Monday, September 14, 2015

Editorial: Critical Mass just causes chaos, but there is better way

The modern iteration of the Critical Mass ride is over two decades old and started off as a way for cyclists to gather and assert their rights to use the road. It started out as a small ride in San Francisco but has grown into a rowdy and chaotic protest that takes place worldwide. With no leadership to speak of and no real hierarchy or formal organization, there is little effort to work with proper channels or the authorities to do things in a safe, much less legal, manner. That has caused the rides to become not only controversial for their lack of adherence to traffic laws, but have also resulted in numerous collisions or other traffic incidents where riders were injured.

Most recently, a participant of the Critical Mass ride taking place at the end of August in San Francisco was caught on film assaulting a vehicle. The final facts are still not entirely clear, but the video appears to show a group of Critical Mass riders bombing down a pedestrian crosswalk (which they are legally not allowed to be in while mounted) and one Ian Hespelt turning off to confront a motorist in a ZipCar. The car made the mistake of following the traffic signals and pulled up to, but stopping well before the pedestrian crossing. Mr. Hespelt felt the need to voice his displeasure about the maneuver by approaching the vehicle and, along with a group of fellow riders, proceeded to detain and verbally abuse the driver while occasionally striking the vehicle.

In large part because of incidents such as this one, the purpose of modern Critical Mass rides totally escapes me. If they are trying to gain visibility for the cycling community, a neatly organized protest, such as the one conducted by San Francisco riders who lined up to stop at stop signs in an effort to demonstrate how much additional traffic will be added to an already congested area of the city. That protest had a clear purpose, was disruptive yet lawful, and got largely positive press coverage. By comparison, Critical Mass seems to do little more than antagonize drivers, worsen relationships between cyclists and the community, and make the work of genuine cycling advocates even more difficult. How is this in any way helpful to the cycling cause?

As much as I despise Critical Mass and the chaos that they cause, any story about them also seem to bring out the internal combustion crazies as well. Every article is met with a flurry of comments by drivers voicing their desire to run over and otherwise injure cyclists or anecdotes about how every cyclist in the world is a scofflaw who does not know how to follow the rules of the road. The sad thing is that many of these anecdotes are ironically hypocritical since the very behaviors they criticize cyclists for are the very same ones they themselves are equally guilty of. Hell, our state even has one named after it (California roll, anyone?). Drivers who frequently exceed the speed limits, roll through stop signs, and make intentionally close passes near cyclists are absolutely no better than the Critical Massholes they are berating. This constant antagonizing needs to stop and responsible cyclists and drivers need to band together to avoid further unnecessary confrontation and find a solution that makes everyone happier.

Many people may not be aware of the existence of alternatives to Critical Mass. There exist cycling groups that gather for casual rides where rules are followed and gratuitous antagonizing avoided. Rides such as Critical Manners and Courteous Mass are trying to seek positive change by taking the same grass roots approach as Critical Mass, but without the law breaking and offensive behavior. While these rides may not be as illicit, they are a much better representation of what cyclists are really like out on the road. If more people participate in these events, perhaps they can gain the necessary positive news coverage to counter the negative coverage that Critical Mass seems to bring.

For those who may not feel comfortable participating in large group rides or who are primarily drivers, there are other activities throughout the year that many cities have started in partnership with local cycling organizations to promote making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists and showing the real economic benefits that such transformation can bring. In Los Angeles, there is CicLAvia, where the city has closed down streets for a car-free day to encourage people to explore parts of the city on foot or by bike. Long Beach held their second annual Beach Street open streets event where a large section of a commercial area was made car-free for pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy while local stores got a boost in traffic and sales from people coming out to explore. These are the types of events that really promote an understanding of cyclists and demonstrates that cycling is a truly viable means of getting around in even the busiest of cities.

So if you are a serious supporter of cycling, skip Critical Mass. 
Want your city to become more bike friendly? Skip Critical Mass. 
Want drivers to treat cyclists more fairly? Skip Critical Mass.
Want your city to improve cycling infrastructure? Skip Critical Mass.

With these genuinely better alternatives, why participate in an activity that can only create animosity?