On the last Friday of every month, people in close to 300 cities all over the world gather together to ride their bikes. The rides are called “Critical Mass” and the goal is twofold: to raise awareness of the rights of bicyclists to be on the road and to promote bicycles as a clean form of transportation. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman rode along on a Critical Mass ride in one Midwest city:
On the last Friday of every month, people in close to 300 cities
all over the world gather together to ride their bikes. The rides
are called “Critical Mass” and the goal is twofold: To raise
awareness of the rights of bicyclists to be on the road and to
promote bicycles as a clean form of transportation. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman rode along on a
Critical Mass ride in one Midwest city:
John Luhman says riding a bike is a healthy way to get around
town. He says using bikes can ease traffic congestion. And he
says if more people used bikes, we wouldn’t need to import as
But he says none of those is the real reason he rides his bike.
“Well, it’s fun”
Luhman is part of a group of bikers who gather on the last Friday
afternoon of each month in downtown Rockford, Illinois.
The first order of business is to plan the route, which varies from
month to month. Luhman says the riders don’t shy away from
major streets because part of the goal is visibility.
“When people see a group of bikes they tend to pay it more
attention than a single biker. And it tends to make them think
that you know, there are people out there that ride bikes and get
around that way.”
The rides are open to anyone. The pace is leisurely, and they last
about an hour. Today’s Critical Mass has just 20 riders. That’s
far less than critical mass rides in places like Chicago, which
sometimes draw nearly a thousand people. But the Rockford
riders are pleased, since 20 is their largest group ever. Some
months, fewer than ten people show up.
Luhman says he isn’t discouraged by the low turnouts. He says
it’s going to take time to build up a ridership base in Rockford.
“Chicago wasn’t a very bike-friendly city until Critical Mass
came along in Chicago. And people started biking and started
networking with other bikers and raising the awareness of bikes.
And it developed to something.”
Once they choose their route, the riders set off together. They
mostly observe traffic regulations. Their presence seems to have
little effect on the constant stream of drivers heading home from
Terry Patterson pedals west on a main thoroughfare as cars zoom
past just a few feet to his left.
“Just having a presence on the street, taking a lane with this
many people can open people’s eyes, give them the visual that
bikes are viable, that we can have sustainable energy through
“Looks like we’re turning right here. You’ve mentioned some of
the social and environmental aspects of this. Why is this
something you personally participate in?”
“Personally, I’ve been shot at with a paint gun, sling shots, pop
cans, beer cans, cigarette butts, ‘Get a job, get a life.’ People spit
at me; people mess with bikers in Rockford.”
(traffic sound fades out)
Many of the Critical Mass riders say cities don’t always do much
to help their concerns, and they say Rockford is no different.
They say biker’s needs aren’t always taken into account when
new roads are built. And they say existing roads don’t offer bike
Doug Scott is the City of Rockford’s mayor. He concedes the
city hasn’t always treated bikers with respect.
“We’re fighting a lot of years of history here, where they weren’t
as highly regarded as they should have been. We’ve done well
with some paths and some other things, but just in traveling
along the streets itself, we haven’t done as well as we probably
Mayor Scott says the city does look at the needs of bicyclists
when new roads are built. But he says it’s difficult and
expensive to retrofit existing roads.
After making a loop through Rockford’s north and west side, the
group ends up at the home of one of the riders. There, a large
pot of soup is waiting on the stove and everyone helps them self
to a bowl.
Some of the Critical Mass riders believe in bikes so much
they’ve started a free bike clinic for kids in their neighborhood.
By patching up tubes and greasing up chains, they hope to plant
a seed that will grow into the next generation of riders.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris Lehman.