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Is Critical Mass the Right Approach to Cycling Activism?

Over at Crows to Burnaby (that’s her photo as well), I read about the massive Critical Mass June bike ride:

Critical Mass is a giant bike ride held on the last Friday of every month. Greg and I used to be occasional participants a few years ago, and gradually got distracted and stopped going as often. However, we still try to get to the June ride if we can, because it is truly a massive mass. Last year they topped 1200 riders, and this year early estimates expected 1500-1700 or so. There is nothing like being part of a flowing river of over a thousand bicycles, surrounded by happily binging bells and cheering and crazy mobile art displays.

The local organization also has a blog–here’s an account with photos of their latest escapade, which featured 1800 riders.

Being a downtown denizen, I see these protests quite regularly. They certainly make an impact as a massive (heh) show of public activism. It also causes a short-term traffic snarl.

Each time I see a Critical Mass event, I wonder if their approach is correct. Should ‘a grassroots reclamation of public space’ systematically inconvenience the people currently (and lawfully) using the public space? It’s an interesting question, and one I can’t figure out.

I support more bicycles and less cars on the road. However, does Critical Mass necessarily win supporters among the voting public and the lawmakers which, presumably, they want to influence?

It’s apparently quite freeform, light-on-organization group, but I wonder if they’ve done any surveys of event bystanders (and inconvenienced drivers). That might help decide whether it’s a good idea or not.

7 Responses to “Is Critical Mass the Right Approach to Cycling Activism?”

  1. Todd

    It’s funny I was just talking with someone today about this. There’s always a gray zone with this as some protest messages must disrupt in order to be heard. But with Critical Mass rides, I’ve always found myself in favour of the message and disappointed by the messengers.

    Everything about the message is that bikes are traffic as well, and that the goal is a coexistence with automobiles with safety and fairness for all. But the way that CM rides are run seems to emphasize overpowering right of way with sheer numbers and creating inconvenience for cars that might otherwise be inclined to share the road peacefully.

    The arbitrary punishment of drivers (and I’m thinking specifically about the quirking at intersections) by making them wait while the mass rides by in an unforgiving flow is hardly a gesture that invites cooperation. It’s antagonistic, and two steps back for every one step forward that the message of Critical Mass brings.

  2. Dustin

    Different people go to Critical Mass for different reasons. For me it’s mostly a celebration of bicycling: a monthly parade of self-powered wheels. I’m not protesting against anything, just showing my support for bikes. “We’re here (in large numbers) and we use the city, and please remember us when planning things” is the basic message in my mind.

    With respect to Todd’s comment about blocking cars at intersections when the bikes go through: it’s done for safety reasons. It’s really not safe to have cars driving around in the midst of all the bikes, so that’s why cars are blocked until all the bikes have passed. Sometimes it may be done in an antagonizing way (everyone’s there for there own reasons after all), but lots of times you’ll hear bikers say “thanks for waiting” to the car people.

    Critical Mass is a show of force by the bike community. It may not be the best way of inviting cooperation, but when’s the last time car drivers invited cooperation? Just for fun I will reverse Todd’s statement: The arbitrary punishment of people by car drivers (and I’m thinking specifically about the air quality and noise and car-caused injuries) is hardly a gesture that invites cooperation.

  3. Derek K. Miller

    As a lefty-leaning pinko type (and a commuting cyclist to boot), I’m nevertheless always in a bit of a funk about events like Critical Mass, and in fact all the sorts or protests etc. that come out of my side of the political spectrum: marches on the Legislature, pickets outside embassies, all the “hell no we won’t go” and lousy kumbaya folksinging.

    The right wing doesn’t generally engage in these sorts of activities, and when they do (harassing abortion clinics, for example) they seem like extremist nutbars. Which is probably how Critical Mass and the kumbaya protests seem to a lot of people too. Most of the time, conservatives (and I’ll take those who prefer to build out cities for cars as conservative) have inroads that let them get things done through established power structures: lobbying politicians, going to meetings, having Chamber of Commerce luncheons.

    So what would be a more effective approach for the left? Doth we protest too much because we get the impression no one’s actually listening anyway?

  4. Kirsten

    At risk of trivializing all the left-leaning causes I feel strongly about, I wonder if it has to do with the overlap between creativity/eccentricity and leftiness – it may be that we just get bored going through the traditional channels and persuasive speeches, frustrated when we don’t get an adequate response, and we react by becoming progressively quirkier. Or we think that people in the middle of the road will naturally respond to the quirky, creative ideas just like we would.

    I’m with Dustin on my reasons for going to CM: I support bikes, the creation of bike routes, anything that makes Vancouver a safer and better place to cycle, alternative transportation and anything that gets people out of their cars for a little bit. I’m not inclined to carry protest signs or tie the event in with various social causes; I just like showing that there’s a big group of cyclists out there, we’re united, and we’d like you to take us into consideration when planning this city, please.

  5. Christine

    Critical Mass events are a demonstration of bad manners. I watch these guys go by, yelling “we’re not holding up traffic – WE ARE THE TRAFFIC!” and I wonder about the definition of traffic, and whether they fit into it. Before they got there, traffic on my way home consisted of people obeying traffic laws, and doing their best to get home in time for dinner while allowing others to do the same. Critical Mass riders seem to take glee in subverting all that. They are the traffic? Huh. How is it, then, that they storm through lights and disregard numerous traffic laws, getting away with it just because there are so many of them? I have no respect for people who behave like this.

    I’m a commuting cyclist. And I’d be ashamed to be affiliated with Critical Mass.

  6. Thoughts on Cycling

    […] still think Critical Mass is a lousy approach to cycling activism. When I think of Critical Mass, I think of this insightful comment that Christine left on my blog […]

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