Copenhagenize: Critical Miss or Critical Mass?

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A Critique In Approach

Critical Miss or Critical Mass?

“Everytime I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” – H. G. Wells

Excerpts from the original article:

“We just feel the need to play devil’s advocate regarding the Critical Mass movement. Certainly the style of Critical Mass prevalent in, for example, North American cities. Rides that feature an aggressive, in-your-face tone.

“We despise the exaggerated crackdowns by police in various cities, but we’re not too thrilled about those participatnts who are aggressive towards motorists. Democracy becomes anarchy. We don’t fancy much the elitist attitude of many in the environmental activist movement either. Those who look down their nose at motorists – and even non-cyclists.

“We figure that the point of Critical Mass is to profile the need for bike culture and all the enviromental plusses inherent in it. A good thing. Therefore one of the primary goals is to get more people to ride their bikes. For whatever reason: sustainability, oil-dependence reduction, better health for fellow citizens.

If so, does Critical Mass work? We don’t know. 15 years on and are there any cities that have made massive gains towards a bike culture similar to many European cities?”

We do know that we see a simple alternative. An easier route. What if all those massers merely rode their bikes every day? In normal clothes, like normal people? Like the millions of citizens of Northern Europe.

What might happen?”

A Fledgling Movement With Rough Edges

I am noting a bit of the wise counsel of the Elder Statesmen of Cycling attempting to approach the brash sometimes volatile enthusiasm of the U.S.-style Critical Mass with tender admonishments. Yes, you have a right to protest. And more importantly in any Democracy this is as important a right as voting. Demonstrations help to formulate the kinds of ballot initiatives that will appear in the coming election cycles. But disdain for those with whom you either disagree or have not “gotten on board” with your aims is probably a mistake.

The word of wisdom is “Lead by Example”.

But frankly just between us this approach is already being tried by the hard core urban cyclists. It’s just that their impatience is palpable. Getting people out to rallies requires both dedication (since personal time restrictions, bad weather, weak personal health, and waning enthusiasm can reduce rally member participation numbers) and emotion. The latter is probably what helps to boost the numbers above the hard core level.

Newbies come to a movement full of fire in the belly. They sometimes also arrive with a bit of PBR in the veins. That mix can have a deleterious effect on the ride. You can end up with a drunken rider deciding that he simply must ride down Lake Shore Drive at Rush Hour.

The Critical Mass Movement needs different blood. In the article above we meet Mr. Motorist:

He’ll realise that in order to ride his bike he would have to infiltrate a sub-culture populated by individuals very unlike himself. He would have to invest in gear and clothes. Worst of all, Mr Motorist would find himself ‘making a statement’ by riding.

Mr Motorist, like most people, doesn’t want to make a statement. He just wants to live his life, not climb onto a platform and become a visible statement-maker. He knows the environment is an important issue. He knows the facts. But he is just Joe Average and always will be. He just thinks riding his bike to work would be nice, healthy and quicker than driving. But the idea is quickly dropped.”

A Lesson From The Recumbent Movement

One of the things that the Recumbent Bicycle Community has noticed is that over time its numbers have dwindled a bit. Nearly twenty years ago anyone who was attending meetings in Elgin would have been greeted by a rag tag group of bicycle builders whose works were clearly on display at the group ride that usually ensued.

The “selling point” for recumbents back then was all about how much faster you would be when you reduced wind resistance. Lots of the form factors for the bikes used in the WISIL races were centered around fairings and bodysocks or some other means of creating a streamlined bike. There were groups of cyclists who began to experiment with coroplast housings built from sheets of discarded political posters gathered after an election. The results were pretty impressive.

But one thing that recumbent enthusiasts could seldom overcome was the “geeky” look of their bikes. It was a bit of a turnoff for folks simply looking for a comfortable ride on a well built and expertly painted bicycle. There was a bit of a culture clash that erupted wherein home-builders were content to go their separate ways at times.

It took companies like RANS and Easy Racers and Lightning Cycle Dynamics to produce the kinds of bikes that dealers could actually sell on their showroom floors. And even then a rift developed when Bacchetta brought out the “high racers”. These were short wheel base recumbents with dual 700c wheels that had gearing and components nearly identical to that found on a club level racing bike. Things got a bit ugly as passions grew hotter.

Today the market has settled into something more practical, recumbent trikes. Neither the high racers nor the low racers can touch the sales numbers of the trikes. Trikes require more energy to pedal than some of their two-wheeled cousins. But they offer older cyclists a chance to “stay in the game” well beyond the years when lack of balance would have sidelined them. And more importantly the trike addresses the one area where Mr. Motorist would have been worried, namely the learning curve associated with riding a recumbent.

But eventually even recumbent trikes may give way to something completely unexpected, electric-assist bikes. What these bikes provide is a compromise between riding the easily learned trike and the difficult to learn high racers. Bikes like the Easy Racers Gold Rush Replica can be fitted with an electric-assist motor and ridden in city traffic without subjecting the rider to the ultra-low position required on a trike or the cramped position of the high racer (especially for aging bodies with reduced flexibility). And if you prefer an upright frame you can buy many equipped with electric-assist right off the showroom floors of cycle shops.

The lesson here is that in the final analysis it is the Average Joes who will inherit the world. If we are ever to have the kind of cycling Rennaisance here that is prevalent in Europe it will mean the flourishing of stodgy bikes built along the lines of a Dutch Bike. It will mean that fenders, kickstands, baskets and lights will need to become part of the mix. And my guess is that the insurance companies that  indemnify municipalities will require that bicycles must be as sound as possible in an effort to reduce risk to life and limb in the first place. That of course means that bike riders will need the very same kinds of training, testing and licensing that motorists undergo.

And it might even mean that bike shops see a spike in mechanic fees as politicians get around to passing laws that require annual or bi-annual overhauls to ensure that the bikes in operation are sound. It might be something that cyclists will find oppressive at the outset. But if you are being forced to ride in bike lanes with hundreds of thousands more people (some of whom are riding very unsafe bikes with little or not breaking power and without lighting of any kind) it could be a blessing in disguise. It could save you and them from serious injury.

Critical Mass Needs To Be More Vanilla

If increasing the numbers of riders is the real objective of the cycling movement then bringing in more motorists is the best way to accomplish this. Critical Mass ought to be a monthly demonstration of how safe and sensible riding on city streets can be. When motorists see a Critical Mass ride passing by it should not engender hatred in them. It should be something that they might like to join if only they knew how.

Critical Mass needs more suburbanites and senior citizens riding in their midst. It should include Soccer Moms and Boy (and Girl) Scout troops. Some of the rides should take you to a place where you can learn the Rules of the Road with respect to cycling and even practice the strategies discussed on the return leg of the ride.

Now this is going to turn off lots of hipsters. I recognize that fact and frankly it is about time. The radicalization of the movement is what keeps it from growing. There is a place for everybody here. But you cannot hope to broaden the appeal of cycling if Average Joes do not see folks like themselves riding along with the group. It’s that simple.

Grow some enthusiasm for the movement the same way that fundraising walks do by centering the event around the visiting of children’s hospitals. Or how about making a veterans hospital a destination? Some of the guys on ChainLink call this sort of approach “herding kittens”. But I see already that group rides led by docents with only 60 attendees are unwieldy and troublesome.

Blocking traffic as your group passes does not win favor with motorists. It makes them impatient and sometimes frustrated. Slapping car hoods and shouting “Happy Friday” does not spread cheer. It incites anger. The hipster led movement style really needs to move on to something a bit more grownup.