An Advocacy Manual (3): the organization of a critical mass

Publikováno: 16. srpna. 2023, 26 min. čtení
Publikováno: 16. srpna. 2023, 26 min. čtení

A critical mass is, first and foremost, a pleasant celebration of bicycles and an opportunity for everyone to ride together in a large group through the city without the concerns of motorized traffic. Critical masses typically take place on routes where motor vehicles dominate for most of the year. Participants of the critical mass experience a radically transformed street that is not a storage space for motor vehicles but a place for people to come together and enjoy life without engines, exhaust fumes, and car bodies.

What is a cycling tour?

A critical mass is an organized procession or peloton, a compact formation of tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people primarily on bicycles but also on scooters and other similar devices. The critical mass rides together as a group at a slow pace. It is not a race but a peaceful ride often accompanied by homemade sound systems carried by people on bikes. Due to the group formation, the procession is closed off, preventing cars from intervening, and the people in the group are protected by the group itself.

An Advocacy Manual

In the online magazine „Městem na kole“ (City by Bike), we are publishing a series of articles called „Advocacy Manual.“ These guides, written by Michal Šindelář and the AutoMat association, describe how to support the development of cycling transportation and infrastructure from the perspective of an active citizen.

The manual provides know-how on how to navigate the entire process of public administration and the legal possibilities for influencing one’s immediate surroundings.

This article was made possible thanks to the support of the Open Society Foundations as part of the AutoMat’s National Outreach Via Social Base Management project.

Why organize a critical mass and what goals can it have?

A critical mass is always a celebration with a positive atmosphere, the sound of bells, and joy among the participants and the surrounding area. critical masses can be themed, where people decorate their bikes or themselves according to the chosen style. We have seen Halloween rides, Dutch orange-themed rides, animal-themed rides, naked bike rides, and Christmas light rides in the past. The possibilities are limitless. A critical mass can resemble a mobile carnival, a music event, or simply a gathering of people who want to enjoy a pleasant ride through the city.

Media event

A critical mass is a tool to bring the topic of cycling transportation and sustainable mobility into the media space. The extent of media coverage that a critical mass receives depends on several factors:

  • Number of participants: The more, the better. An event with only fifteen participants won’t attract much attention, but if it involves a large number of participants relative to the size of the city, it becomes more interesting.
  • Theme of the critical mass: If the critical mass has a thematic framework, it becomes more attractive. It allows for written articles and, most importantly, photography and filming.
  • Connection to advocacy activities: If the critical mass simultaneously expresses a stance on a current topic (typically a specific traffic situation or infrastructure), it provides content that can be reported on.
  • Engagement with the media: By directly reaching out to the media, typically through a concise press release (see the chapter on media cooperation), you increase the chances of having news coverage of the critical mass.

Publicity for cycling

A critical mass takes place directly on the streets, in front of the public’s eyes. Thanks to media coverage, information about the critical mass reaches a wider audience beyond the direct participants and spectators. Critical masses are typically associated with good publicity and provide people on the streets with an impressive spectacle that breaks the monotony of everyday life and offers a remarkable experience. It is important to focus on the positive spirit of the ride, which then spreads from the critical mass to the public. This contributes to building a positive image of cycling, gaining public support, and inspiring people to ride bikes in the city.

Causes and advocacy

A critical mass can be connected to a current issue that the organizing association is addressing in the city. It could involve an upcoming or completed reconstruction of an important street, the installation of bike lanes or bike signs, opening up pedestrian zones for cycling, promoting the Bike to Work challenge, appealing to city authorities to support cycling infrastructure, and more. These topics can be incorporated into the ccritical mass‘ communication through prepared media content and speeches at the beginning of the ride or directly along the route, which can pass through the relevant locations where participants can stop and address the issue.

Influence on local government

A critical mass can have a positive impact on policymakers and officials responsible for transportation in the city. Specific individuals from the city administration can be personally invited to participate in the critical mass, and this invitation can be supplemented by a public invitation. Prior to elections, it may be possible to consider inviting party leaders and candidates to express their views through a pre-formulated questionnaire. For example, in Brno, before the 2014 elections, almost all candidates from the top positions of the party lists condemned the restriction on cycling access to the city center during daytime hours, and after the elections, the new city administration indeed lifted this restriction.

The cycling route

To fulfill the goals of a critical mass, the choice of route is crucial. The critical mass is always to some extent a demonstration for better conditions for cycling in the city. People want to ride bikes not only for leisure in the forest but also for everyday transportation in the city without concerns for their safety. The main source of these concerns is mixed traffic with motor vehicles. Urban critical masses are always a manifestation for safe infrastructure that would alleviate people’s fears of being hit by cars during regular bike rides. Therefore, the route of the critical mass reflects this fundamental demand, and traditionally, critical masses in Czechia and around the world take place on streets where motor traffic dominates for the majority of the year.

It is usually the route through the city that sparks the most intense debates from local authorities and the police. For the authorities, it would typically be easiest if the critical mass took place exclusively on dedicated cycle paths or on less significant roads, minimizing disruption to motor traffic. However, motor traffic is precisely the problem that critical masses aim to address. A critical mass is a celebration during which streets that primarily serve cars throughout the rest of the year are temporarily transformed for a few minutes, up to tens of minutes. Moving the critical mass aside to avoid disrupting motor traffic would contradict the very purpose of the cycling tour.

The authorities‘ stance towards the chosen route and the intention of the critical mass itself are closely related to how the critical mass is organized.

How to organize a critical mass

A critical mass can be formally organized in at least three ways, differing in the time required for preparation, the nature of collaboration with local authorities, and the role of traffic regulations. The formal and informal organizational frameworks for cycling tours vary across countries and cities.

In cities like Bratislava, Vienna, Berlin, and others, critical mass-type cycling tours take place every month without formal organization and cooperation with authorities. These cycling tours involve hundreds to a few thousand participants and are relatively large events where organized groups of cyclists move through the city streets. The passage of such a large critical mass through a single location can take up to tens of minutes. These critical masses are not officially announced in advance. The route is often determined during the ride, with participants at the front leading the way, and the passage through intersections is facilitated by the participants themselves through a technique called „corking.“ In Vienna, the police regularly join these rides and help facilitate the passage through intersections to ensure the critical mass moves safely as a single group.

In Czechia, the situation is more complicated. Smaller critical masses with dozens of participants that are not formally announced usually go unnoticed by the police and take place self-organized without issues. However, there was a case in 2011 when eight police cars intervened against a critical mass with several dozen participants. For larger critical masses or ensuring a smooth progression in cooperation with the authorities, two legal frameworks can be utilized in Czechia: the Law on Assembly Rights and the Institute of Special Road Usage.

In good faith or without paperwork

Organizing a critical mass without an explicit legal framework can be recommended in cases where you expect lower participation or when organizing the cycling event as a self-governing entity. In the case of smaller participation, with dozens of participants, the movement of the cycling group in the city streets can be expected to be unproblematic, and this smaller group should not have any issues crossing intersections during regular green lights. The cycling event will also not be large enough to significantly affect other types of traffic.

Sometimes the cycling event is organized by the city itself, as was the case in previous years, for example in Zlín or Břeclav. The city and its representatives have a good relationship with the municipal police, with whom they can arrange the escort for the critical mass without the need for special road usage permits.

Notification of assembly and procession

If it is not possible to organize the critical mass informally, the first of the two tools for official organization is the notification of assembly and procession according to the Assembly Act (Act No. 84/1990 Coll.). The population of the Czech Republic has a legally protected fundamental human right to assemble, which can only be denied to people under exceptional and legally defined circumstances.

Organizing the critical mass as an assembly and procession brings several organizational advantages. You do not need to request permission from anyone; you simply notify the event, including the assembly location and procession route. The critical mass is effectively an assembly of people in a public space. From the perspective of Act No. 84/1990 Coll., the critical mass can be seen as an assembly and procession for better conditions of cycling transport in your city. According to this law, assemblies and processions are only notified; you do not request permission from any authority, and you have a relatively large freedom in choosing the location and route of the critical mass. The assembly must be notified to the relevant office at least five days in advance, but we recommend announcing it several weeks in advance in case the municipal office or city council decides to initiate discussions regarding the course of the assembly.

Here you can find a pre-prepared form for notifying the assembly and procession, including all the legal requirements. The notification must be submitted no earlier than six months and no later than five days before the event. We recommend submitting the notification through a data box or by email to the registry with an electronic signature. The notification can be printed and sent by mail or submitted in person to the office’s registry. The notification is submitted to the office based on its territorial jurisdiction. For example, if the critical mass goes through multiple city districts or wards, the notification is submitted not to the district or ward office but directly to the city council.

Special Road Usage

The concept of Special Road Usage (abbreviated as ZUK) represents a rather complex and time-consuming process of formally ensuring the passage of a critical mass through a city. While the approach through the notification of assembly is based on the fundamental human right to assemble, the application for special road usage is governed by Act No. 13/1997 Coll., on Roads. This law regulates various possibilities for the special use of roads under Section 25, such as the movement of military vehicles, transportation of oversized cargo, carrying out construction works, establishment and operation of advertisements, designated parking, or for organizing sports, cultural, and other events „if they could pose a threat to the safety or flow of road traffic.“

Although participants in a critical mass won’t notice the difference if it is organized as a notified assembly or under ZUK, there are significant philosophical and practical differences between these approaches. A critical mass as a notified assembly and procession is a civil demonstration utilizing the fundamental human right to express a viewpoint, to demonstrate for the solution of a public matter, specifically the organization of transportation in the city in relation to the use of roads. It is a demonstration that to some extent challenges the status quo and the influence that roads predominantly used by motorized traffic have on the quality of life in the city.

In the case of a critical mass organized through ZUK, the ideological basis is substantially different. The purpose of ZUK, as derived from the wording of the law, is to enable the use of roads for other practical purposes. The nature of the ZUK institute is not intended for conducting civil demonstrations. This is because you must apply for permission for the special use of roads, and your request must be approved by the road owner and the Police of the Czech Republic. The permit is then issued by the Road Administration Authority, which may specify the conditions under which the permit is valid.

The difference compared to a critical mass under the law on assembly is evident. When applying for ZUK, the situation arises where a civil demonstration can come under the control of authorities whose actions can even become a source of problematic traffic situations that the cycling event aims to demonstrate against. The practical implications mainly concern the route of the critical mass, for which you must obtain the consent of the Police of the Czech Republic.

The specific process of applying for permission for ZUK and the extent to which authorities attempt to influence the form and route of the critical mass depend on the human factor. In other words, it depends on the official and the member of the Police of the Czech Republic you encounter. There is a known case where the head of the Traffic Inspectorate, in response to a request, emotionally announced in advance that they would never issue a positive opinion for organizing the critical mass. Subsequently, the police issued a negative opinion, stating:

„[…] we fundamentally disagree with the organization of the mentioned event. We recommend that so-called ‚cultural events‘ of a similar nature be directed to roads designated and suitable for the given purpose and type of traffic.“

If it were only possible to organize a critical mass through ZUK, then in some cases, the Police of the Czech Republic or the Road Administration Authority would have control over the fundamental human right to assemble. However, controlling and issuing permits for the exercise of the fundamental human right to assemble does not fall within the legally defined powers of these authorities.

Except for extreme cases, including the aforementioned police viewpoint, the situation is more diverse. There have been cases where cooperation with the police has been constructive and substantive, and it has been possible to quickly reach a consensus on the optimal cycling route based on objective factors such as construction closures, minimizing the impact on public transportation lines, and ensuring an optimal, minimally interrupted passage of the critical mass through the city. The process of requesting permission for ZUK will vary from city to city. The approach of authorities can change for better or worse, even within a single city, in a short period of time.

How to apply for a permit under ZUK

If you decide to organize a critical mass using the ZUK, we have prepared a guide to help you navigate through this relatively complex process, which should be started at least three months prior to the critical mass. To facilitate the process, it is advisable to have an existing organization or association with a designated data box.

Setting the date of the critical mass – 4 months in advance
First, determine the date of the cycling event. Everything else will be planned accordingly based on this date.

Proposing the cycling route and discussing it with the police – at least 90 days in advance
Prepare several proposals for the cycling route. These can be different routes or one main proposal with various alternatives. Find out where your city publishes planned road closures and compare the route with the closures on the day of the cycling event. Depending on your relationship with the Czech Republic Police (PČR) in your city and whether you have contacts with police officers responsible for formulating PČR’s position, arrange a meeting to discuss the route. During this meeting, you can learn how the police perceive the route and possibly agree on a compromise.

If you don’t have contacts with the police and it’s not possible to discuss the route in advance, you may encounter complications in the next step when you formally request the police’s approval for ZUK. When the route is pre-negotiated and the police agree to it during the preliminary discussions, you can expect a positive opinion in the following step. However, if the route hasn’t been pre-negotiated and the police only see it in the ZUK approval request, the opinion may be negative, and negotiations about the route will only begin at that moment. This can complicate matters, especially regarding the timely processing of the entire administrative process.

Requesting Approval – at least 60 days in advance
At least two months in advance, you must request approval from the relevant authorities, who have a 30-day period to respond. You request approval from the owner or administrator of the road and from the Czech Republic Police. The ownership of the road can belong to multiple entities, such as:

  • Municipality – local roads
  • City district or borough – local roads
  • City – local roads
  • Region – second and third-class roads
  • Directorate of Roads and Highways – highways and first-class roads

In the case of statutory cities, the relationship between city districts or boroughs and the statutory city itself regarding the exercise of ownership rights may be specifically regulated. Furthermore, the exercise of ownership rights is often delegated to organizations or companies established by the city, such as the Technical Administration of Roads in Prague or Brněnské komunikace in Brno.

Which owners you will request approval from depends on the cycling route. If the cycling route passes through roads owned by the city and a portion of a first-class road managed by the Directorate of Roads and Highways (ŘSD), you will need to request approval from the ŘSD and either the local self-government (municipality, city office) or the organization to which the self-government has delegated the exercise of ownership rights for the management of the city’s roads.

It is important to identify any first-class roads within the city, and if the cycling event follows those roads, it is necessary to request approval from the ŘSD and then submit two applications for ZUK permission: one to the regional authority and the other to the municipality or city office. You can identify these roads on the ŘSD Geoportal (original Geoportal, alternative solution if the Geoportal is unavailable). If you are unsure, contact the transportation department of your city regarding first-class roads.

Additionally, according to the law, you need to request approval from the Czech Republic Police. To obtain a positive opinion, it is advisable to have the cycling route pre-negotiated and not be uncertain about the police’s stance on the route. You should contact the police department based on its territorial jurisdiction.

For the request for approval, you can use the provided template form.

Request for ZUK Permission – at least 30 days in advance
If you obtain approvals for ZUK from the road owners and the police, you can then request permission for special use of the road from the relevant road administration authority. Typically, this will be the Transportation Department of either the municipality or the city office for roads under their jurisdiction, or the Transportation Department of the regional authority for routes that include a segment of a first-class road.

You can find template requests for ZUK permission for the following entities:

In the application, include the names of the co-organizers who, based on ZUK permission, will have the authority to regulate or control traffic. Although the authorities have a 30-day period according to the law, it may take them a week or two to process the application.

After receiving the ZUK permission, make copies of it for each co-organizer listed in the ZUK application. With this permission, these individuals can carry out traffic regulation in accordance with the legislation.

This article was developed with the support of the Open Society Foundations through the project AutoMat’s National Outreach Via Social Base Management. The Open Society Initiative for Europe, within the Open Society Foundations, has provided a grant for this purpose.


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