Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Critical Mass: Advocacy or Anarchy

(**This post will be updated once I get the internet in my place back on though I'm not sure when that will be at the rate it is going. Please check back for more pictures from the night.)
When people discuss the Critical Mass bike rides that take place monthly in cities across the country, many different opinions and views may come up. In my own personal experience these opinions range anywhere from complete disgust to a near infatuation to a complete lack of knowledge. CM is a widely used cycling advocacy ride whose stated aim is “to celebrate cycling and assert cyclists’ right to the road.” (Taken from the Critical Mass website )

After finding out about the Washington, DC CM ride for January for the first time I decided to go ahead and check it out and ride along and see what it was all about. I met some cool people and had a pretty good ride in a sort of Tour de Downtown fashion. While I have no plans on riding this ride again, I also would not completely write it off and say that I never will.

The group that turned up on the wet but warm winter evening was right around 40 strong and included everyone from bike messengers, to commuters, to casual riders and probably a few people who were in it for the form of general protest which the ride takes. Bikes were decorated with lights and after hanging around Dupont Circle we all took off in the direction of 18th St and Adams Morgan. It started off slow without much opportunity to really cause much of a scene as we started out due to relatively slow and heavy traffic and we made it up through AM with only the sound of the riders’ cheers as well as some “friendly” honks from cabbies and a few other drivers and some folks walking on the sidewalks.

The ride rolled out to 16th Street heading south where we saw our first real confrontation of the evening. A number of cars ended up lined up behind us as we slowly spun down the hill and at one point a guy laid on his horn for at least 30 seconds straight. All the while the riders are yelling to “honk if you love bicycles…” At one point during this stretch one rider actually went back to a car behind and explained what we were doing and why we were doing it; this was by far the most productive thing I witnessed during the ride.

The rest of the ride included similar though not quite as intense or extended run-ins until the one that took place on K St that caused me to separate myself from the ride. We rode through some busy areas, U St and Gallery Place as well as some nearly empty places, down the mall and up to the Washington Monument. After my departure those left in the group continued on to Georgetown also. The majority of run-ins with vehicles were treated with either complete lack of interest or a cheer and overall the cause of cycling on city streets was likely not helped and most likely harmed a little bit.

The incident that drove me from the ride had more to do with the anarchistic approach that I feared from the ride. We were riding down K St (not positive about the street, may also have been Pennsylvania) in the 2 right lanes leaving the third open for the few cars that were on the street there at that time. A police cruiser drove up and asked us to remain in the one lane and leave the others open and ended up having some words with some of the riders. The majority of those around me were saying to just do what he says and stay over and were riding where we were asked. At a red light a number of the riders jumped out back into the 2nd lane though and basically egged on the officer. Lights flashed and sirens wailed and the officer attempted to pull over and stop the riders, essentially using the car as a weapon to do so. The feeling here was of ego’s and tempers on both sides getting out of control and it became evident that some riders had more interest in anarchy then advocacy.

Despite a few things, my overall opinion and conclusions of the ride are positive. Unfortunately with an event such as this that is borderline on being downright illegal, there are naturally going to be people out there who bring that anarchistic feel to the event. This approach and attitude does nothing but aggravate sides and create even farther extremes, likely endangering cyclists in future bicycling activities. If it weren’t for this slight bit of a feeling in the ride I would almost certainly have plans to join up and probably ride it on a monthly basis.

A few additional things I that think could and should be done to increase the effectiveness and decrease to harmful aspects of these rides would be to have shirts or signs proclaiming the ride as a cycling advocacy ride and not just some free-for-all bike chase through the city at the cost of drivers. Also flyers should be brought to the rides explaining the mission of CM and including helpful links to internet resources on the ride that could be handed out to the affected motorists and pedestrians and other cyclists that happen upon the group. Otherwise it just looks like some unruly parade of bikes through the city and does nothing to promote the cause. Letting people know the reasons behind the ride are far more important then showing them you can hold up traffic for four city blocks on bicycles.


Freewheel said...

I always wondered whether it would be worthwhile to do CM in D.C. I'd prefer a lawful Ride of Silence once a month in memory of cyclists who have been killed.

KMAX said...

I agree with you entirely on that one. I'm not interested in enraging people with a ride and a solemn lawful ride would likely be a much better way to get a message across.

It would be more of a warning to drivers of what could happen if they don't pay attention instead of just a blatant aggravation to piss them off. We could probably even get WABA to sponsor or at least back something like that.