Chicago Critical Mass celebrates its 25th (or is it 50th?) anniversary this Friday

Last Thursday there was an inspiring bike protest drawing hundreds of people to the Loop, as Chicago, Bike Grid Now’s Jamapalooza convergence demonstrated for a citywide network of bike-priority streets. If you haven’t already done so, do yourself a favor and check out the mind-blowing drone footage of participants holding a “die-in” on DuSable Lake Shore Drive. The purpose of the highway shutdown was to draw attention to recent traffic fatalities, including the killing of bike rider Gerardo Marciales on February 28 as he biked across the eight-lane road with a walk signal.

Jamapalooza at Buckingham Fountain prior to the DLSD takeover. Photo: John Greenfield

There’s another big inspiring bike ride coming up this Friday, September 30, one that almost certainly influenced CBGN’s idea for its weekly Bike Jam rides. Chicago Critical Mass, the officially leaderless ride that meets on the last Friday of every month at 5:30 p.m. in Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington St., will be holding its 30th anniversary ride that evening. Or maybe it’s the 50th anniversary – it depends on who you ask.

It’s true that monthly Critical Mass rides in Chicago, part of a worldwide movement of anti-car events, launched in September 1997. But local affordable housing advocate Michael Burton (an old friend of mine), who along with Web designer Jim Redd hatched the idea for rides every month from the plaza, is a bit of a prankster. During the 20th anniversary ride in 2017, Burton insisted that it was the 30th year the event had existed. He’s proposing a route for this Friday’s ride and, predictably, he’s claiming that this is the golden (50th) anniversary of the protest-parade-party.

The 20th (30th?) anniversary ride assembles at Daley Plaza in 2017. Photo: John Greenfield

One thing that isn’t debatable is that Chicago Critical Mass has had a big influence on making our city a better place to bike. It helped launched countless careers in bike advocacy and planning, including my own. Even more importantly, it helps participants envision what our city could be like if our focus shifted from streets for cars to streets for people. As Active Transportation Alliance spokesperson Ted Villaire noted in a blog post before the 2017 ride, “Once participants get a taste of the two-wheeled camaraderie that goes with the event and the feeling of riding city streets without being fearful of car traffic, people naturally [want] to get involved in making biking better.”

The route for Chicago Critical Mass rides is never predetermined, and if more than one person shows up at Daley Plaza’s Picasso sculpture with a route proposal, the crowd will often take a vote on where to ride. There’s currently discussion of potential routes on a CCM-related Facebook group.

Draft route proposal for Friday’s ride by Michael Burton.

Burton is suggesting an itinerary that stops at 12th Street Beach, “with an additional 50-mile all-night trip to the Indiana Dunes on offer for intrepid riders.” If you’re planning on going on that adventure, bring your own tent and sleeping bag. Also keep in mind that, due to a double-tracking project and shuttle bus service replacing some of the rail service, the South Shore Line commuter railroad is currently not accommodating bikes at any of the stations in the dunes area. However, biking from the Dunes to the Gary Metro stop to catch the train home is an option.

Burton is dedicating his route proposal to CCM rider, monorail enthusiast, and onetime mayoral candidate Bill Wendt, who passed away in December 2020 at age 73.

Bill Wendt.

“Over the past 50 years [again, it’s really only 25], Critical Mass has made Chicago a bike-friendlier town, with accomplishments including 200 miles of on-street protected, buffered, and shared bike lanes;  ands more than 13,000 bike racks,” Burton said in a statement. “Despite these many gains, there’s much work still to be done. But, we all ride for different reasons, and perhaps no reason at all. I ride CCM to enact a car-free city, where the current autocracy fades into a long-forgotten, bad dream that will be replaced by the happy chiming of bike bells.”

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