Joel Pomerantz helped to form the bicycle group “Critical Mass” in San Francisco and probably coined the term “corking” there in 1992. Critical Mass (a large mass of bicycle riders) has events in many cities; in 2004, a planned Critical Mass ride during the Republican National Convention in New York City was prevented by police, citing safety concerns.
“Corking” is when several riders stop traffic on side streets, permitting the Critical Mass cyclists to go through red lights. Corking causes “bottlenecks” or “gridlock,” tying up side streets for police and EMS vehicles as well as others. The image is like putting a “cork” on a bottle and stopping the flow out of the bottle.
Wikipedia: Critical Mass
Critical Mass is an event typically held on the last Friday of every month in cities around the world where bicyclists and other self-propelled commuters take to the streets en masse. While the ride was originally founded with the idea of drawing attention to how unfriendly the city was to bicyclists, the leaderless structure of Critical Mass makes it impossible to assign it any one specific goal. In fact, the purpose of Critical Mass is not formalized beyond the direct action of meeting at a set location and time and traveling as a group through city or town streets.
Corking. Corking (described in detail below) is a tactic used to prevent traffic from entering the path of the cyclists.
Because Critical Mass takes place without an official route or sanction, participants practice a tactic known as “corking” in order to maintain the cohesion of the group. This tactic consists of a few riders blocking traffic from side roads so that the mass can freely proceed through red lights without interruption. Corking allows the mass to engage in a variety of activities, such as forming a cyclone, lifting their bikes in a tradition known as a “Bike Lift” (in Chicago this is referred to as a Chicago hold-up), or to perform a “die-in” where riders fall lie on the ground with their bikes to symbolise cyclist deaths and injuries caused by automobiles, very popular in Montreal. The ‘Corks’ sometimes take advantage of their time corking to distribute flyers.
Critics argue that the practice of corking roads in order to pass through red lights as a group is contrary to Critical Mass’ claim that “we are traffic”, since ordinary traffic (including bicycle traffic) does not usually have the right to go through intersections once the traffic signal has changed to red, unless issued with a specific permit or residing in jurisdictions where bicyclists have this right such as in Idaho, where State law recognizes such riding. Corking has sometimes translated into hostility between motorists and riders, even erupting into violence and arrests of motorists and cyclists alike during Critical Mass rides.
New York City
Police in New York have claimed that Critical Mass bicyclists corking intersections to allow the mass of bikes to pass may delay emergency vehicles unable to move in the gridlock. Motorists driving cars on cross streets cannot practicably move over to the side of the streets in the way a bicyclist can due to the length and square footage of a car, and current traffic lane configurations on Manhattan streets which, at present, allow parking and driving of private automobiles in some areas.
2004 RNC Convention, New York City
During the US 2004 Republican National Convention police arrested more than 250 riders after the ride caused “massive disruptions” in the city. Many court cases resulted regarding the legality of the ride, whether police have the right to arrest cyclists and seize their bicycles, and whether the event needs a permit. In December of 2004, a federal judge dismissed New York City’s injunction against Critical Mass as a “political event.” On March 23, 2005, the city filed a lawsuit, seeking to prevent TIME’S UP!, a local nonprofit, direct action, environmental group, from promoting or advertising Critical Mass rides. The lawsuit also stated TIME’S UP! and the general public could not participate in riding or gathering at the Critical Mass bike ride, claiming a permit was required. A documentary film, Still We Ride shows the nature of these bike rides before and after the police took notice.
A Critical Mass Cultural Glossary
This article first appeared in Critical Mass Missives, 1999, subsequently updated for the anthology
corking Leaving the flow of the ride for a while to plant your body and bike, in calm posture, a few feet from the front of stopped cars which would otherwise enter an intersection in use by Critical Mass. Best accompanied by smiles and eye contact, or signs that say “Thanks for waiting!” and “Honk if you love bikes!” Corking a thinned out section of the ride undermines its own legitimacy and safety by tempting the aggression of the car drivers being corked, who no longer see a mass of bikes but are still blocked. vb. to cork, n. corker.
26 October 1996, Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, “Taking back the streets on two wheels” by Larry Fish, pg. B1:
...one rider will ``cork’’ the intersection by physically blocking it,
12 August 1997, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), pg. A13:
Bicyclists must clean up their act Critical Mass demands respect for bicyclists. On Critical Mass days, in San Francisco, they block traffic as they rampage through town. They have even coined a new word for their method of blocking traffic. They call it corking. On non Critical Mass days (all over the Bay Area), bicyclists run through red lights and stop signs. They ride against the traffic, on one- and two-way streets. And they ride on the sidewalk, and through pedestrian crossings.
New York (NY) Daily News
THE SPIN CYCLE A JUDGE IGNORES COMMON SENSE BY RULING FOR MASS RIDES
BY RICHARD SCHWARTZ
Thursday, December 30th 2004, 6:57AM
What’s a corker? Rest assured it has nothing to do with the champagne bottle you’ll open tomorrow night. But corkers will be at work this New Year’s Eve when thousands of cyclists are expected to bottle up traffic during their freewheeling Critical Mass ride through the streets of Manhattan.
Corkers, for the record, are the advance teams of cyclists who “cork” or block crosstown traffic so that Critical Massers can wheel the light fantastic up Park Ave., down Broadway or wherever their free spirits carry them.
If you think the city should have an unimpeachable right to demand that this spinning swarm get a permit before it takes it upon itself to shut down public thoroughfares - well, think again. Federal Judge William Pauley last week passed on a city request to require the group to get a permit, saying the matter should be decided in a state court.
New York (NY) Times
Cyclists, the Police and the Rest of Us
Published: December 29, 2006
Urban bike riders often feel they’re pedaling on virtuous ground, striking a blow against pollution and traffic congestion. That’s particularly true of a movement called Critical Mass, which holds demonstrations around the world on the last Friday of every month, tonight included. Thousands of riders will take to the streets. They’ll force cross traffic to stop and wait as the bikes all whiz by. There have been scuffles in the past with the police in San Francisco and in Seattle, but lately nothing compares to the confrontations in New York, where the stare-down between cyclists and police officers keeps escalating, threatening to create a losing proposition for both sides.
Law-abiding bicyclists could win a lot of hearts if they focused more on bad behavior by fellow bikers. That includes the Critical Mass practice of corking streets — as halting cross traffic is called — which is an odd way for cyclists to make their case that biking is the answer to gridlock. Ride leaders should work with the police to chart a route and allow officers to stop traffic for them, as was done before the 2004 confrontations. As both sides prepare for the year’s final ride, we’d like to see everyone gear down a notch.
New York (NY) Daily News
But the GOP’s arrival lured the Critical Mass activists, who saw the rides as a perfect way of disrupting the city, by running red lights, blocking side streets ("corking," they call it) and venturing onto major highways.
New York City • Transportation • (1) Comments • Tuesday, July 29, 2008 • Permalink
“corking” I think later became worldwide phenomena. Like them other peoples from around the world also started this practice. Though there are lots of people against them, but what are the other options there in that peak time without using side streets? Why should discourage cycling? Bike has become a vital part for people to survive from peak hour’s traffic.