Filmmaking | Interviews

Biking for Change

1 Oct , 2006  

Written by Elizabeth Engel | Posted by:

Filmmaker Chris Ryan documents his experiences riding Critical Mass in New York City in Criminal Mass Movie, screening at the Boston Bike Film Festival this month.

In his documentary, Criminal Mass Movie, Chris Ryan, details his experiences as a Critical Mass bike rider. He documents his bike rides through the streets of New York City, his arrests, and the stories of other arrested bike riders. For Ryan, this movie is a way of showing people that their rights to assemble and freely ride bicycles through the city are being challenged. He also wants to use his experiences in the judicial system to help people who were arrested for peacefully riding their bicycles. The film will be coming to Boston for the 2nd annual Boston Bike Film Festival on October 20, 2006 at the Somerville Theater.

Chris Ryan started riding with Critical Mass because he wanted to get together with people who also liked to ride bicycles. Ryan rides because it is fun and not because of a specific agenda or cause. In theory Critical Mass is simply about riding bicycles.

"Critical Mass is not an organization. It’s an unorganized coincidence. It’s a movement…of bicycles in the streets," according to one of Critical Mass’s numerous unofficial websites ( Similar websites to this one also clearly state that there is no official website, nor is there an official leader of Critical Mass.

Critical Mass began in San Francisco in 1992 and has expanded to rides in over 200 cities around the world. The ride is an unplanned route that occurs in cities on the last Friday of the month, usually around 5:30 pm depending on the city. The only plan is to meet in the center of your town or city and ride for a few hours. People of all ages participate in the ride, and they each ride for their own reasons. The rides "illustrate what the streets can look like when used by vehicles other than cars," says Ryan. Often thousands of people gather at a single Critical Mass ride.

In opposition to Critical Mass bike riding, New York City officials and police dissuade riders by arresting them on the street. Following the 2004 Republican National Convention, New York City officials have cracked down on riders. The city arrests many Critical Mass riders, citing traffic violations and parading without a permit. When bikers stop at traffic lights, the police make arrests. Due to this fact and the nature of traffic in New York City, many riders choose not to stop for traffic signals.

The difference between these arrests and other arrests in New York City is that these people have never been arrested before. They are not intentionally breaking laws or obstructing traffic, and they have no experience with the legal system. After arriving at a Critical Mass ride late on February 14, 2005, Ryan was arrested after riding three blocks. His timing was bad, and he paid the price. He was taken by paddy wagon to the police station and charged with parading without a permit, two counts of disorderly conduct, and failure to disperse. Ryan went to court and chose ACD (Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal). The state of New York will dismiss some cases after a period of time through ACD. Providing that the arrestee doesn’t get arrested during the allotted time, the case will be dropped and the record will be wiped clean. However, on the last night of his six month probation, Ryan was arrested again at another Critical Mass ride. His court dates were dragged out causing him to miss work and lose money, but he wanted to fight the charges and prove his innocence. Ryan would show up at court on his dates only to be told by the district attorney that the prosecution was not ready. It took Ryan five months of court dates to finally get his day in court. In regards to why the city is making arrests at the rides, Ryan says, "the powers that be feel threatened when a lot of people get together." There were many other people like him that were arrested, but due to the costs and prolonged court dates, they could not continue to fight their charges.

Ryan and other riders started a group of bicycle advocates called Freewheels. The Freewheels help people that are arrested at Critical Mass rides. They will show up at jails with food and water. They provide legal advice to the arrested riders, including how to get their bikes back. Many of these people use their bicycles to commute to work or as part of their job if they are bike messengers. The Freewheels go to police auctions to get loaner bikes for the people that need them.

As a result of his experiences with Critical Mass bike rides, Chris Ryan decided to make a documentary film to show people what was happening. Ryan wanted to "document what happens when you get arrested and how you get dragged through the courts throughout the year." He decided to get to the root of why the city was relentlessly discouraging people from riding their bikes. Ryan documents his personal experiences through a series of video diaries, video footage, paddy wagon interviews, and bike chase scenes. In addition, he includes footage of undercover cops on the ride. Ryan says that the NYPD lied about not sending the undercover cops on Critical Mass rides. For Ryan, the arrests are a challenge to rights and civil liberties. This film is relevant "because in this day in age it’s more important than ever that communities be built and when you tell people they have to ask permission to assemble in a park or in a bike ride you really limit the ability for people to get together and promote change," says Ryan.

Criminal Mass Movie is narrated by an eight year old girl who also rides Critical Mass. The music used in the soundtrack comes from Chris Ryan’s band, Team Spider. The songs in the film are about the right to assemble and Critical Mass. All of the band members ride Critical Mass, and several of them have been arrested on the rides. Ryan met his violin player in the back of a paddy wagon after one Critical Mass ride. Ryan, who has made other films and does lighting work for TV’s Law and Order, did most of the shooting and editing of the film himself. The film is 40 minutes in length, but Ryan wants to expand it to feature length.

He screened the film at Bike Fest in NYC and will be screening it again in Boston this October at the Boston Bike Film Festival. He is happy to bring the film to Boston because Boston is a city with a long history of protests and demonstrations promoting change that date back the Boston Tea Party. Boston is also the home of its own Critical Mass ride which meets in Copley Square the last Friday of every month.

More information on the Boston Bike Film Festival and the screening of Critical Mass Movie can be found on the festival’s website,

More information on the Boston Bike Film Festival and the screening of Critical Mass Movie can be found on the festival’s website,