Critical Mass

As much as I want to support and encourage bike commuting, here in Memphis or anywhere else, I try to keep a careful eye on my tactics.  Throughout my years in activism, mostly as a participant but occasionally as an organizer, I’ve gleaned a few truths about being a successful advocate for a cause.  I won’t list all of them here, but I have found that it is easier to attract flies with honey than vinegar, and that few people enjoy having a finger waggled at them. Better, I think, to be a positive role model than a scold.

But when it comes to cyclists asserting their right to shared space and insisting on some recognition of the legitimacy of cycling as a means of transportation, I recognize that a gentle nudge or a well-placed shoulder is sometimes necessary.  Many drivers are at least accepting of commuter cyclists, if not occasionally supportive, but for those that are not so encouraging, being assertive (not aggressive) can go a long way toward a grudging acceptance.  At some point, you have to act like you belong on the road just as much as any motorized vehicle.

So I’m little conflicted in my feelings about Critical Mass.  (I’m assuming that you know what Critical Mass is.  If not, follow the link and read.)  On one hand, I do very much believe that cyclists should assert their rights to the road and, in the absence of completely separate bike facilities (which are apparently much more common in Europe), this is of paramount importance.  I understand that driving along behind a mass of cyclists can be frustrating if you’re in a hurry, but it’s not as though most Critical Mass rides commandeer every road in the city.  If you’re running late, take an alternate route.  Or plan ahead.  Critical Mass rides happen every month on the same day (the last Friday) at the same time (6:00 PM).  It’s not like these are flash mob bike rides.  It’s a regular event.  Get used to it.

Plus, having bikes take over the streets for 12 afternoons a year is hardly a universal pain in the ass.  Because guess who owns the streets the other 353 afternoons (and mornings, and evenings, and nights, and days) … motor vehicles. So a bunch of cyclists take over every now and then.  Get over it.

Plus, it’s enormously empowering to ride with a group of people (whatever the motive) and force cars and trucks to stop and wait for you, the cyclist.  Not all group rides are political in nature, as is Critical Mass, but all of them can be very instructive for all users of the roads, and fun for cyclists as well.

On the other hand, being a pain in the ass (or at least perceived as one) can make more enemies than friends.  To the extent that some drivers feel a sense of entitlement over the roadways, cyclists purposefully taking over the streets could really cheese them off.  There are certainly other ways to promote safe cycling than Critical Mass rides (although I do generally support them).  Also, I do firmly believe that cyclists should obey all traffic laws just like cars.  This means stopping at red lights and stop signs, using turn and lane-change signals, and riding two abreast at the most. It really bugs me when I see cyclists running red lights (yes, I’ve done it, but rarely and always with regret) as I think it makes us look entitled in our way, as though the rules of the road don’t apply to us.  That can certainly turn drivers against cyclists and cycling as a legitimate use of the road.

(I do make an exception for group bike rides where group cohesiveness is necessary.  Arguably this does include Critical Mass rides, so perhaps some negotiation with the police about ride-alongs is necessary.)

But whatever you think about Critical Mass rides, there is no justification for this.  A warning: what you are about to see is rather disturbing.

NOTE: the video-embedding plugin I use is not compatible with the current version of my blogging software, so until I find a replacement or the plugin is updated, here’s a link to the video. I just installed a new Youtube embedding plugin (read about it here), so embedded videos are good to go.

I embedded the video rather than just linking to it because I want people to watch this and reflect on it.  It’s not easy to watch; seeing the car plow through the crowd of cyclists is terrifying.  The way the bikes and bodies glance and bounce off his hood and windshield is sickening.  The aftermath is horrifying; seeing the broken bicycles and people lying in the street reminds me of the aftermath of a truck bombing.

But not every agrees on Critical Mass techniques.  After I posted this video on my facebook wall, a friend of mine responded with the following comment.

So the summary is that a large number of very vulnerable people on bikes try to be as annoying as possible for fun (but in the name of protest) and they’re surprised when one out of a million flips out? Way to go self-made martyrs.

Why not behave sensibly, actually promote reasonable car-biker relations, and not encourage wackos to go postal?

I chuckled when I read this, mostly because my friend is an avid cyclist (and tri-athlete to boot) and being so openly critical of the techniques of Critical Mass takes more than a little bravura.  He later amended his comments to read:

I hate to disparage people on “my side”, but I’m not sure that critical mass is the best way to gain acceptance of a fringe group in the broader community.

I agree with this sentiment much more than his first one.  As I wrote earlier, I too am conflicted about Critical Mass rides.  So I’d really like to hear your thoughts, dear reader.  I have a comment section for a reason, you know.  If you enjoy this blog, please take a moment and share your thoughts.  I would very much appreciate it.

One comment

  1. Heather

    Well said. I was horrified to see this video. There was NO excuse for that. Yet, I’m not a big believer in CM. You do catch more bears with honey. (I used to say flies, but as it turns out, they don’t like sweet smells, they like the smell of decay…:-( ) As you can guess, CM is big in SF. I’m always afraid someone is gonna flip their lid, and take it out on the cyclists.

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