Critical Mass: Bicycle activism

So I recently came across this awesome movement known as Critical Mass.  The idea is that, in China, bicycles manage to take control of the streets away from cars by pooling up at traffic lights until they build up to a “critical mass”, at which point the cars have to respect them, and they bike on down the road moving as one “supervehicle”.  Then isolated bicyclists gather up at the traffic light again and the cycle repeats.  Critical Mass is an attempt to create similar “flash mobs” in the United States and around the world, anywhere where bikes are not as prevalent as they are in China and bicyclists are second-class citizens on the roads.

Check out these links:

The big problem that they seem to be having with these websites is that, since this is a decentralized movement, most of the websites are abandoned pages where the people who created the page have moved on, but they have failed to hand over control to somebody else who lives in the area.

This movement is crying for a Critical mass Wiki!  For goodness sakes, somebody set this up!

5 thoughts on “Critical Mass: Bicycle activism

  1. I hate to sound like the schoolmarmish tool, but what you describe is illegal and pretty obnoxious. Say what you will about not-that-nice tactics used by the automotive industry in the past to support their interests and how that’s affected urban planning and such, but the fact is that in the United States many people need to move at car-level speeds in order to get to the places they need to go in time to do the things they need to do. Bicyclists *are* second-class citizens on the roads, as are unicyclists, skateboarders, and pedestrians because in our society cars have been defined as the primary means of transportation and all our systems have been designed around that. Most people who are stuck in cars don’t have any choice but to be in cars, and it’s really unfair for bicyclists, as frustrating as it may be for them to have to yield to cars all th time, to hijack the roads as a protest.

    I know in general I’m not as idealistic as the rest of y’all, but this is one case where I’m very strongly opposed, not just for practical but for moral reasons. Road takeovers are not cool, and if you’ve ever been stuck in traffic because of a single car accident, or exciting bit of road construction, or group of unpermitted protesters, or drunken idiot parading around naked on the sidewalk, and you’ve really had to make it to a job interview, or a doctor’s appointment, or to meet your grandmother at the airport — yeah.

    I’m very much opposed to sit-ins and that sort of thing for similar reasons; public thoroughfares and places of business are for all people, regardless of their political leanings, to carry out their daily functions. If you don’t like the way daily functions are carried out there’s a system to change things voluntarily and with consent, not by breaking the law (or exploiting loopholes in the law) and involuntarily forcing your opinions on others.

    And, of course, my views are biased because I really don’t think that 1) replacing internal combustion engines with human power is feasible or 2) that doing so would be primarily a “cultural change” — it would, in fact, be a logistical/material infrastructure change that would require a gigantic investment in time, energy and resources and require a much more compelling reason for any government to carry out than that “There are bicyclists out there, and they’re angry!” But even if I totally 100% supported this cause I would not support this kind of method, any more than I support tagging SUVs on the curb or CDs in department stores with stickers, or launching denial-of-service attacks against the SCO Group, or whatever.

    My ideal of a free society is first and foremost a civil society, and being civil and respectful is a one-way duty, not a two-way contract. We gain nothing by being jerks and inconveniencing people who live and believe differently from us.

    [Disclaimer: I don’t own a car. I don’t even own a bike. I’m a pedestrian, and most any system is going to leave me a second-class citizen; you ever seen cyclists try to share a sidewalk with walkers? Doesn’t work. I respect cyclists’ right to have bike lanes even if that shrinks the sidewalk I walk on *and* the road I occasionally ride buses and taxis on. Cyclists should show drivers the same courtesy.]

    • First: In many situations, such as congested city streets and highways, bikes actually move faster and are more efficient than cars. Cars find themselves in permanent gridlocks where a toddler could outrun them. Think of LA’s 24-hour rush hour. If bikes move faster than cars in some situations, then in those situations they better satisfy the human need for “car-like speeds”. Also, the environment would be much better off if people were riding their bikes instead of sitting in traffic jams for hours, and the people would be healthier, but neither people nor the planet matter that much, just speed.

      Second: In most situations, the Critical Mass people do not take over the entire road, just one lane for a short span, and they usually do this on local roads where the cars cannot travel much faster than the bicycles in normal traffic conditions. Therefore, they are not holding up traffic in any meaningful way. That’s the idea of the “supervehicle”… they become just another vehicle on the road. Although because there is a crossover with the environmental and peace movements, Critical Mass bikers do sometimes back up other protesters, that’s not their main focus in general.

      Third: Bikes can travel much faster, farther, and more efficiently than unicycles, skateboards or pedestrians, so that’s a silly comparison.

      Fourth: It’s certainly not feasible to replace cars with bikes the majority of the time in America, since our country is so much bigger and more sparsely populated than most European or Asian countries. However, the possibilities that do exist are often stifled by the lack of safe thoroughfares for bikes, and this is something that merits investigation. Although it’s true that there would have to be a good deal of change in transportation infrastructure to support more bikes, I resent being locked into using cars by the decisions of people who were around when the US was even more sparsely populated than it is today. It is now practical to bike in many places where it was not before, if we go by sheer population density. All we require are bike paths.

      I do agree with your position on sit-ins somewhat, however. As a Quaker, I’m generally opposed to the missionary mentality, although I do sometimes find myself in an evangelical mood, generally when I’m talking about the SCDC 😉 The point is that Critical Mass is not usually much of a nuisance, and they’re certainly less bother than a pedestrian parade or anything of the sort.

      • Interesting. Perhaps I jumped to conclusions, though I looked over the links you posted and there were quite a few descriptions of conflicts with angry/annoyed drivers — though, of course, the drivers aren’t unbiased and may have been annoyed out of principle. It still seems to me that while it would be a cool thing to see, as a matter of protest I’m still iffy about it; it involves some level of disruption to traffic, if only because it’s intimidating for cars to share the road with bikes. The main reason I could imagine slowing down, even if the bikes are going as fast as a car in the same lane, would be that when I’ve driven I have a much deeper paranoia about hitting cyclists, pedestrians and other unshielded human bodies much more than hitting another car. Perhaps it’s irrational, but I believe the rationale behind greater restrictions on where cyclists can ride was safety — for the drivers’ convenience, yeah, but in terms of not wanting to worry about accidentally hitting cyclists.

        I’d still be worried about doing it, because it is against the law and therefore runs the risk of getting people arrested, and, also, because even as a supervehicle the cyclists are in danger of personal injury in the way cars aren’t. (Yeah, it’s impossible to *accidentally* hit a whole bunch of cyclists in parallel from behind and drive *through* them, but it’s easier for a car going the other direction to clip someone on the edge.) The set-up time looks like it has held up traffic before, given that cyclists have to wear “Thanks for Waiting” signs and such, and that they’ve had to make provisions for scattering if someone reports a “real emergency” that a car has to get to. I’m also not sure what this has to do with getting bike paths, since it’s just a way to make people on bikes visible on the street.

        Still, yes, it is less obviously evangelistic than sit-ins. I don’t know; maybe I’ll have to see one for myself before I pass judgment.

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