Wednesday, November 16, 2005

My take on Critical Mass...

Kiril – the Mad Macedonian – writes a blog called The Cycling Dude. In the last couple of days, he’s decided to speak out against Critical Mass, citing the political leanings of some CM apologists as his impetus. (As an aside, ya gotta love somebody who calls himself the Mad Macedonian! I wish I’d thought of that.)

This morning, Fritz of Cycle-licious fame, asked my opinion of CM. Here’s part of my reply:

...somehow I don't see cycling as advocating any particular political viewpoint. Sure, there are some who ride as a statement against Big Oil and consumerism, but there's a much larger group that rides simply for the fun of it, or the exercise, or to save money.

Later in the day, Kiril contacted me with more of his thoughts about CM. I won’t post them because they’re rather long, so here’s a link to the Mad Macedonian. This is my reply (lightly edited):

Kiril, you and I are at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, and I really don't have any problem with that. We're both cyclists, and that supercedes political interests. Who knows? We may even disagree about cycling, but if we can do so respectfully and without descending to personal attacks, our arguments are stronger. I may disagree vehemently with someone's ideas, but I rarely malign their character.

Like you, I find CM disagreeable in the coyness with which they approach their intent of disrupting traffic, disobeying the law, and just generally raising hell. But I'll admit there was a time in my life that I would have reveled in the anarchy. I'm older, and presumably, wiser now. If a group of motorists acted in a similar manner, no one would extend them any sympathy when the police arrested them. No one would accept their self-serving justification as mitigating the offense. Why should we treat cyclists any different?

The Chainguard site has a slogan: Same Rights, Same Rules, Same Road. When I wrote about CM earlier this week on the state advocacy list, I said:

What constitutes a critical mass of bicycle riders? Two riding side-by-side? A group of 4 or more riding two up? A bigger group? Or can a critical mass consist of just one cyclist riding legally and responsibly, thereby showing the motoring public it's entirely possible to negotiate traffic in safety and comfort?

I'm thinking about this from the standpoint of how many cyclists are necessary to have an impact on motorist's thoughts and behavior. I submit that a critical mass (lower case!) can consist of merely one law-abiding vehicular cyclist.

I don't think the simple act of riding a bicycle requires any political agenda, so in effect, I take a simple approach: I ride my bike because I like to ride my bike.

But there was a time I would have reveled in the anarchy of a CM ride. Blowing through intersections en masse and pissing off motorists would have been a cheap thrill. Does that really advance the cause of cyclists? If we believe in "Same Rights, Same Rules, Same Road" it certainly doesn't!

An individual or a group can be a critical mass simply by riding responsibly.

Kiril, I've been a road cyclist since 1972. I learned the hard way about riding on the road, and I my learning curve went way up when I took the Road1 and LCI course through the League of American Bicyclists. Riding a bicycle isn't a death-defying feat. Cyclists are not near-suicidal thrill seekers. Yet many of them are absolutely terrified of riding in traffic. I think CM represents an over reaction to that fear, and it's a chance to 'take revenge' against all those motorists whose transgressions are real or imagined. The unstated principle seems to be that unless cities do something to accommodate cyclists, then the anarchy will continue. In my opinion, even if a city were a cycling Mecca, the anarchy would continue. It's just too tempting to the yobs among us.

I became an instructor through that LCI class. We stress the importance of riding predictably in traffic. Traffic law is all about predictability. When anyone operates outside the norms, he creates problems for himself and others on the road. And when a cyclist’s fear causes him to ride unpredictably, he jeopardizes his safety instead of enhancing it.

Critical Mass is this same fearful behavior amplified by the number of cyclists. It won't produce positive change in government policies or motorists behavior. The most effective approach is to get involved in government. Sit in those boring committee meetings and pore over planning documents. The dull nuts-and-bolts approach clearly doesn't have the panache of raising hell in the street, yet it's a better way of producing results. And more to the point, it actually works.


Blogger mags said...

Well, in my short, young life I've never viewed riding a bike as a political statement. I simply do it for some reason or another that I cannot really explain. Most people look at me like I'm from Mars, when I pedal past the local McDonald's at 8am in the morning. Other then demonstrating a very "unusual" life-style compared to the average human being of today, I don't think riding a bike is much of a statement either way on the political scale.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Ed W said...

Garrison Keillor said that he had some friends with lifestyles and other friends with children. I've always liked that line.

Since I pedal nearly everywhere, a lot of people know me from seeing me on the street, including some of my daughter's friends. I've offered to pick he up from school on the tandem, but to a high school senior, that would probably be the height of embarassment!

I don't think of riding a bike as a lifestyle, either. It's just how I get to work.

9:35 PM  
Blogger ItsJustMe said...

CM as an overreaction to fear of cars. Thanks, that at least is SOME explanation of CM. I've read about CM for a long time and have never been able to figure out what the hell they were trying to accomplish, other than to irritate people. I personally don't have any problems or fear riding in traffic, so maybe that's why I don't understand them.

CM, if taken at their word, are protesting their being abused by law-breaking vehicle operators, and they do this by becoming law-breaking vehicle operators. WTF? Shall we protest the war by going out and killing some people too?

I understand that sometimes unfair laws must be broken as a statement of protest. But the traffic laws are about as egalitarian as laws come.

What riders really need is for motorists to be educated and for law enforcement to understand and uphold the law uniformly. Sorry, but you don't get the public and the police on your side by irritating them as much as possible. You do get their attention, in the same way that an exploding sewer line would get their attention, but that's not the kind of attention you want.

I think the problem is that some of the riders are interpreting "critical mass" not as the number of riders needed to be noticed, but the number of riders needed before the cops can't possibly arrest everyone, so they get to do whatever they want.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Fritz said...

I've never thought of CM as an overreaction to fear of traffic, but that makes sense. I think there's some irony that many CM participants also seem to be strong advocates of paint and paths.

12:01 PM  
Blogger bikefridaywalter said...

drowned in a sea of bicycles, it's a glimpse of a possible future.

is it blocking traffic and pissing off motorists? when you're in rush hour in LA (read, when you're driving anywhere anytime in LA), are all the cyclists in front of you just as irritating? what are they protesting? don't they deserve the same criticism?

critical mass is about celebrating the right of bicycles to ride on the road. it's not about denying rights to other users. LA traffic, whether in the front of the back, is not trying to deny access to the roads for other users. it's simply employing the rights they have to the road. big whoop.

i'm a critical mass rider and certainly not a card carrying vehicular cyclist (dogma sucks no matter what it is), but i've seen many more dangers in "paths and paint" than in riding on the busiest street in town, taking a lane.

so don't judge critical mass by a few people. frankly, don't judge any group of people by any number of people within them. i might add to this there are masses all around the world where, say, they'll take up a whole lane or two but leave one open for the cars. some won't run lights.

people on the street cheer us in eugene. cars honk encouragingly at us. some don't. many do. it's irrelevant; everyone disagrees with somebody. the point is that it's not pissing off everyone. many see the validity.

critical mass to me is not a protest. there's no politics involved. but there's a joy in being surrounded by bikes. a wonderful blissful joy. and that's why i'm there.

that's also why cycle oregon is nice. but it's a lot more flipping expensive!!

1:36 AM  
Blogger Jill said...

I agree. Critical mass for many is about being noticed. Often cyclists, no matter what they call themselves, feel invisible as they move through open spaces. With oil prices, population increase, etc., hordes of bicycles probably are the wave of the future. Can't we all just get along?

4:37 PM  

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