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Critical Mass

There’s no shame in the Critical Mass “corking” game. But after violence two months in a row, let’s increase the peace

Enraged drivers assaulted CCM riders blocking intersections on the Near North Side and in Uptown, including shots fired. What's the right way forward?

The July 2021 Chicago Critical Mass ride. Photo: John Greenfield

This post is sponsored by Boulevard Bikes.

My history of riding in the monthly Chicago Critical Mass bicycle parade/protest/party is coming up on [checks notes] 27 years now. That's probably older than some Streetsblog Chicago readers. So I've got decades of evidence that this ride, which usually draws hundreds or even thousands, has been a force for good, helping make our city a better place to bike.

From a personal standpoint, in the early 2000s, Critical Mass connections alerted me to a job opening at the Chicago Department of Transportation's bike program. There I oversaw the installation of roughly 3,500 parking racks. A few other folks I know found cycling advocacy employment via CCM ties.

And I probably wouldn't be editing this publication today if the ride hadn't fueled my passion for creating a safer, more efficient, and more enjoyable transportation system.

Over the years there have been occasional violent incidents between local Mass participants and frustrated drivers. But it seems like nowadays many or most Chicagoans are familiar with CCM. They don't get too upset if their trip gets delayed a few minutes by the colorful ride taking over the street in front of them.

The July 2021 Chicago Critical Mass ride, including a tall bike rider. Photo: John Greenfield

That's partly because of a couple of common best practices that help prevent the local Critical Mass from overly inconveniencing other road users, especially transit riders. It's courteous to have the front of the ride stop at every red light. That allows cross traffic with the green signal to proceed. It also gives the group of bicyclists a chance to "mass up" before proceeding through the next green.

In addition, it's helpful for the Mass to take routes that usually turn every half mile or so. That way, the ride doesn't cause excessive delays for others on the same street. It makes it more likely the event will give bystanders a fun story to share at their destination, rather than making them upset about what they see as cyclist-generated traffic congestion. (Of course, solo car drivers create traffic jams every day.)

Last Friday's proposed route map to Montrose Beach in Uptown.

I didn't participate in this year's May and June Chicago Critical Mass rides, but I've seen no evidence that there was anything particularly "wrong" about how they were led. However, sadly, both events saw disturbing incidents of extreme violence started by enraged drivers on the Near North Side and in Uptown respectively. I'm talking about bikes knocked over, fistfights, and (seemingly justified) pepper-spraying of assailants.

Particularly shocking, during last Friday's CCM ride through Uptown, one of the car occupants fired shots into the air as a warning to cyclists. That's something I don't recall ever happening in the many years I've done the ride.

That conflict took place a couple blocks of from my home, although I was out of town at the time. I initially chose not to publicize what happened, so as to not scare people away from doing the Mass. But after a news outlet reported on it this morning, I decided to publish a few thoughts. Here's a video of the Uptown incident, shared with permission.

If you're reading this post, you've probably already read accounts or seen footage of what happened, including info from the Chicago Police Department. If not, you can get up to speed by checking out these reports.

• "Motorist clashes with bicycle procession near the Gold Coast" from CWB Chicago. (Yes, this is a faceless, problematic crime blog, but in this case their coverage is surprisingly non-awful, and jibes with what I've heard from reliable sources.)

• "Cyclists Attacked By Driver And Passenger Who Opened Fire During Group Ride In Uptown, Video Shows" by Block Club Chicago's Madison Savedra.

What made these motorists blow their tops? The riders they confronted were engaging in a common Critical Mass tactic called "corking". That's standing with your bike at an intersection and blocking cross traffic from entering the junction, to allow the entire group of bike riders to safely pass through it.

It's a completely reasonable strategy that's been going on at CCM rides forever, generally without major problems. Even police officers on bikes, who usually show up for the start of the event at Daley Plaza, cork downtown intersections for the riders, without any civilian cyclists asking them to do so.

So it's possible the folks who were corking the Near North Side and Uptown intersections in question were doing nothing problematic when the irate drivers confronted them. Here's what some folks who were present had to say about the Uptown melee, shared with their permission.


It goes without saying that if any CCM riders were intentionally antagonizing drivers, as opposed to normal non-confrontational corking, that's a very bad idea. It can easily escalate into violence, just like what happened on these last two rides.

And if a motorist starts threatening physical violence, or angrily gets out of their car, the appropriate response is not to stand your ground and then exchange punches or worse. We sure the heck don't want to see anybody get shot, which would obviously be tragic.

In this unfortunate scenario, the only sensible approach for corkers is to shout warnings to other Critical Mass participants. Then they should move their bikes out of the way, and allow the ballistic motorist to pass through the ride, without hurting innocent people.

The July 2021 ride, including an old-fashioned penny-farthing bike, passes by the Garfield Park Conservatory. A little over two years later, thanks in part to lobbying by safe streets advocates, CDOT installed a raised crosswalk and protected bike lanes there. Photos: John Greenfield

It's totally understandable to be upset about everyday traffic violence, as well as drivers threatening to intentionally commit bodily harm. But we don't want fistfights, let alone gunfire, to scare anyone away – especially people from marginalized demographics and families with kids – from participating in a joyful bike ride that advocates for safer streets.

So how about focusing on that goal during Chicago Critical Mass rides? And let's file "Avoiding fights with hothead drivers" under "Taking the 'W'".

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