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Critical Mass

We Are Traffic! A Movie About Critical Mass, by Ted White; $28,

For some transit evangelists, eliminating the auto as the primary mode of transportation is the most serious American reform effort since Abolition. But crusaders to curb the world's biggest environmental menace (and the killer of 40,000 U.S. residents each year) have managed to work a bit of refreshing levity into their campaign. It's called Critical Mass, a monthly rush-hour takeover of city streets by bicyclists that began in San Francisco and has spread to other cities as far away as Sydney and Budapest.

The birth of this two-wheeled rebellion is ably documented by director Ted White, who shows how it started in 1992 with a ragtag group of 40 or 50 San Francisco cyclists riding en masse to promote a "demonstrably preferable way to move bodies through the city." The movement quickly grew, with hundreds, then thousands of riders, many in colorful costumes, crowding the streets, chatting, chanting, and whooping.

"We wanted to celebrate the bike and dominate the streets for a change," says one of the "leaders" of the loosely organized group, which promotes the event as a social gathering as much as a protest. Avoiding both confrontation and conventional PR, they publicize largely through "xerocracy," with individuals passing out their own flyers, applying whatever spin they want.

The ride is sometimes bumpy, however. With hundreds more two-wheelers slowing down traffic in San Francisco, bicyclists have had run-ins with angry motorists. By July '97, the number of Critical Mass participants had swelled to 5,000 and police were monitoring the ride. In one of the film's scenes, the rolling party is broken up by cops slamming bikes and people around in a melee that resulted in about 110 arrests-though ultimately no convictions.

Despite the rough stuff, this festive look at a burgeoning movement is a fine invitation to join the freewheeling crowds-or at least cheer from the sidewalk to encourage the demise of fossil-fueled tyranny. -Bob Schildgen

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