News & Features — 14 October 2022 at 10:41 am

Critical Mass: The Cycling Revolution

Daniel Abrahams/Control and Simulation Engineer/Edinburgh

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As well as being a talented musician, Daniel works in the field of renewable and sustainable technologies. In 2020, his ever-growing awareness of, and anxiety about, the current planetary crisis, as well as a desire to improve the safety of cycling on the streets of Edinburgh, galvanised him into action. By working together with a like-minded group of people, from a great variety of backgrounds, the Edinburgh version of a global cycle movement has been founded. This group has gone from strength to strength, bringing an increasing number of people forward to join the cause. They have been involved in advocacy work and, in the Spring of 2022, have even released a single, called ‘our streets’ – (see the link below). Access to safe cycling is not only important for the environment but also for our health and wellbeing. At a time when lifestyle medicine and green prescribing are climbing in popularity, cycling surely fits the bill, as well as being a robust way to take action towards saving our beautiful life-giving planet.

Onwards and up Lothian RoadHappy campaigners outside Scottish ParliamentGathering outside McEwan HallSpot the tandem recumbent bikeGathering on the MeadowsReady and raringDaniel on a Critical Mass rideContinuing down Edinburgh's Royal MileDesceding Edinburgh's Royal MileBe good to people for no reasonHeading up Lothian RoadWaving to onlookersHeading over George IVTaking over the back roadsRecumbent bike takes the leadCampaigning for a better futureStanding up for safer streets

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing particulate pollution, tackling obesity, improving people’s mental health, improving road safety, supporting local businesses, reducing noise pollution…these are just the start of a long list detailing what cycling can do for us and our environment. This list is so lengthy that I wonder if it wouldn’t be quicker to just note down the things that it can’t do. Either way, these lists are fairly non-controversial. We could pull apart the evidence, the reasoning, the facts and figures, but surely common sense tells us that increased cycling in our cities and towns would make the world a better place in a lot of ways.

The more challenging question is: how do we achieve a major increase in cycling? Again the answer seems deceptively simple: better bike infrastructure and fewer cars to make people feel safer when cycling on the roads. After all, when Jaguar Land Rover is over 200 times heavier than a bike, no wonder people are scared. In 2019, a survey conducted in Edinburgh showed that 51% of residents didn’t cycle due to safety concerns. We all observed how during the first lockdown, the lack of cars on the road suddenly made our streets surprisingly peaceful and quiet, encouraging more people to use their bikes and many others to purchase one. 

But there is a better example just across the North Sea. The Netherlands – or, as I like to call it, Cycling Paradise. In the Netherlands, 25% of all roads have bike lanes that are physically segregated from other vehicles. The remaining 75% of roads have other measures in place to provide safe cycling routes. The result of this is that 27% of trips are made by bicycle, rising to an incredible 60% in some cities such as Groningen. The popularity of cycling in the Netherlands is reported to have reduced deaths by 11,000 per year, and yields economic health benefits of €19 billion per year. And all this has happened despite the government only spending €0.5 billion on cycling infrastructure.

So, how do we go about turning the UK into a cycling paradise? Local authorities decide whether to install bike lanes, and it’s our taxes that pay for them. But aside from voting for the most bike-friendly politicians, how do we convince them of the urgent need for better bike infrastructure? And how can we show our fellow citizens how much support there is for cyclists? The answer from Critical Mass is advocacy in the form of protest, activism, and campaigning.

Sadly, the aforementioned ‘bicycle boom’ during the first lockdown seems to have faded from view before it had a chance to build any momentum. However, in the summer of 2020 a few folk in Edinburgh, inspired by the brief glimpse of a car-reduced city that the pandemic had provided, decided to take action. We founded the Edinburgh version of a movement which exists right around the world, called Critical Mass.

At its heart, Critical Mass is a monthly event where cyclists ride slowly around a city, taking up as much space as is needed to keep everybody safe. It takes its name from the idea that you need a certain number of riders, cycling together as one unit, to reach the ‘critical mass’ around which cars, and other motor vehicles, can no longer safely overtake. The name also refers to the future vision where a ‘critical mass’ of cyclists on our streets would change the way drivers behave. With a critical mass of cyclists, drivers could never assume that there wouldn’t be a cyclist just around every corner, and the government could not ignore the need for better cycling infrastructure.

Critical Mass movements around the world each have their own character, some of which have been criticised for being aggressive to cars or dominated by confident male riders. In Edinburgh, we have tried to maintain a focus on accessibility, diversity, avoidance of aggression to drivers, and having fun (we even have a trailer which has a loudspeaker pumping out music to create a ‘street-party’ atmosphere). We aren’t too prescriptive about the motivations for the rides and everyone who joins us has slightly different reasons, but our experience from talking to participants suggests that the vast majority see it as a protest for better bike infrastructure. It’s also very joyful and liberating to ‘take back the streets’ from cars, even if it is only for a short amount of time. You could say it’s ‘pre-figurative’ – creating the world you want to live in, just for a few hours, and showing people what that world looks like.

The Edinburgh rides have been successful, growing from 20 people to 300 in just a few months, and generating significant media coverage. The reaction we get on rides is very positive, both from pedestrians and (most) car drivers. After all, we are only slowing them down for a few minutes at most.

It is important to say that there are many great cycle campaigning groups in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the UK. We hope that Critical Mass fills the need for a regular, on-the-street, presence to be noticed, as well as a chance to bring cyclists together and reach people in person, not just those that exist on social media or the politicians who send a stock reply when you write to them.

Many people, including myself, are suffering from climate anxiety. This is a rational response to the scary state of our natural world, but one of the most effective ways I have found to deal with this anxiety is to take action and protest. Buying an “eco” product might give you the short-term feeling that you are doing your bit, but what we need are urgent systematic changes. These changes will only come about through people taking a stand within their communities, out on their streets – which, by the way, is much more fun than simply changing which products you buy! A huge number of people are already aware, and afraid, of climate change. We now need to shift our focus to the many positive changes that will not only fix the climate but also make our urban landscapes more pleasant to live in. 

Here’s a thought: better bike infrastructure can improve your health on three different timescales:

Today: don’t get hit by a car.

This year: get your body and mind healthy by cycling regularly.

Your lifetime: help to fix the climate and natural world so that it is habitable for us all.

So should healthcare workers be prescribing Critical Mass for every patient? I’d say so. In Edinburgh, Critical Mass rides out together on every last Saturday of the month, meeting at 2 pm on Middle Meadow Walk (or you search online for a Critical Mass near you). At Critical Mass Edinburgh, we plan to continue growing bigger and bigger throughout 2022 and beyond, bringing thousands of people onto the street with their bikes to call for the changes that are urgently needed to provide safe cycling infrastructure for all. Come and join the movement. 

In the summer of 2022, Daniel released a single, ‘our streets’, a protest song about cycling. You can watch it here, and download the track for free here.