Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Critical Mass

I'll probably get a few people mad at me for writing this one.

Cleveland's Critical Mass was in the news a couple of weeks ago. At their May 30th ride through the city, several riders received traffic citations for running through red lights. Organizers with Bike Cleveland were dismayed. "What's the city's real position on Critical Mass?" one said. "Some months they provide an escort, other months, like this last Friday, they're issuing tickets." Another said, "It was a little disturbing to us that at one intersection we have an officer waving us through a red light and at another we had a group of officers writing citations for doing the same thing." To me, the message is pretty simple. If you don't have an officer waving you through, don't assume it's OK to run the light.

Okay, so the ride has gone on for years with tacit approval from police, or at least not the kind of antagonism that CM rides have faced in other cities. Great! But that doesn't mean the same thing as support. It should also be pointed out to those who don't live here that a lot of Cleveland pretty much clears out by 6:00 most evenings, so you can conduct a big bike ride without encountering that much car traffic. Most evenings, the exodus from the city takes everything but the pavement. But apparently, the ride in May had well over 600 participants, and happened at a time that coincided with an Indians home game, and there was a lot more car traffic. I've heard from a friend who participated in the ride that part of the route also went through Playhouse Square, which is the city's theater district, where a lot of people were converging for shows. Drivers were getting upset, and started calling the police. Should anyone be surprised or dismayed? Three citations out of more than 600 people, and after years without incident, that's nothing.

The thing about Critical Mass is that there seems to be this idea that if you're a cyclist, you have to support it. There must be something wrong with you if you don't. But I don't support it. I've had various cycling friends over the years who take part and always seem astonished when I decline to join them.

I first learned about Critical Mass not long after it started in San Francisco in the early 90s. Interesting notion, I thought. The idea is admirable -- that if we can get a "critical mass" of cyclists on the road, cars will have to take notice of us and give us respect. Make people aware of bicyclists' rights through sheer numbers. But as it's grown and spread, it seems to me that it has the opposite effect. In some cities, it has led to crackdowns on cyclists by police -- whether part of Critical Mass or not. In others, it has led to legislative attempts to curtail cyclists' rights -- a big step in the wrong direction. BikeSnobNYC has long been a critic of CM as generating more anti-bicyclist sentiment than goodwill. Even Grant Petersen, founder of Rivendell Bicycles, has said in his book Just Ride that CM probably does more harm than good for cyclists.

One of the slogans of Critical Mass is "We're Not Blocking Traffic - We ARE Traffic." Unfortunately, though, the reality of a CM ride is very different. What happens when the ride gets to a traffic light? Unofficial ride leaders "cork" the intersection, holding back the cars while the mass of cyclists ride through. It's one of the most controversial aspects of CM, and one that gets the blood of drivers boiling. That is not behaving like traffic -- that's a parade. But CM organizers try to argue they shouldn't need parade permits because they're just traffic. Huh?

It's also common that CM supporters claim that the practice of "corking" actually speeds up the ride, thereby minimizing the inconvenience to drivers. That's a debatable point, but even if it's logical and/or true, it ignores something fundamental about many motorists: the moment that many people get behind the wheel of a car, they transform into impatient, irrational, selfish children and any sense of reason, logic, and fairness leaves them. "The road is MINE! I want it ALL! That biker ran the light -- that's NOT FAIR!" One can try to explain to the drivers that it's better for them to just let the cyclists through and get it all over with quickly -- but it's impossible to explain that to all of those drivers, and all they know is that they're sitting behind a long line of cars stopped at a green light while hundreds of bikes are running the red like they own the road.

Here's another thing on that point: drivers in cars run red lights, or see other drivers doing it, every single day. In many places, it's practically standard operating procedure to have at least a couple of cars blast through an intersection just as (or well after) the light turns red. Drivers do it, and they see others do it, but they have the amazing ability to completely ignore it, and earnestly deny that it happens. They might even honestly believe it. But a few hundred bicyclists pedaling through brazenly, they can't ignore. Is this rational? Fair? No. But try to explain that to a child.

When one of my friends last tried to talk me into going to a Critical Mass ride, this was the analogy I gave when I explained why I wouldn't join them:

Let's say that someone hates clowns. Lots of people hate clowns, or perhaps fear them, and in general, people's tolerance for clowns has been on the decline for years. Now let's say there's a pro-clown group out there that wants to reverse that trend. They want to build up clown acceptance and tolerance in society, and the way they aim to do it is to have a great big parade with hundreds of clowns. To make sure they get the most exposure possible for their cause, they stage their parade during afternoon rush hour traffic, when all these clown-hating people are in their best mood of the day, when they just want to get home -- or when they're on their way to a dinner reservation, or a show, or a ball game that they paid hundreds of dollars to see. And at that moment when the only thing these people want to do is to get home, or to dinner, or to the game, they find themselves stuck in traffic surrounded by hundreds of clowns. Whether the delay is 5 minutes, or 10 minutes, it really doesn't matter -- but no person, no matter how rational, is going to suddenly start liking clowns. And all the others for whom clowns were just mildly creepy, or a minor annoyance, will probably find their own tolerance for clowns wearing thin. Now substitute "cyclists" for "clowns." Still works, doesn't it?

It's never a good idea to read the comments section after a potentially controversial news story, but I made the mistake of reading the comments at the end of the Cleveland Critical Mass story shown above. Here's a sampling:
  • 57bill: "Paved, marked city streets are primarily for motor vehicular traffic. Void of bike lanes, motor vehicles will be predominate, and depending on traffic volume, cars might 'clog up the streets.' Bicycle traffic should be limited during anticipated high traffic volume periods, and while bikes are allowed to use the road, motor vehicles will take precedence. Cyclists should be humble users of the motor vehicle's turf."
  • espn206: "According to the manual from the BMV: a bicycle once on the road is a vechile (sic) and is subject to the rules of the road. So why is this event special? They must obey the rules of the road or be subject to a ticket. One might get a ticket for impeding traffic."
  • Flebius: "These bicyclists have become a MAJOR NUISANCE. Street (sic) and roads were and ARE intended for cars and trucks. What should be done is to add bicycle only lanes and have them funded EXCLUSIVELY by MANDATORY licenses to be purchased by ANYONE who owns and rides his bike on public roads. Now if only our state legislators had the balls to pass this, we could have a nice simple solution to this public annoyance problem."
  • lebowski2009: "Ohio's Critical Mass is just a group of smug liberals looking to be smug. That said, the group is pretty tame. They ride on a Friday night when Cleveland's streets are only lightly trafficked. In San Francisco, New York, and other liberal bastions, they tend to be much more aggressive and will attack motorists (or provoke an attack by a motorist, then cry victim) and intentionally create traffic jams."
  • robtheslob@cupajoe2go: "Bikes are for children and adults who wish they were. Such frivolity. I fought in war. I've seen bloodshed in my 80 yrs on this Earth. Any grown man that wants to ride a bike is pure silliness (sic) in my opinion."
I'd love to say I made these up to prove my point about irrational drivers (some of them are absolutely ridiculous!) but they're real. And please don't think I just cherry-picked the worst ones -- these were typical. The majority reflected the same, almost pathological disdain for bicyclists, and the more reasonable ones displayed only a mild disgust. Do all drivers think this way? I'm sure not. But I believe they reflect the attitudes that we bicyclists are up against -- the most extreme versions of those attitudes, maybe, but that's what's out there. And none of it is going to be improved by rides like Critical Mass.

So, what's the epilogue on the Cleveland Critical Mass story? From now on, they can conduct the ride if they get a parade permit. Success? Victory for cyclists? Hardly. I'll go back a moment to the old CM argument -- if bicycles are vehicles, or "traffic" then why should they need a special permit to ride on the public roads? Now bicyclists need a permit to do something they previously had the right to do. If we let chaotic demonstrations like CM continue "improving" peoples' attitudes towards cyclists, the next thing you know, we'll all need permits and special licenses just to ride our bikes to work.

Want to improve things for cyclists? Instead of converging by hundreds (and probably getting there by car?!) and riding en masse through traffic, blocking the way for harried and impatient drivers, and reinforcing every negative stereotype they already have about us, how about just riding to work, or to the store -- using the bike as transportation -- like it's a normal thing? Treating the act of riding a bike like it's normal -- not special. And talk to friends and co-workers about it. Counter the stereotype and follow the law. Instead of slogans like "We ARE Traffic" -- we'd be much better to actually act like traffic -- better than car traffic, in fact. I'm guessing a lot of my readers already do that, so I'm probably not saying anything new here. 

Sorry if I've stepped on some toes. But that's just the way I see it.


  1. Full marks to you sir for a well written and well reasoned article.

  2. While a bicycle is a legal vehicle, and is allowed on a public roadway, unless otherwise prohibited by local or state law, an event is a special occasion, subject to special rules.

    Cyclists independently going on their way is much the same as individual motorists going on theirs. But an organized group, no matter how you define it, typically warrants some type of permit in larger communities, be it a special event permit or a parade permit. A good analogy is a running event; an individual runner on the road, no problem, normal public use, while 300 people conducting a 5k run requires a permit.

    Typically it comes down to road encroachment (taking over, exclusive use for a defined period), and whether municipal services (police, fire, EMS, public works) are deemed necessary by the municipality.

    The question is, where are the lines drawn? A 10 person club ride typically won't warrant any attention. But when your name is Critical Mass, and your collective actions are typically as described here (and elsewhere), chances are someone will crack down on your event eventually.

    Just because you call it traffic, doesn't mean the law will see it the same way. And protesters sometimes get cited or arrested. If you want equal treatment under the law, sometimes you have to accept it when you get it.

  3. Playing devil's advocate here but isn't 20,000 motorists clogging up the roads just as much, if not more, of an annoyance as 600 bicycles doing the same? On my morning commute in south central Connecticut I see one, just one, guy on a bicycle (his name is Steve, he's nice) but get passed by easily 100 cars. How two guys riding bikes at 7 AM can raise so much more ire than the thousands of half stoned, cell phone talking motorists is beyond me. Maybe I'm a little biased because I haven't driven a car for so long, but it seems to me that people lose their humanity in those things.

    1. I like to play devil's advocate myself. As much as I'd like to agree with your point, I can't -- at least not entirely. I did point out that many people get behind the wheel of a car and become impatient and irrational children -- so yes, you could say they lose their humanity, if by "humanity" you mean rationality and respect for others. And of course, 20,000 motorists -- many of whom are the sole occupant of their vehicle -- are a major nuisance, and the true cause of "traffic." But again, you can't get them to understand that, because of the whole "irrational child" thing. Nevertheless -- if the 600+ cyclists were actually out there going about their business, commuting home from work, or other destinations, and at least making an attempt to follow the law with respect to traffic signals, etc., then I'd be a lot more inclined to agree with you wholeheartedly. But that's not what CM does.

      BTW, on my commute, I only encounter one other cyclist also, though I don't know his name -- so you're ahead of me on that one. We are on wave to each other basis, but we go opposite directions, separated by 4 lanes of traffic, so we haven't exactly had the chance to get to know one another.

  4. I've been bicycle commuting daily for a few days shy of 10 years. I've seen many more cyclists disregard the legal rules of the road than I've seen drivers disregard bicyclists. This blog is spot-on.
    If cyclists don't straighten up and fly right, the nanny state will intervene. If we're lucky it will be sensible legislation, such as assigning blame in any collision to the larger collidant. Doubtful we'd be so lucky though.

  5. Loved the comment by the 80-year-old. Too bad he never discovered the joy of cycling. I hope I can ride when I'm 80…like Henry Miller at 84! Maybe I'll ride in a Critical Mass when I'm 70.

    1. I know what you mean -- "I've seen bloodshed"? Therefore bicycles are pure silliness? Umm . . . OK. I plan to be riding past 70 if at all possible. Probably not in a CM ride, but I plan to be out there.

  6. Look, If you are in a car, on the last Friday of the month, and see a CM ride just consider it a procession, or parade, and wait a bit or go another route.

    What difference does it make to you if they have a parade permit or not? You are still going to have a slight delay.

    If the procession of bicycles is so long it takes a couple of light cycles to pass, just wait, like you do if a bridge is up, or a long train comes down the tracks.

    I don't see car drivers railing against trains, or private yachts passing under bridges, or having to wait while a crane swings a part into place.

    Critical Mass does not happen at rush hour, when the cars are clogging up the roads.

    Critical Mass does not happen at school pickup time when mothers think it is perfectly fine to block traffic with a snake of parked SUV's waiting to pick up their snowflakes so they don't have to walk home or ride their bikes.

    Critical Mass happens just once a month, in the evening, after work, at the end of the week. It on average it takes about 5 to 7 minutes for 1,000 bicyclists to pass, if they flow continuously.
    This is not a major inconvenience, at least as not as major as the traffic backup from the constant, daily accidents caused by motorcars.

    Take a chill pill, or even better yet, on the last Friday of the month decide to put away the car and take the family out on bicycles to join the Critical Mass ride. You might just find a free, healthy fun way for a family to spend one evening a month.

    1. I don't know if you're trying to convince me, or the drivers. But if this doesn't convince me -- a person who commutes by bike well over 2000 miles a year -- then I don't think it will change the minds of any drivers who feel outraged at a parade of cyclists blowing through red lights. Sure, there are all kinds of traffic-related inconveniences out there, many more of which are caused by other drivers -- but if you expect drivers to recognize the logic in that, then you're expecting too much rationality from them.