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Critical Mass: Berlin’s big, noisy bike takeover 

The streets of Berlin have a long way to go when it comes to bicycle infrastructure. Critical Mass aims to change all that.

Photo: IMAGO / Christian Ditsch

Berlin should be a bike friendly city. It’s extremely flat, very green, and considers itself a progressive place. So why does is it that Berlin ranks so low on European cycling safety lists? While overall traffic deaths are down in the city, cyclist deaths are up. Cyclists and pedestrians make up a shocking 70% of fatalities, evidence that while motorised transport is by far the biggest danger, car drivers are at much lower risk of serious injury or death. 

So what can us Berliners do about it? One thing you can do to make your voice (and your bicycle bell) heard, is to join the Critical Mass protest. It takes place on the last Friday of every month all year round in cities across the world. We at Exberliner are huge fans of the event. Read on to find out what it’s all about, how you can join in, and why it’s more important than ever to do so now. 

What is Critical Mass?

Photo: IMAGO / Christian Ditsch

Critical Mass is a huge bike demo that has been taking place the world over since its conception in San Francisco in 1992, and here in Berlin since 1997. The demo’s aim is to call city councils, governments and road planners to prioritise the safety of all road users, instead of just car traffic. 

Sounds serious? While their aims certainly are, the event itself is loads of fun. There are always courier bikes festooned with fairy lights and carrying massive speakers blasting out tunes. People hand out drinks or snacks to fellow riders, and there’s lots of bell dinging and general merriment. It is deliberately celebratory, noisy and inclusive, and with no political affiliation. As a result, the event is always a wonderful cross section of Berlin residents, all with one thing in common – a love of bikes. 

How does it work?

The event in Berlin takes place on the last Friday of the month, meeting at 8pm on Mariannenplatz in Kreuzberg. The ride lasts between 2.5 to 4 hours, and you can come and go whenever you want, meaning there’s no need to stay for the whole thing if you don’t want to. The route varies each time, and is spontaneously decided on by whoever’s at the front.

Having said that, it’s worth staying until (or joining at) the end point, which is always at the Siegessäule (Victory Column) roundabout in the middle of Tiergarten. The whole crowd ends the event by doing laps of the roundabout, setting up a sort of spontaneous party when all the folks with loud speakers arrive. 

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A post shared by Critical Mass Göttingen (@criticalmassgoettingen)

If over 15 people are all cycling in a group together, according to the rules of the road they are classified as a geschlossener Verband (closed association/group). What on earth does that mean? Well, what it means in practice is pretty cool, and forms the essential disruptive element of Critical Mass. If you’re travelling in a geschlossener Verband, then all members of the group are classed as one ‘vehicle’. This means that when the front of the group starts crossing a junction at a green light, the whole group can continue crossing together, even when the light has turned red. 

The safety and unity of the group is maintained by ‘corking’, which is when riders block traffic from side streets so that the Mass can pass freely through red lights without interruptions. To make this happen, it’s best to keep a moderate pace and try to keep the group as a cohesive clump, rather than stringing out. 

This is what corking looks like. Photo: @critical_mass_berlin

Why is it important?

Safe biking is an issue everywhere, and a large part of the reason Critical Mass has become such a globally popular phenomenon. For Berlin, the issue of road safety for cyclists and pedestrians is a bigger issue now than ever. This year, the new CDU Berlin city council has reneged on the previous administration’s commitments to put in more bike lanes. 8,000 people turned out in July to protest the move, and while the city has rolled back on some of these threats, it is only funding a fraction of the bike lanes it was originally supposed to. 

This means there’s never been a more important moment to get involved with direct action protests like Critical Mass. It’s also a matter of public health, because Berlin is an extremely polluted city, among the top most air-polluted capitals in Europe in fact. And, shocker, breathing in lots of pollution isn’t great for you. 

We already know that private vehicle ownership is responsible for plenty of noise and air pollution, and is an inefficient way to transport people around a city. Cycling solves both these problems. It’s also a great way to decrease your personal carbon footprint, and has a positive impact on your fitness and mental health. Need any more reasons to get involved? 

How to get involved, have fun and stay safe

All you need is a bike of any kind. That being said, there are a few rules worth taking note of in order to take part in a way that makes it safe and enjoyable for everyone. Very occasionally, car drivers can get a bit aggressive, so it’s best to stick to these rules. 

  • Stick together with the group and don’t race ahead! Either stop at a red light all together, or cross all together.
  • Do not antagonise car drivers, there is a police motorbike escort who accompanies the participants.
  • Help with ‘corking’ by blocking traffic from side streets as the Mass passes through. There is however, no obligation to do this if you don’t feel comfortable getting right in front of cars.
  • Don’t ride on the pavements. Pedestrians still have priority.