The scene is one of celebratory chaos. We surge forward: a barrage of velocipede force, flooding the wide avenues of downtown Buenos Aires to a rampageous soundtrack of whistles, horns, bells and cheers. As the city traffic builds up behind us, so do the triumphant chants of “¡Bici sí, auto no!” The torrent of elaborately decorated bicycles floods the capital, determined to take charge of the roads, en masse.
Critical Mass (in Spanish, Masa Crítica) is a global movement of cyclists who take to the streets to exalt in the pleasure of pedalling. It is estimated that to date, Critical Mass rides take place in more than 325 towns and cities worldwide. For the event to function, the only requirement is a sufficient turn-out to create a “critical mass” of riders, dense enough to occupy a piece of road to the exclusion of motorised vehicles. With an abundance of objectives personal to each participant, the mass strives to highlight the importance of their chosen mode of transport in a society domineered by the automobile. They aim not merely to block the traffic, but to demonstrate that they can – and should – be the traffic.
One Year on Two Wheels
This October, the Masa Crítica of Buenos Aires celebrated its first anniversary. Following in the footsteps of the movement’s 1992 conception in California, the popularity of Masa Crítica in the Argentine capital has grown at an astounding rate. Cyclists meet at the Obelisk at 4pm on the first Sunday of every month, and in contrast to its tiny beginnings as a gathering of four cyclists in 2008, more than 200 attendees proved that the MC’s first birthday was, indeed, cause for festivities.
“Initially, people doubted us.” Micky Ballario recalls the reaction he faced when he and three friends decided to start a Critical Mass in Buenos Aires: “In general, it is difficult to encourage people to challenge the cars in Buenos Aires. However I had read about the mass around the globe, and saw no reason why we shouldn’t follow suit here. There are enough cyclists to have a great impact on the traffic. People are only sceptical because cars play such a huge part in the everyday life of the city. They take over.”
For Micky, forming a Critical Mass was a means of protesting: “If we show how many we are, perhaps the authorities will take notice, create more bicycle lanes and encourage cycling as a preferable mode of transport. It would certainly do the environment some favours.” However, Micky is quick to attest that no definitive cause or objective should be tagged to the movement. Participants insist that these rides be viewed as ‘celebrations’ and spontaneous gatherings, and not protests or organised demonstrations. This allows Critical Mass to argue that its events can legally occur without advance notification of local police.
Micky explains: “Masa Crítica has no specific agenda or goal. We just hope that each time, more people will take part.” He upholds the MC creed that although the celebratory cycle comes round once a month, we should be turning to two wheels as a means of traversing the city every day.
Indeed, of the 250 porteños and tourists alike who congregated for December’s Masa Crítica, I could not find two identical reasons for joining in. Some championed cyclists’ rights; others quite simply enjoyed the frenzied merriment of the “bicycle march”. María, 28, describes how she hopes to “improve the image of biking in the city, bringing cyclists’ safety to the awareness of drivers, whilst protesting for a more ‘cycle-able’ and less polluted city.” On the other hand, Federico, 20 said that he cycled to keep fit. “MC is great because exercise is always more fun in a big group”.
Assigning one particular aim to Masa Crítica is made more difficult by its leaderless structure. Its purpose is not formalised beyond the direct action of meeting at a set location and time and travelling as a group on bikes or roller-skates. Micky stresses that he would never refer to himself as an ‘organiser’, but rather a pioneer of the movement in Buenos Aires.
‘Xerocracia’ and ‘Fotocopiacracia’
The world over, the Critical Mass vernaculars maintain that: “Critical mass is not an organisation, but rather it is an unorganised coincidence.” There are no leaders or members, and it is unlike other social movements in its rhizomal (rather than hierarchical) structure. The route of the Buenos Aires Masa Crítica is an impromptu decision made by whoever is at the front of the mass at any given moment.
The MC exists of a basis of ‘xerocracia’ and ‘fotocopiacracia’, which describe the predominating essence of the movement: there is no bureaucracy, though anyone can choose to photocopy and distribute suggested routes or publicity material, in a bid to diffuse the message. However, no one will claim control of the event, and when asked if he would mind having his picture taken, Micky instead presents his black Raleigh, declaring: “The bike is the protagonist”.
The ‘disorganised’ nature of the event frees it from the structural costs associated with a centralised, hierarchical organization. However, there were times when the impulsive laxity of the MC made for a bumpy ride. The leaderless convoy came full circle twice, unintentionally bringing us back to where we started; and on occasion, the bikes did not bunch up quickly enough to form a ‘critical mass’, leaving the group divided and exposed to some dangerous run-ins. One cyclist was clipped by a taxi, and although unhurt, the flurry of confusion and arguments which ensued would perhaps have been best resolved by a single, authoritative figure.
A Collective Tour de Force
Nonetheless, Micky emphasises that Masa Crítica “spontaneously organises itself, and works because it is a totally rational concept”. He says: “It just makes sense that we should be cycling, and this way, we can share this in the heart of the city.” Certainly, thanks to the profound sense of unity of the MC, although chaotic, it is gloriously so. Its success lies in collaboration.
Sergio Perez runs a free bike repairs workshop which he advertises on the Masa Crítica blogspot. “This is my way of helping out,” he says. “We all do what we can. Some people bring mate, some bring food. Others make banners, distribute fliers or post photos on the webpage. I fix bikes.” As the crowds congregate, he stands on a wall, brandishing a megaphone with which he conducts singing and chanting under the Sunday afternoon sun. He identifies the atmosphere as one of a “rampant bicycle party”, and as the voices around the obelisco rise in excited union, the throng of cyclists prepare to reclaim the Buenos Aires streets. They will succeed only if they do so as a pack: a mass who, together, can “make the movement move.”