June 29, 2009

Critical Mass…what’s right?

By Anna | 24 Comments »

Bici has taken over Critical Mass here in the magic city, and this past Friday we had a great turn out (for us that is).  Things got off to a pretty good start, but pretty soon some differences in opinion developed regarding how the group should behave.  It all started when a few of the riders were blocking cars so the group could ride through red lights, and at one light there happened to be a cop right there.  The popo didn’t do much beside a quick siren and a yell of “quit blocking traffic!”.  Some of the other riders got pretty upset at this point and started complaining about how the ride was being handled and how we could get “citations” for behaving badly and breaking laws.

So then we get into what might be called Critical Mass philosophy: one side thinks that Critical Mass should be a group that shows drivers that bikes and their riders are non-threatening.  The other side thinks that we should to raise awareness by raising hell. 
And I guess I’m in the middle: who cares?! lets just ride and certainly not tell each other what to do.
What’s your take on the Critical Mass conundrum?
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  1. On June 29th, 2009 Natalie_S said:

    Ummm, one side needs to go ride out in the middle of Kansas where fewer drivers will get the idea that bikers are arrogant pricks who shouldn't be allowed to use the road?

  2. On June 30th, 2009 anna said:

    Hard to tell. How big is your Critical Mass? In Vienna we have more than 500 riders in the summer and that is hard to handle. Sometimes the group splits in more parts because the speed is to high in the end (although we try to avoid that). Of course we cork and ignore red lights. The police accompanies us, but we did not ask for that. It's still good to have them in the end to keep away angry people in cars. And yeah, with this size you already block many people for a long time – car drivers as well as pedestrians and fellow cyclists. That's the thing I don't like about it. I want to show off, but I don't want to make anybody angry because that ain't help the cause.

  3. On June 30th, 2009 Tinker said:

    I was "caught up" in a Critical Mass ride a few years ago, on my motorcycle, in downtown Austin. Riding a motorcycle downtown, is a liitle bit strange, already, but those yahoos! Looked to me as if they had a deathwish! Anyway, I took to the middle of the roadway, and made my escape. (Motorcycles have a HUGE power/weight ratio advantage.) All in all. not too bad, for a motorcyclist. You could see, auto drivers were getting hot under the collar, fairly quickly. A high fraction of Texas traffic is Pickups, so they weren't able to slow them all that successfully. (A pickup usually has a fairly clear field of view, even surrounded by upright bikes.)

    Still not sure how I feel about it. Motorcyclists pretty much agree with bicyclists, that cars suck, and need to pay attention on the road to a much greater extent, but the way to do that is not usually to hamper them so severely that drivers get mad enough to take offensive action.

  4. On June 30th, 2009 Matt said:

    In Dayton I started a "Courteous Mass" on the first Friday of te Month. I avoided the 4th Friday, the traditional day of Critical Mass. (We don't have a critical mass, btw.)

    The aim of Courteous Mass is to raise awareness and respect for cyclists on the streets and roads. We raise awareness by our numbers and raise respect by our courteousness.

    So, we obey traffic lights and stop signs. Signal our turns and lane changes, and only make friendly gestures to motorists.

    We've never had more than 25 on our rides, but it has worked out great. We've been able to keep together, and see the city from our bikes.

    I might suggest splitting the B'ham ride into two. Let the corkers go on the 4th Friday and let those not comfortable with that go a different Friday.


  5. On June 30th, 2009 Chrisman said:

    You obviously want the group to split up as little as possible and to stay together as much as possible.

    But you obviously want to obey the law as much as possible so that people don't get mowed down by road ragers or cited by cops, and so that the group in the future doesn't get shut down on sight after establishing a pattern of reckless/illegal riding.

  6. On June 30th, 2009 wle said:

    in atlanta a separate "courteous mass" has also started

    you could google for that

    but i think the point is clear

    to ride as a big group, while specifically not ignoring laws, signs, etc

    not sure why this isn;t the same as a 'regular group ride' but they have it anyway

    there may be rides like that elsewhere

    also it seems like a group like that is more likely to become a lot of little sub groups because of traffic lights and varying speeds


  7. On June 30th, 2009 Sean Carter said:

    what about looking at advocacy rides from a different perspective? instead of blocking traffic, what about looking for areas that are gridlocked and then simply ride through all the stopped traffic?

    motorists cant blame the cyclists for blocking traffic – they did that themselves – and you can get your bicycle message out in a fun way.

    do a search for "crimanimals" – there are some videos up – interesting take on an old idea.


  8. On June 30th, 2009 spiderleggreen said:

    I think each Critical Mass is an experiment in every city. They have all turned out differently(NY, not so good. SF, fabulous!).

    A few years ago in Mpls., there was a big confrontation with the police, with people going to jail. The mayor stepped in and an agreement was reached that, in the future, there would be a police escort, with police on bikes and in cars. It seems to have worked out pretty well. On the last ride though, we did venture into St. Paul, ditching the police escort. The ride went on fine without them.

    Our Critical Mass doesn't stop at lights or signs. The only things we stop for are buses, LRT and emergency vehicles. I love it! There is a such a sense freedom with it. To those who cringe at not following every traffic law, I say "It's a parade!" Why would a parade stop at all the lights?

    As for pissing people off. They may be mad, because someone, not in a car, has kept them from their very important business. That's the point! As soon as someone gets in a car, they think they are the king of the road. "Get out of my way, I'm in a hurry!". If you're not in car, you'd better get out of their way. Critical Mass aims to change that notion, that cars rule the roads.

    Critical Mass is a fluid thing. Each Mass charts it's own course. Good Luck!

  9. On June 30th, 2009 Lazy Bike Commuter said:

    I have always been against the non-law-abiding Critical Masses. They seem like a good way to get law-abiding cyclists harassed. They're nothing but an excuse to run wild with impunity.

    Courteous Masses sound like they might be a good idea, but I haven't been able to go the the one that Matt says he started in Dayton because it starts 16ish miles from where I work, 2 hours before I am off work. These things must be for people with no jobs.

  10. On June 30th, 2009 Chris said:

    You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
    I can see how Critical Mass makes the cyclists feel better in a militant cyclist sort of way, but frankly who cares about that? It just reinforces non-cyclists negative views of cyclists. I would be amazed if any driver was "converted" to cycling by being stuck behind a group of riders who are holding them up.
    It's the same as people that wear lycra, with clipless shoes, helmets, glasses and a face mask whenever they go for a ride. It signifies the cyclists difference (and sometimes more than a little contempt) for car drivers. And who, looking from the outside, wants to be a part of that?

  11. On June 30th, 2009 Matthew said:

    It'd be one thing if it were a protest to affect change in our civil rights, but it's not. We already have the rights. The law is already on our side (even if cops don't know it). The point is simply to raise awareness in motorists and potential cyclists of the existence of those rights. Unfortunately, a large group riding with an air of arrogance, elitism, and indifference to the rights of motorists just engenders antagonism, resentment, and rage — which may then be carried over to future encounters with cyclists.
    We all get crap on the road for riding without internal combustion engines. I'd just prefer to not get extra crap because some guy had to wait at a green light for some unnecessarily self-important social activism.
    That said, if they want to organize critical mass with the city as a "parade," more power to them.

  12. On June 30th, 2009 JSFixed said:

    raise some hell raise some hell raise some hell!!! hahaha just hate to say i was the one getting the cop called on me and one of the riders yelling at me haha… o well it was alot of fun

    -john sloan aka barely legal haha

  13. On June 30th, 2009 pinedae said:

    When it comes to entitlement to the road, practice what you preach.

  14. On June 30th, 2009 LukeCoop said:

    Critical Thrash, just ride everyday and make your statement anyway you can be it in a group or by yourself.

  15. On June 30th, 2009 She Rides a Bike said:

    I'd love to do a Critical Mass but I also believe you win more converts and acceptance when you follow the rules of the road. I am very conscious of my vulnerability on a bike and also that I can catch a driver unaware. If I am not following the rules of the road and a driver hits and seriously injures me, whose fault is it really? It just comes down to common curtesy. I try and model on my bike how I want to be treated by drivers. A smile, nod and a wave don't hurt either.

  16. On June 30th, 2009 Danielle said:

    I just wrote a blog about this! You should check it out of my opinion. How funny, well not really since critical mass was last Friday and I participated in it.

  17. On July 1st, 2009 Patrick said:

    I'd prefer we didn't cork. I probably won't participate if we do.

  18. On July 1st, 2009 cisellis said:

    If you have not been a part of and been stuck with the Critical Mass in NYC or San Francisco, you should try it before signing on to the full ideology…

    Critical Mass is a group that in the major cities has lost its way, and in my opinion, done more damage than good. In San Francisco, they went the "raise hell" route and are basically regarded as a street gang. Everyone thought the idea was great until they were stuck with it for a while. The reality is that they shut down the road one Friday a month and were seriously aggressive to drivers that had no idea what was even going on half of the time. I was at a bus stop and watched a guy on a bike run a red light, hit a car in the fender and then he and his friends tried to drag the poor guy out of his car and beat him. The guy in the car had been stuck at that light for 3 full revolutions…red/green/red/green/red/green because the bikes wouldn't let him through. I saw another group stopped in the middle of an intersection, blocking traffic, taunting cars and throwing bottles at them. I have a bike, don't care much for cars, love public transit and with all my heart hate Critical Mass.

  19. On July 1st, 2009 Jason McDowell said:

    OnMilwaukee.com ran an article about corking a couple of weeks ago: http://onmilwaukee.com/buzz/articles/criticalmasscorking.html (I wrote it).

    It's clear from the comments that fighting for your rights by breaking the law is viewed unfavorably by most Milwaukeeans, between cyclists AND motorists.

    Granted Critical Mass in Milwaukee is super tiny because the police got involved a few years ago and gave it a bad name, so our mass hasn't really presented a problem.

    Nevertheless I feel like 80% of CM riders are courteous, 10% are aggressive and the other 10% fall somewhere between. It's hard to agree or disagree when it comes to an unorganized group of people, but in the end you can vote with your wheels. If you don't like it, you can go somewhere else.

    I LOVE the idea of "Courteous Mass" though. I might have to jump on that.

  20. On July 2nd, 2009 man said:

    Living in the "birthplace" of Critical Mass – San Francisco and someone who rides to work I believe Critical Mass sucks and has done more harm for bicycling than any good it set out to accomplish. To me, CM is just another segment of the bike culture that claims "do your own thing, ride your bike" but if you don't agree with their tactics watch out. I believe they have made it more dangerous for bicyclists on the road. A lot of drivers around here associate all bicyclists with the arrogant aggressive attitude of CM riders.

  21. On July 2nd, 2009 Anna said:

    thanks everyone for the comments, it's really helpful to get perspectives from across the world! Sounds like resentment from all sides is something that we do not want.

  22. On July 6th, 2009 GeekGuyAndy said:

    I like the CM rides here that I rode with last year. The group was generally 20-30 people, and the laws are followed reasonably. If the group starts to get through a light and it changes, then a few people make sure cars are stopped while the group catches up so that we don't break apart. It's better to hold up traffic by going slowly on a bike than to just stop as two groups instead.

    The only time drivers tend to get mad is when we take over the rotary and go around 10-15 times. But in reality I see more people in the cars laughing the first minute instead of being angry. It typically leaves the circle once someone starts honking.

    I do not agree with anyone that hits a car, throws bottles or gestures, UNLESS the driver was the one starting the fight. Then I call fair game to block them out. I ride by the law 99% of the time in the city, so when a driver starts behaving badly, I don't have a problem calling them out on it. In my utopia that's how it would be – everyone gets along nicely, and if you don't play well than don't expect a kind reaction!

  23. On July 7th, 2009 FixedXorBroken said:

    In Toronto it's like a rolling party, with a jovial atmosphere following us around town, and very few altercations taking place.

    Our only issue is the inconsistent approach that the police take. Most of the time they ignore us. Once or twice they've ridden along and corked, and they also harass once in a while.

  24. On July 29th, 2009 Spokker said:

    This is advocacy? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hemN2KfJLw

    I am a driver and at the risk of tooting my own horn, I think I’m a pretty good driver who is not only respectful of other drivers, but cyclists and pedestrians as well. This is just insane. Some participants admit there are bad apples, but in this video it looks like everyone is a bad apple.

    You know those dick drivers you hate? Well, other drivers hate those dicks too. But the ones who weave in and out of traffic are the minority of drivers on the road. You are not a victim. Drivers are not the enemy.

    I don’t know how to stop the cycle of hate, but it sure as fuck isn’t going to stop with what I see in that video.

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