at the moment, the lead bike.  Dumbfounded and confused, however, they didn’t quite know why they were stopping the ride or what laws the cyclists may have broken.  Documentary filmmaker David Gracon captured the whole comic event in his video, “We Ride Bikes!”  Officers are shown, on camera, paging through their codebook, occasionally reading a passage aloud.  First they explained that the bikes belonged on the sidewalk.  Then they argued they had to increase their speed to match that of cars, about 30 mph, if they were to travel on roads.

True to form for the Buffalo police, they arrested their mace victim, only to later drop charges against him.  And they ticketed the only black man on the 50 person ride, for “failure to keep right,” (or probably more accurately, failure to be white) claiming that they recognized him as someone they saw pass another bike on the left, as if this was some sort of crime.  In the end, the cops retreated, no doubt still scratching their heads, and the ride continued on to police headquarters where riders spontaneously rallied for the release of the arrested cyclist.

In the days following this ride, angry bicyclists from around the world sent email messages to Buffalo City Hall protesting the attack.  City Hall seems to have gotten the message.  During the subsequent two years, Buffalo Police have steered clear of the Mass.  That is, with the exception of the time they tried to be helpful by sending a motorcycle unit to block intersections ahead of the ride.  The bikers were upset, explaining that the police motorcycles, racing through the pack of bicyclists to beat them to the intersections, were dangerous and unnecessary.  Besides, they argued, the whole point of the ride was to get away from gas burning traffic.  The police motorcycles left after a few blocks and haven’t returned since.  The Critical Massers have returned almost every month, with a few wintry exceptions.

Buffalo Critical Mass rides on the last Friday of each month at 5:30 PM from the front of City Hall.  Sometimes people print route maps and the group consenses on a route before leaving.  Sometimes the ride is impromptu.  So far the Mass has rode through the streets of the East Side, South Buffalo, North Buffalo and all over the West Side.  There have been themed rides touring Buffalo’s toxic hot spots, a spooky Halloween ride, and so on. The next ride will be on June 28th and I have no idea where it will wind up.  So beg, borrow, or, er, buy a bike.  But be there.

Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous ArtVoice columns are archived at  Now get off your ass and ride your bike!

 Copyright 2002 Michael I. Niman.  May be linked to freely.  For reprint permission contact .