Saturday, July 31, 2010

Critical Mass goes mainstream

Critical Mass is a self-organizing bike ride held throughout the world in cities; in Boston it happens the last friday of each month, beginning at 5:30 at Copley Square. I have been ambivalent about this ride because of a few bikers who actively antagonize motorists, but what I saw yesterday made me more comfortable about being an open supporter of this fun ride and recurring political statement ("Who's streets? Our streets!").

To explain why, let me start with some observations of the ride yesterday, which by my estimate numbered about 300, and moved from Copley Square through the financial district, over to East Cambridge and down Mass Ave to Harvard Square, over to Allston, down Comm Ave to BU, kenmore square to Brookline Ave and into the Fenway, at which time I peeled off and headed home.

Some observations:
- about 40% female; 60% male.
- youngest I saw was 8 yrs daughter with mom; oldest was a 60 yr old man.
- most honking cars' drivers were smiling.
- only a couple bike-car conflicts - one biker jerk was weaving in front of oncoming auto traffic - giving a bad name for all.
- pedestrians, seated outdoor cafe people, waving, smiling, lots of thumbs up and passing high fives.
- we got a spontaneous boston police escort bringing up the rear; had his lights flashing but no siren. The officer used the bullhorn on a couple occasions to ask the group to stay in the lane, and said THANK YOU!
- Firefighters at a Boston station gave us the thumbs up.
- As many women as men were willing to stand in the intersection to hold traffic while the group passed through.

To summarize, I am seeing lots of smart young people, men and women, for the most part asserting their legal right to the road, not looking for trouble.

Some ask, why friday at rush hour? Isn't this set up to antagonize motorists? I don't think so. If I put all those bikers in cars instead, traffic would be much worse. Friday at 5:30pm is actually a really nice time for a ride and convenient for working people - bikers should not be relegated to the streets when it is inconvenient for them, but convenient for motorists. And a good portion of the ride actually happens past rush hour. The ride is no more unnecessary than the many tourists in cars driving around during the same time.

Is holding the intersection wrong? If so, then there is a double standard, because it is common to do this on the city-sanctioned bike friday convoys.


dr2chase said...

In my experience, at least on my commute, motorists hold a Critical Mass of their own every Friday afternoon on Lowell St in Lexington. Seems frivolous and illogical to drive a car when a bicycle is so much faster, but hey, cars have a right to the road, too.

I'm not sure how I feel about blocking intersections; strictly speaking, it would still be a mess of bikes, even if they did stop for red lights.

Doug said...

I agree that this has gone mainstream (as evidenced perhaps by my joining the event in the past), however I would state your analysis in reverse: what was once acceptable behavior on the ride, i.e. creating trouble for traffic is now outside of the mainstream, as evidence of the acceptance of bicycling. That is, norms are set by the group; I don't think there's anything wrong with giving the ride a "bad name", unless the riders don't want a bad name (which, as you observed, is not really the case).

On the other hand, it arguably does a lot more for the cause of cycling to have a bicycle riot, smashing cars the length of the route than a peaceful ride that tolerated.

When I've done this ride it makes me much, much angrier as a rider than almost any amount of commuting, in which my second-class status on the road is normalized. However, owning the road once a month just makes me realize that as a biker, my rights are viewed as a privilege by most. If giving cyclists a bad name is the consequence of reminding people that I have a right to live, well, call me mud.