On Critical Mass

Excerpted and reposted from Bike Snob NYC:

People do need to see other people out there on bikes. They need to become accustomed to them so they learn to respect them, and they need to see how practical and effective they can be so they consider riding them themselves. Many cyclists illustrate this day after day, not only by riding their bikes to and from work during rush-hour but also by using them for recreation and even racing on them. A driver who sees you zip past as you ride your bike to work, and then sees you riding your bike to dinner later with a date, and then sees you going for a road ride that weekend doesn’t realize he’s seen only one rider—as far as he knows he’s seen a bunch of riders, and he sees them using their bikes successfully. Effectively, you’re a Critical Mass of one. Meanwhile, a mob of people on crappy bikes blocking traffic one day a month isn’t a “mass” at all. At best it’s a party. At worst it’s effectively just one big stupid person.

As you may have already seen, an NYPD officer rammed himself into a biker on a recent Critical Mass ride. There is nothing about this I see as proper behavior on the part of the officer — let me make that clear — and as a cyclist, the video is terrifying to watch.

And yet, I agree with Bike Snob NYC; Critical Mass rides, instead of raising awareness of bicycles as legal vehicles and entitled users of city streets, rather obscure the good efforts of cyclists (particularly commuters) to abide by traffic laws and operate parallel to automotive traffic.

As the “resident cyclist” in my office, I get a mixed bag of admiration, questions regarding my sanity, and laundry lists of complaints. Bikes swerve too much. Some biker cut off one driver. They don’t “get” the bike lanes in Lincoln (placed in the center of the street on only two streets Downtown). They saw a bike go through a red light, and it messed them up, because they started to go, thinking the light must’ve turned. I’ve explained the fear of being doored on numerous occasions, the difficulty of building bike lanes as an afterthought rather than part of the city plan, the navigation of potholes when riding on one-inch tires, and the awful feeling of having a car zoom by six inches from your knee as you’re trying to accelerate after being stopped at a red light. Do all these questions piss me off? Of course. I often walk in to work after nearly being hit, and it’s not a fun way to start the day. But what pisses me off more is knowing that when cyclists are out actively trying to piss off and obstruct car traffic, it makes my life as a commuter more difficult and more dangerous. There’s no denying that some drivers will always be assholes. We don’t need to actively encourage more of them.

Lincoln Police Chief Tom Casady just blogged on sharing the road with bikes in Lincoln, too.

I certainly don’t deny the fun of riding with a group. There’s something passé though, somehow, about the sort of disruptive activism at the root of Critical Mass. Sort of like the ELF burning down housing developments (again, something that really pisses me off, like having the land next to the farm turned into McMansion acreages), it seems to be showy without getting to the root of the matter. If a so-called critical mass infiltrates city council and planning commission meetings, rules can change, and the vocal are heard. Look at what happened for all-ages shows in Omaha. I digress.

I’d love for more folks to consider biking to work or just around town. Seeing a family out for a ride, a guy on his way to work, a couple hauling groceries home in panniers, or a few bikers out for an evening cruise always makes me happy. And if I see all that in a day, that’s a critical mass — that’s everyday folks riding bikes. Besides, you have to be a real dick to not respect street space for a whole family lawfully biking around town.

2 thoughts on “On Critical Mass

  1. hey liz, i agree with you totally. unfortunately the critical mass crowd has been taken over by a militant ‘us vs them’ sect. these hyper activist/hipster/punk types use causes such as CM rides as an opportunity to release their teenage angst on drivers (or anyone else). they are doing more harm than good by taking over the streets in such an agressive manner. it would be more effective if a large group of cyclists (of all types and ages) got together and rode in mass but at the same time obeying the traffic laws and being courteous to everyone (pedestrians and drivers). it’s called leading by example. that’s what i try to do. i don’t blow through lights, i give the right-a-way to cars at intersections when i have to ride on the sidewalk (cause there is a lincoln ordinance for that), and i always share the road. i never take over a lane (because i don’t feel the need to). sure i still encounter a few asshole drivers out there, but i wonder if they are like that because they had to deal with someone on a bike with bad riding habits. dave moulton came up with a name for them… POBs.

  2. I recently moved out of the country, across the ocean and to a large city where it is practical and possible for me to ride my bike. I don’t really miss having a car, it is a lot less of a hassle and it saves me a bunch of money. Keep ridin’ and thanks for linking to me.

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