The Miami Herald published in both online and print form an article on Miami’s Critical Mass this past weekend. The writer, Andres Viglucci, rode with the group on at least one ride, probably a couple more, and used his first-hand experience to give us an article that describes the group. It is a good article, well written, and fairly unbiased; Viglucci calls out the good and the bad, though the bad tends to get excused and hand-waved a little too easily.
I’ve toyed with the idea of writing about Critical Mass here on and off for months, but I always put it off. I’ll take Andres’ article as a good excuse to finally tackle the CM monster once and for all, get it out of my system, onto the blog, and move on.
I don’t like Critical Mass. I find it hinders, rather than help, the cause of urban bicycling as a day-to-day activity and needlessly pits cyclists, all cyclists, into an us-vs-them conflict with motorists. It also creates false expectations about urban bicycling and does nothing to encourage a shift into a bicycling lifestyle, not to mention it encourages illegal riding as a norm.
This is a good place to make something very clear: I am interested in having a conversation, not an argument. This isn’t personal; I don’t dislike nor have anything against those that ride in Critical Mass. I dislike the entity of Critical Mass, and I hope that by explaining why, those that participate will at least think about what it means for them to associate with this entity, and to truly reflect on why they are doing it and what they are really accomplishing.
A disclaimer: Both of Miami’s Critical Mass events happen on Shabbat (last Friday night of each month, second Saturday of each month) and thus I have never attended one of them. My observations are based on blog posts, ride reports from the groups themselves (including questions asked by me directly to the members of the CM Meetup group), videos taken of the rides, and news stories.
The main reason I dislike Critical Mass is because, in essence, it is a mob, one on two (more) wheels that decides to take rules and regulations into their own hands. Critical Mass’ famous slogan, “We are traffic,” sounds fantastic except the CM mob does not behave as such except for the part of riding on the road. Occupying all lanes to the exclusion of motorists (“we occupy nearly the full width of the street”, “We have taken to the road — actually, we have taken the road” [Viglucci]), corking intersections and red lights, these are not things done by traffic; they are, quite the contrary, flagrant violations of the rules of the road (“There is rule-bending aplenty on the ride, even rule-breaking. The group does stop at red lights. But at green lights and unsignaled intersections, some riders pause to block cars until the group has gone through, even if the light turns red.” [Viglucci]). If cars, motorcycles, or 18-wheel trucks pulled the same stunts there would be outrage and legal action, but when it’s bikes it’s a “celebration of cycling.” I don’t think so.
Critical Mass purports to bring to attention bicyclists’ rights to the road. Awesome. Except the way it is done ends up alienating the people in the multi-ton vehicles with whom we have to share that same road (and remember, just become some hoot and holler doesn’t mean everyone’s agreeing with what you’re doing). What you just accomplished is that next time one of those drivers sees a cyclist on the road they may decide to lump us all together, or worse yet, take it out on the cyclist. And next time a bicycling ordinance comes up for voting? Yeah, I’m sure they’ll remember fondly the time all those bikers locked down the intersection and the road ahead.
It doesn’t work like that, folks. The rules apply to all of us, not to everyone *except* for *you* (perhaps Miami’s greatest malady, a general attitude that *I* am not bound by the rules and laws). Want to be traffic? Behave like traffic. Want to exercise your right to the road? Follow the laws that dictate how we have to ride on the road. They’re not hard to find; here’s a link. Want to hold a massive bike ride that can go through red lights/intersections? Awesome; contact the City and arrange it as an event and get the Police dept to provide an escort that can legally manipulate traffic to the ride’s favor.
Of course, this *is* Miami, so we get this from the City of Miami Chief of Police:
In Miami, police Chief John Timoney, an avid cyclist who is often seen astride his official bike, said he takes no issue with the local Critical Mass.
“We’re not going to take them on,” Timoney said. “We are all pro-bikes here. We should all just get along, right?”
But he advises the cyclists to behave. “If they piss off some motorist, they can ruin it for all of us, because that guy might try to run over the next cyclist he sees.”
And mind you, the last thing I want is for the police to start a targeted cyclist crack-down, but if you feel so strongly about the rides, why not help them achieve the same results with police escort?
From what I can tell, and I hear this from pretty much everyone I’ve asked, Miami Critical Mass rides are a hoot, “a celebration” I’ve heard them called. Even Viglucci calls them “totally exhilarating.” I’m totally sure they are. I’ve been on organized bike rides with Bike Miami and it was a lot of fun as well. But, to quote David Moulton (who was also quoted in Viglucci’s article):
I am sure it is fun, it is an unofficial “Mardi Gras” on bicycles, and this is my entire problem with these events. It is a group of people having fun at the expense of a larger group of people, namely other road users. […] They are abusing the privilege of riding a bike on the road. Doing so in the pretence that they are bringing awareness to cycling, when if the participants were honest they are doing it because it is fun and because they can. They are simply having a huge party on bicycles, taking over the streets and technically, they are not breaking rules; however, if they were a mob on foot, they would be arrested.
The other thing I get to hear/read a lot is how Critical Mass has done so much to spotlight the cycling cause in Miami. There really is no way of knowing that for sure, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt as to it being true in years past (though I can only find confirmation of Critical Mass starting in January of 2008). I hear that members of Critical Mass have been at the forefront of bike advocacy and activism, getting the City to hear them and create official documents to better the bicycling situation for all.
Ok, so since then, we’ve had a Mayor who has pushed hardcore for pro-bicycling projects and plans, who started a whole program dedicated to celebrating and promoting bicycling with a monthly ciclovia, who’s shepherded a brand new Bicycle Master Plan for the city even as he leaves office. It worked, you’re being paid attention, so why continue? If it is activism, your goal was reached; change tactics and support the government that is supporting you now, instead of antagonizing it with mob antics. And to nitpick, if Critical Mass can’t have a leader, then it can’t have members; there are riders who participate in Critical Mass (including some in positions inside City Hall) and who have been advocates. You can’t claim anonymity for one thing, then membership for another.
Names have power and baggage, and Critical Mass is no exception. When you participate in a Critical Mass ride you are associating with a legacy of almost-anarchic activism that tends to attract some disruptive elements that revel in the mob mentality and freedom alongside those just in for the fun. Do it if that’s what you want, but do it knowingly. If that’s not what you want to be associated with, change the name/don’t attend; force a change for the better.
We already have a celebration of bicycling in Miami called Bike Miami Days. Want to celebrate the bicycling lifestyle? Put all that activism energy into getting this program to continue on a monthly basis so it can continue to grow and educate more people, both bicyclists and motorists. Better yet, get all those hundreds of people showing up for the rides to bike on a daily basis as much as possible, not just once a month. That’s what I intend to keep on doing.
Want to have a conversation about this? Leave a comment.