My wife and I and about 1300 of our closest acquaintances rode bikes through the streets of San Diego’s downtown for about 3 hours. This was the San Diego edition of Critical Mass, an event that got its name in San Francisco in 1992 and now takes place in around 300 cities around the world in various forms.

The form it takes in San Diego is this: bicyclists of all ages and descriptions, on bicycles of all kinds, gather at the fountain in Balboa Park on the last Friday of every month. There is no official leadership and no route announced in advance. As the dark insists, bike riders begin circling the fountain. Various subgroups may take off in some direction and, if the mass doesn’t follow them, they return to circling. At some point, and you can feel the energy rising to a point in the crowd, a group begins heading west down the stairs and across the bridge and all at once there are more than a thousand bicyclists traveling into the city.

You can read more about it on Wikipedia and you can see the movie I created from our experience on YouTube.

While there are no official leaders and the routes are decided on the spot, I’m certain that certain people with credibility within the group exercise significant influence over how it proceeds. The term xerocracy was coined to describe the power of someone showing up with the best photocopy of a possible route.

This event generates a considerable amount of controversy for several reasons. One is that the “critical mass” of riders take over the streets and the traffic of automobile and bus drivers and pedestrians is significantly disrupted. The other is that, since the people involved do not give it a specific meaning (some portray it as a protest against the lack of safe bicycling routes, the general indifference of drivers to bicyclists, or a blow for reduced dependence on fossil fuels for transportation; others claim it’s just a great community party…a spontaneous celebration of the freedom associated with riding one’s bike with a group that makes it possible to travel routes a solo biker could never tackle safely) it is impossible to characterize.

It is a considerable problem for public safety officers. San Diego police have decided to take a low profile response, following the group throughout the evening, but otherwise only responding to problem incidents. Some cities have tried to crack down (the group rides through red lights in most cities, for example), but no responses have been seen as very successful.

For students of leadership, it is helpful as a question mark: What does leadership mean in a group that wants to assert that it is “leaderless”? Clearly it demonstrates the Center’s viewpoint that leadership does not reside only in leaders, but it also raises questions about how leadership emerges and how social movements grow without acknowledged leaders.

Your two-wheeling friend,

Doug

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