March 29, 2005

Critical Mess

by psu

Driving home from work on Friday night, we noticed a strange sight for Pittsburgh. A couple of dozen young people decked out in the Pierced Goth look that is prevelant among today's "non-conformist" youth were riding down Fifth Avenue connected to bicycles via fancy clipless pedals and shoes which looked a bit out of place under their black jackets and rainbow colored leg warmers.

When they all ran the red light at Fifth and Bellefield, I realized what was going on. This was Critical Mass.

The Critical Mass propaganda is that they organize "events" to "raise awareness" about the relationship, or lack thereof, between cars and bicycles on the road. Mixed into this agenda is some mumbo jumbo about alternative transportation and a lot of self-important twaddle about how bike commuting will save the world. What they do to further their cause is ride in large clumps down the road, ignoring all the prevailing traffic laws and generally crippling whatever traffic corridor they happen to be occupying. Actually, the Pittsburgh crowd was too small to cripple anything, but I've seen larger groups in other cities pretty much bring rush hour to a dead stop. In Pittsburgh, they made do with running lights and doing donuts across Fifth Avenue. In other words, Critical Mass is a bunch of cyclists riding like complete morons in order to improve the relationship between bikes and cars on the road. Good luck with that.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love bikes. Over the last thirteen years in Pittsburgh, I have ridden my bicycles several thousand miles including a few century rides and light commuting. In my time I've had dozens of dogs yap at me through car windows and chase me down roads. I've been buzzed by teenagers on Meth. I've had fruit thrown at me from the pickup truck of some red-neck moron. I've drafted busses and choked on the fumes. In other words, if you are on a bike somewhere in the city, I know what your existence is like.

But, whenever I am in the presence of a Critical Mass event, the only thing that keeps me from rolling the windows down and screaming obscene epithets is young children in the area and my wife hitting me upside the head. I believe that I am as sympathetic a mainstream audience as Critical Mass could possibly hope for, and all I want to do is hurt them. Let me explain.

For decades, John Forester has been preaching the right way to mix cars and bikes in his excellent book, Effective Cycling. Anyone who has more than a passing interest in serious cycling should stop reading this page and go buy this book right now. It should be required reading for cyclists in the same way that the New Testament is required for Christians. Among other things, the book makes the strongest case that I have ever read that the right thing to do is to

1. Treat bicycles as first class vehicular traffic (like motorcycles, say).

2. Have cyclists obey the prevailing local traffic laws.

In the U.S., we seem to be constitutionally incapable of applying these simple principles. On the one hand we have drivers who are convinced that bikes belong only on soul-sucking recreational trails where we would be doomed to ride an endless expanse of crushed limestone at slow speeds, lest we run over the hordes of bladers, joggers and baby strollers who are sharing the space. On the other hand, we have cyclists who are completely ignorant about how to ride in traffic. What they should be doing is riding on the road, in the same direction as the traffic, as far to the right as practical, and following all relevant signs and lights. In other words, no weaving around on the road, no riding between the car lanes, no double pacelines, no jumping lights, no riding on the sidewalk. This doesn't seem like a lot to ask, but the majority of cyclists that I observe don't seem to be able to follow these simple rules. Even the cops on mountain bikes ride on the sidewalk.

You would think that members of a cycling advocacy group would try and do better in the hopes of showing the car driving world that they are mature adults that deserve equal standing on the road. Instead, they act just like the infantile assholes on Friday night, blowing through a red light at a busy intersection and then doing donuts across three lanes of traffic. My conclusion is that any hatred that drivers have for bikes is completely justified because the cycling community in general, and Critical Mass in particular, has done nothing to make drivers think that cyclists are anything more than a bunch of juvenile self-centered cry-babies. As long as this image persists, the sick moron who chucked fruit at me in Mars, PA will feel justified in his actions. Therefore, rather than helping me in any way, Critical Mass just makes my life, and the lives of decent cyclists everywhere, harder, and they must be stopped.

In his book, Forester suggests that the reason we discriminate against bicycles in our traffic laws is that we believe bicycles to be toys for children, and thus we don't expect any more than child-like behavior from the people riding them. Critical Mass certainly lives up to these expectations.


Using Google, I found this guy who agrees with me. So I must be right.

Again, you must buy John Forester's Effective Cycling. Do it now.

Posted by psu at March 29, 2005 07:45 AM | Bookmark This

Critical Mass seems to be one of those groups who tried to raise awareness with radicalism, but instead just pisses people the hell off. Last month's Critical Mass ride cut me off in the middle of a turn-on-left arrow by running the red light on the other side. It was hit some cyclists or leave myself broadside to oncoming traffic when the light changed. I chose broadside - at least the oncoming traffic could see what was going on, but it was uncomfortable and unpleasant.

We pulled alongside one of the cyclists and asked him why they felt it necessary to run the light. "Traffic laws are for the benefit of cars", he said. "They're weighted against bikes."

I hope I can be forgiven for not believing that "right of way" is only for the benefit of cars. I'm aware that there are jerky motorists out there - I've been run off the road when skating, and I have friends who've been run off the road while biking - but the fault usually lies with the jerky motorist, not the traffic laws.

I bike, and I am happy to share the road with cyclists when I'm in my car. When my father taught me to ride, years ago, he emphasized obeying the traffic laws, for my safety, for the safety of pedestrians, and the safety of motor vehicles.

I prefer his rules to Critical Mass's rampant lawless idiocy.

Posted by Laura at March 29, 2005 10:18 AM

I've been waiting for this essay, or one like it, ever since I read up on CM (my initial reaction on hearing about it was, "Hey, cool!" The more I read, the more disillusioned I got.) I like the sentiment of Critical Mass in theory, but the practice puts a really bad taste in my mouth - especially when I realize that CMers piss off the drivers that EVERYONE has to deal with.

I advocate cycling the best way I know how: I commute by bike to class and work, and I run all my errands by bike (tip: grocery-laden bikes are heavy); in the process, I obey all laws, never run lights (unless I'm turning right without a "no turn on red" sign), and otherwise try to behave like a considerate user of the road. I admit to sometimes losing my cool at some of the college drivers around (because all the drivers around here who have the attitude of "bikes belong on sidewalks" are college students), but I'm getting better. In other words, I try to be a model cyclist, to give a counterpoint for drivers whose main view of cyclists comes from Critical Mass.

Posted by Brett at March 29, 2005 11:36 AM

Ahh, the old debate about Critical Mass. I decided to stay away from the Starbucks-loving post because, while I believe that Starbucks is another part of the problem we have with blindly profit-driven corporate monoculture (yes, I'm one of *them*), I honestly don't give a shit about coffee.

Critical Mass, on the other hand, addresses an issue that is dear to my heart. I ride my bicycle everywhere, to the extent that I am able. I don't drive, and I've never owned a car. This automatically puts me on the fringe of society, and some people might dismiss me because of that -- but hear me out, please.

There are a couple points that I think you've missed in your rant against Critical Mass. The first is that drivers don't hate cyclists. I've ridden for enough years in enough different environments to realize this. While cars seem threatening while you're on a bike, and there are the few dangerous morons that will try to do something to hurt you if they perceive that you're in their way (whether you're on a bicycle or not) -- for the most part, people are like you and Laura, in that they try to have some consideration for everyone who is on the roads. As such, CM is going to do very little to change the number of people who engage in antisocial behavior by antagonizing cyclists. That's not the point of the demonstration, even if some of the participants hope that it is.

In fact, for every irate motorist who honks their horn in anger or makes exasperated questions to the people in CM, there's another who cheers them on, asks how they can participate, or simply smiles and waves. It's a divisive issue, and most people who go out there to ride in that roving pack realize that not everyone's going to be happy about it. Some people get carried away with the idea of antagonizing traffic and use CM to piss off drivers, and unfortunately sometimes those are the people who are making the decisions at the front of the group. It's a rather chaotic and inconsistent happening, but I don't think that invalidates everything that it's about.

As I'm sure you've gathered by now, I've participated in Critical Mass a few times -- I've even ridden in CM in other cities as part of my travels, since I know that the tone of it can vary from city to city. From the sound of it, you haven't. Maybe you should give it a shot, before you dismiss it as nothing but selfish antagonism. Probably the biggest reason that I've continued to ride in CM has nothing to do with the goal of changing people's perceptions of cycling, even though that's what drew it to me initially. It has more to do with this feeling of safe community that often forms in the middle of a Mass, where instead of trying to get as fast as possible from point A to point B, I'm riding in a social group, meeting people as I ride, and not worrying the whole time about whether some jerk who's trying to shave seconds off his commute will broadside me. CM certainly isn't like that all the time, but when it is, it's very empowering and life-affirming. I think some bystanders realize this, or at least they're more amused than annoyed, so they cheer the ride on.

So there it is, I've gone off spouting some mumbo-jumbo. I just checked your link, and it looks like you've heard this all before and are therefore unlikely to change your opinion. I think Effective Cycling is a good model, and I think that it can be practiced even in concert with demonstrations like Critical Mass. I *know* you won't agree with that, but it would take another essay to explain my thoughts. Maybe if you haven't already decided I'm an idiot, we can debate this.

Posted by Joel at March 29, 2005 12:32 PM

I am all for social rides, and have often participated in them on a recreational basis. The question I have is, what does that have to do with blowing off the traffic laws?

Posted by psu at March 29, 2005 01:26 PM

On a tangent, my article from yesterday defends Starbucks, and says that they are an effective corporation that seems to be meeting the needs of their target market, and that they have improved the overall coffee culture of the US. To characterize that as "Starbucks-loving" is a misreading.

But, you did indicate that you don't care about coffee, so I could understand if you were just skimming and didn't get it.

Posted by peterb at March 29, 2005 01:35 PM

Social rides on a recreational basis are great, but I see Critical Mass more as a re-envisioning of the potential of public space. The resistance that avid cyclists such as yourself express shows that it's an imperfect demonstration at best, and sometimes it degenerates into nothing better than antagonism. Something like CM is necessarily going to be disruptive because it goes so far against the status quo, but I honestly don't think that backing up traffic a bit more when it's already moving at a crawl is worth getting your panties in such a knot.

As for the legality of it, I take issue with the idea that a demonstration must be lawful to be effective. I was in the NY CM the month after the police had surrounded a group of CM riders, and after the riders locked up their bikes and went into stores to escape arrest, the police started cutting locks and confiscating bicycles. After I read the court ruling from the resulting trial (in which the judge ruled in favor of Critical Mass as First Amendment speech, by the way), it would appear that the police found some law on the books about how locking bikes on street poles is obstructing the flow and therefore illegal. This is clearly absurd, and it shows that the law fails to cover the possibility of a legitimate, harmless activity like locking up your bike to go shopping.

Of course, we weren't talking about locking your bike to go shopping. I'm just trying to show that the law isn't the end-all by which all activity should be judged. Blocking traffic during CM keeps the group together and is therefore necessary for safety. (Circling intersections enters more murky territory, and I'm still not sure what I think about that.) Critical Mass isn't a recreational bike ride, it isn't a protest, and it isn't a parade. It isn't and yet it has some of the characteristics of all of those. It exists in a space that the law doesn't yet know how to handle, which is kind of the point and has been evident by the recent legal dispute in NY.

Posted by Joel at March 29, 2005 02:32 PM

Running red lights isn't the same as "backing traffic up a bit more". It's actively dangerous.

Go back and re-read Laura's description -- CM gave her the choice of running someone over or risking being t-boned by another driver.

If you want to spend your time on self-indulgent wanking about "re-envisioning the potential of public space", please do the rest of us a favor and do it in a way that doesn't put people at risk.

Posted by Nat at March 29, 2005 02:44 PM

Another thing to consider is that if you have, say, one hundred cyclists of varying abilities, the entire group is likely to go slower than the average cyclist. If red lights aren't run and streets aren't corked to let all participants through, you will end up with groups of twenty and thirty cyclists here and there throughout the route.

That would be more disruptive to the traffic flow than simply running the light and causing 30 seconds of disruption.

Multiply that by ten for a city such as New York, where not running the lights will create hours-long traffic jams in an already crowded city, and it seems silly to be arguing this point.

By "double pacelines" do you mean two cyclists riding side by side? I wasn't aware that that was illegal in this state.

Posted by Emily at March 29, 2005 02:47 PM

I'm sorry, but I don't buy that it was an actively dangerous situation. While working as a messenger, I've seen many many cars get stuck in the middle of a busy intersection. It's an awkward spot, to be sure, but people don't just go t-boning other cars when they've been waiting at an intersection, even when it's rush hour and they're irate.

Posted by Joel at March 29, 2005 02:59 PM

If you want to organize an event with a hundred people and you want them to be safe, get a permit and *close the road*.

Don't collect a chaotic mob and then come to me and claim that running the light is a good idea because it's making the world safer. In particular, don't make that claim to the driver that hits some poor slob on her mountain bike who was following the mob through the light.

Double pacelines are where you get 2 lines of riders each drafting off one another. They are not illegal, but they are a stupid thing to do in traffic because the bikes then take up more room than they need to, and you are not riding as far to the right as is practical. There is also almost never any point to drafting on city streets.

My pants are not really in a knot over slowing down traffic. My pants are in a knot because CM claims to want to re-envision traffic laws to be more bike friendly, but the participants in the ride appear to me to be completely and utterly ignorant of the laws they seek to change, and of how to handle a bike safely on the road.

Finally, if you want to interpret CM as some kind of civil rights demonstration, I suppose that's fine with me, but then go read the URL I link to at the end and maybe think about whether CM is doing anything at all to back up their demonstrations with real work.

Posted by psu at March 29, 2005 03:00 PM

From Title 75 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes:

3505(e) Limitation on riding abreast. -- Persons riding pedalcycles upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast, except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of pedalcycles.

Posted by Stewart Clamen at March 29, 2005 03:02 PM

"I'm sorry, but I don't buy that it was an actively dangerous situation."

Dude, I was in the car with her. It certainly felt dangerous to me, and you're really not going to get very far trying to explain to my how it secretly wasn't dangerous.

Posted by Nat at March 29, 2005 03:07 PM

Alright then, we disagree, and neither of us will convince the other. Thanks everyone for the engaging discussion. It's time for me to catch up on my work now.

Posted by Joel at March 29, 2005 03:09 PM

The last time I was on a CM ride, it was about two years ago. There were some very car antagonistic people chanting. I felt out of place, since even though I bike everywhere, I do not hate the car. Anyway, I'm just posting a link to PennDot's guide to biking:

Posted by Norm at March 29, 2005 03:39 PM

I don't participate in Critical Mass, but I do advocate better laws for cyclists on the road. The only law I disobey is riding on the sidewalk sometimes, but I do this more in fear of being mowed down than anything. I ride a cheap mountain bike, not a fancy $800 road bike, and I'm not fast. Combine this with an ass or two in an SUV on Fifth Avenue and you'd better believe I'm going to get out of his way however possible. It's true, however, that most people seem to be more or less respectful of individual cyclists, but it feels precarious during rush times and my slow self is holding things up when I can't get to the right enough to let a vehicle pass me safely. Thus, I long for the mythical "bike lane". Til then, or until I become faster and more confident, it seems there's little choice when roads are busy and detours aren't an option. Unless some kinder laws are installed, that is.

Apart from traffic light disobedience, the most distressing scene as a driver is individual cyclists' intercar weaving (e.g., if traffic is stopped and the cyclist wants to move ahead). Perhaps someone who has never owned a car or is a particularly skilful cyclist might find it more difficult to see how this sort of behavior can appear rather impetuous, not to mention frustrating, to drivers. When CM does its thing, they come in a unit, so you're presumably less likely to hit them. But in all its efforts to increase visibility, it perpetuates some of these bad habits - like the red light issue. The notion of cyclist as an imperfect creature doesn't sit well with people who like to hate cars, but if CM wants to be more effective, it should concentrate more on enforcing behaviors of mutual respect, not an anarchist (and show-offy) "look, you can't stop us" 'tude. However earnest the monthly gig may seem to some, its efforts certainly haven't positively affected my ride.

Posted by a. at March 29, 2005 09:05 PM

You know... you Americans are friggin weird. I'm a biker and a driver, depending on whether I'm at home or at school, and I get involved in biking events a heck of lot. Actually, Critical Mass Ottawa (which I would've done if I wasn't this dead sick) is happening tonight, and they just rode by behind my apartment building.

Only thing is, besides the screaming and general such-and-such protesting typically has, they were pretty damned safe about it, and they took up only one lane in a two-lane street (which, in dead snow and winter as we're having now, a single bike will take up, as the curbs are iced like all hell).

Maybe us Canucks are just nicer about things. Since I moved back up here from the States I keep noticing discrepencies like this.

Just sayin.

Posted by Johann K at November 25, 2005 05:54 PM

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