Critical Mass

Here I am ranting about the pleasures of cycling, on Pentonville Road
Heres a newsclip from Sky News (Sorry about the advert) 

Central London Critical Mass.

Critical Mass (Central London) attracts cyclists from all corners of the metropolis. We meet on the South Bank of Waterloo Bridge in London where we have met since the beginning.

An informal coalition known as CHARM - Cyclists Have A Right to Move, progressed, from their original handful of cyclists to London’s own Critical Mass in early 1994. One of the original Charmers - Chris Eardley - explained the thinking behind the protest.

 "First and foremost, it's a chance for cyclists to get together and have a good time. A couple of hours a month of slowing the traffic up is really just our way of pointing out to people what a hideous bloody mess the roads are in the rest of the time."

"The whole thing lasts for about 2 hours usually, so obviously some people drift away during that time. . . Others stick around and have a bit of a party afterwards - we usually try and finish up somewhere like Trafalgar Square or Hyde Park. The police are very co-operative nowadays."

What started with a handful back then has progressed to between a few hundred to thousands of cyclists, sound systems, decorated bikes, skateboarders, wheelchairers, roller skaters and pedestrians.

Over the years there have been a few focused rides tinged with politics or environmentalism- climate change or poor road planning for example or visits to mourn the last moments of a precious cyclist’s life, mown down on London’s busy streets. Many occasions before the ride starts, printed documents circulate among the riders. More often than not, it’s a great social event with riders and observers having fun, a few regulars but a constant flux of new riders coming and going over the years.

In September 1995, Callum Wilson listed these observations

  1. "I love taxi drivers - I love you Mr Taxi driver" - the chap reckoned that taxi drivers are too used to being called w*nkers!
  2. The whole mass stopped to let a guy dressed head to toe in Black PVC cross the road. Mr blackpvc said to a biker,"you guys are wierd."
  3. Passerby on pavement; "I would have come today, but I had both my wheels nicked."
  4. Someone was shouting at all sports cars, "big car small w*lly."
  5. Someone in a little car started 'beeping' at a couple of cyclists. Within seconds was completely drowned out by a plethora of air-horns and whistles. The little car reversed back over the line!
  6. 'Are you counting?, there's over 100 cyclists in that off-license"

In March 1996 Callum's highlights were:

  • There was a Scandinavian chap who had a covered recumbrant bike (featured at the future bikes stand at BIKE96) He had cycled it all the way from Harwich. It looked like the front section of a Hurricane fighter!!! Serious technology involved - it had HOPE diskbrakes and air/oil suspension on a linkage setup. More importantly he was warm and dry - unlike the rest of us.
  • We had an odd bunch of motorbikercops this time. One of them was really pro-cm and helping out riders by telling an irate driver cynically that cyclists may protest in London if they wish to!! Not quite the same for Metropolitan Sergeant (3 stripes?) #86 who at every opportunity would race up behind some of our more boystrous massers and quote yet another bit of the law - some of the strange ones:
  • I was cycling well ahead of the mass towards piccadilly circus (it's a one way road) in the empty road. I was enjoying the space by cycling big wide circles waiting for everyone else to catch up. Met 86 came flying up and said "This is one way street." eh?
  • One lady was blocking a taxi from blasting it's way through the mass. A few moments later, officer 86 arrives- "You don't have any lights..." the cheeky reply "Someone nicked them - it's not safe to leave our bikes anywhere in London - go and find who nicked them rather than hassling me"
  • The mass split in half at about 1930 hrs and headed off in two separate directions at Aldwych - A chap in a stripey top and hat said "Hands up who wants to go left, etc...." I went left towards the city. For me the mass petered out at Kings Cross. For some reason the Motorbike cops where not very happy about us turning right - One mentioned a bomb scare - even though the station was crowded with people - another cop mentioned 'an incident' anyone know the story? massers then began to head in seperate directions....
  • The only 'incident' that I saw was when a taxi tried the old trick of ramming cyclists to get through instead of waiting 5 minutes. The driver got quite upset - especially when one chap lifted his leather jacket out of the open window and tried to bargain - wait here and get your jacket back... Some youngsters then started kicking the taxi (not very hard - i.e. noise rather than damage) which was a little out of order - it's no use getting into trouble - it just brings our reputation down.

The largest London Mass was in the middle of 2008 for showing support against the prospect of having the police control the event, when, we were handed letters purporting that our London Friday night get together was unlawful. This “happy coincidence of bicycle anarchy and chaos in their most joyful forms” had a few police outriders on motor bikes in the early days who were mostly friendly and helpful, and would do all the corking necessary to assist us on our way. They eventually cottoned on to the joys of joining us on bicycles, and their support and co operation continued until the legality was questioned.

I spearheaded the London (UK) CM court case to stop the Metropolitan Police from making it illegal by binding us to all sorts of bureaucracy ie sending them a route map (!) and a list of organisers (!!).  It was taken through the highest courts in the land via Friends of the Earth Rights and Justice Centre and we initially won, lost on appeal and on Monday 20th October 2008 went to the House of Lords where it was heard by five Law Lords. Their decision was that “the appeal is allowed and CM is a commonly or customarily held procession without organisers and therefore does not need to inform the police of each ride”.

At the time I wrote a letter that was posted on the London CM website;


“I'm delighted that the House of Lords yesterday unanimously upheld my appeal. The judgment can be found on-line at

“This case has now been running for nearly three years since Inspector Gomm first handed out his flyers to all of us telling us that the Mass was unlawful and that we needed to give advance notice and decide what route we were going to take in advance. I'm glad to say that isn't the case and we no longer have to fear the threat of arrest.

“Although it was a difficult decision to take the case in the first place I (and many others) felt that it was the right thing to do and I'm pleased that after all this time the House of Lords has agreed, with all five Law Lords unanimously agreeing.

“What is very important is the outcome that the London Mass is exempted from the requirements of the Public Order Act and so there is no need to give advance notice. That should give cyclists a lot of comfort. In particular, anyone who is interested in self-stewarding the ride will now feel considerably more comfortable. However, the House of Lords had lots of very positive things to say generally and there is much that is useful in the judgments for other people wishing to set up Critical Mass Cycle Rides elsewhere in the country.

“Thanks to everyone who supported the case over the years.”

A precedent was set that meant that since that time no mass bike ride in the country has had any interference, and the police must believe that after 18 years, we’re grown up enough to go out on our own.

I feel the success of CM has empowered people to become stronger and braver on London’s terrifyingly unfriendly roads and strengthened their resolve to use the power of mass cycle action to influence decision making. The politicians and road planners are beginning to take notice and there are currently regular protest rides to make London’s streets safer for cyclists.

Under Ken Livingstone, who was London Mayor from 2000 to 2008 cycling had soared by more than 83% in the capital, while it’s barely changed in the rest of the UK, but there is still along way to go to the 400% target the London Cycling Campaign set out in 2008 with their London Cycling Campaign Mayoral and London Assembly Manifesto:

“Achieving a major cultural shift from driving to cycling is central to the development of London as a sustainable, thriving and liveable city. Cycling must become an everyday way to get around for Londoners, including families and children.

“Removing the many barriers to cycling will unleash suppressed demand and offer Londoners real choice. This means changing the status quo in favour of cycling.

”With political will and the support of senior transport planners, a transformation akin to that seen in London’s bus services can be achieved for cycling in a single Mayoral term.

“10 point plan to transform cycling in London

1. Make 20mph the standard speed limit on London’s streets to reduce road danger and encourage cycling and walking.

2. Make reducing road traffic crime a London-wide policing priority because these crimes lead to the most injuries and deaths.

3. Deliver free on-road cycle training for London’s children, subsidised training for adults of all abilities and compulsory training for highway engineers and transport planners.

4. Return one way systems and streets to two-way operation and create advantages for cycling and walking, thus maximising route choice and minimising diversion. Provide means and incentives for boroughs to support this shift.

5. Ensure high-standard cycle parking is available at every workplace, station and shopping area, as well as in all new homes.

6. Ensure the budget for the completion of the London Cycle Network Plus (LCN+) to a high standard in all 33 boroughs with effective removal of all barriers and the creation of strong network links between boroughs.

7. Adopt ambitious targets to encourage walking and cycling to all events and attractions supported by the Mayor, culminating in the first ‘active spectator’ Olympics in 2012.

8. Create a Paris-style mass cycle hire scheme by 2009 and include all Olympic venues by 2012.

9. Start a major campaign of action against cycle theft including a significant theft reduction target for the Metropolitan Police in every borough.

10. Produce a tube-style map showing strategically important and family friendly cycle routes to encourage Londoners to think of cycling as an everyday mode of transport.”

Ken Livingstone initiated the cycle hire scheme, no. 8 on the list, which was implemented by current Mayor, Boris Johnson.

Currently there are some 6,000 'Boris Bikes' and 400 docking stations in the scheme, which has been used for more than 4 million journeys to date, with a few turning up on Critical Mass each month.. He is also creating Cycle Superhighways which has many critics including “Cyclegaz” who recently posted;

“Hahahaha, what a load of rubbish Boris. Stop start cycle "highway", too narrow, and basically no use to man nor bike. It marks exactly the most dangerous bit to ride in - right near the gutter and to the left through the junction, instead of taking the entire lane as any good cyclist would.”

At the end of last year cyclists took part in a ‘tour du danger‘ of the ten most dangerous junctions in London to highlight  the dangerous crossings where the cycle superhighway clashed with motorist’s routes.

In October last year a cyclist became the first person to die in an accident on Boris Johnson's new cycle superhighway network.

The man, in his fifties, was knocked off his bike by a white tipper lorry as he went round the roundabout at the Bow flyover during the morning rush hour.

He was pronounced dead at the scene. The driver of the lorry stopped and was arrested on suspicion of dangerous driving.

Green mayoral candidate Jenny Jones said: "Cycling superhighways are not super if you have failed to sort out the dangerous junctions."

A Transport for London (the Mayor’s transport administration department) spokesman said: "Safety is always our number one priority. Over the last year we have delivered initiatives like new roadside safety mirrors and awareness campaigns about the dangers of overtaking lorries, which is why we are also introducing a new 'on bike' training course for freight drivers in the capital, a new online HGV cycle safety guide and new 'cycle safe' technology for all TFL highway contractor vehicles by the end of the year."

There are four of the blue-painted priority lanes for cyclists in London, with eight others due to open by 2015.

Ken Livingstone, who is campaigning to become mayor again this May was interviewed in London’s Guardian newspaper about priority routes for cyclists as follows;

Q: Would you keep the blue down the road?

A: At the moment it is most probably more dangerous than safe, because people come into the blue lane and they assume there’s some sort of safety. The regulations on it vary from here to there. Suddenly it stops and starts on the other side of the road. Two cyclists who were killed at the Bow roundabout junction – there’s a classic example of what’s wrong. Transport for London spent ages negotiating with local cycling groups to put in cycling safety measures. Those went up to the mayor’s office. TfL specifically said this will not be safe for cyclists without these measures. The reply was: “The mayor’s priority is traffic flow.” Now they are in a great panic because of the police investigation. There could be a charge of corporate manslaughter. That’s the worst example

Q: Someone [benbro] raised this on the blog. He wants to know if you think there’s a strong case for a corporate manslaughter charge.

A: I think there is. It’s more obvious with the captain of the Italian cruise ship, but here Transport for London officials told the mayor’s office cyclists would be at risk if they didn’t put these measures in. They were turned down in order to prioritise – when Johnson says traffic flow, he means more speed for cars.What we’ll do, we’ll get Jenny Jones, who was my cycling adviser and Green assembly member and she’s a candidate for mayor, she’ll be on this. She’ll be in charge of driving forward the cycling agenda. The TfL board is going to be chaired by deputy mayor, Val Shawcross. And we will prioritise putting in the safety measures that Johnson has put out.

16 cyclists were killed on London’s roads during 2011, so we still have some way to go in changing London’s transport priorities to safeguard our journeys.

Critical Mass London will continue to give cyclists a platform for change. The Mass rides that have developed and grown since CM sowed the seeds will continue to gain influence on London’s cycling policies.


Des Kay