Giving Critical Mass A Raison d’être

Background Reading

Ground Rules

A two-year-old Critical Mass Ride is kind of like having a blender, but you don’t have a top for it. — Jerry Seinfeld

Critical Mass has its origins in a demonstration that took place a decade ago in San Francisco:

Source: WikiPedia

Critical Mass is a cycling event typically held on the last Friday of every month in over 300 cities around the world.[1] The ride was originally founded in 1992 in San Francisco.[2] The purpose of Critical Mass is not usually formalized beyond the direct action of meeting at a set location and time and traveling as a group through city or town streets on bikes. Some bigger scale events as in Budapest, Hungary, have an activist group formed around it, organizing the rides and communicating the desires and problems of the cyclists to the city council.

Critical Mass rides have been perceived as protest. A 2006 New Yorker magazine article described Critical Mass’ activity in New York City as “monthly political-protest rides”, and characterized Critical Mass as a part of a social movement;[3] and the UK e-zineUrban75, which advertises as well as publishes photographs of the Critical Mass event in London, describes this as “the monthly protest by cyclists reclaiming the streets of London.”[4] Critical Mass participants have insisted that these events should be viewed as “celebrations” and spontaneous gatherings, and not as protests or organized demonstrations.[5][6] This stance allows Critical Mass to argue a legal position that its events can occur without advance notification of local police.[7][8]

It is by intention both a protest and a celebration. It is designed to “piss people off”. As NotoriousDUG put it in a recent ChainLink discussion:

Permalink Reply by notoriousDUG yesterday
The point is to upset you.
You really are that important.

Of course as WikiPedia puts it when you demonstrate with the express purpose of pissing people off, you usually have to get a permit for the demonstration. That for an anarchists is like announcing to the regime in power that you plan to have a bomb building seminar at Pub XYZ at 10 PM. Guess who shows up and how long the meeting lasts.

So by giving the ride some “flash mob” like qualities the idea is that you can skirt the law on demonstrations and everyone in the “movement” is happy. But frankly that design is pretty lame since the world over the event is held on the last Friday of each month and here in Chicago it begins with a gathering at Daley Plaza. How clandestine is that?

And it should be mentioned that the police have begun to ride along with the group on bicycles in numbers that make it difficult to be too aggressive and too stupid when have come to the mass with a “full skin” and decide to ride the Lake Shore Drive at Rush Hour “just for the  hell of it”.

The ride has become the hipster equivalent of a monthly peace rally where aging hippies gather to smoke weed and wear sandals, long hair and no bras under their tie-dye shirts worn over their jeans. And quite likely it will continue to occur in its present form until everyone who has been doing them for the past decade is too old to take time out of their busy schedules with spouses and kids to just hang with their other aging friends. Eventually time will tell.

Aimlessness Has It Perks

If a movement has become pointless and has as its purpose “sticking it to the man” it will die and no one will know it, least of all the anarchists. — Beezodog

I am reminded of the advent of the resurgence of recumbents here in the United States. It reached its own critical mass around the same time as this Critical Mass.

During the early 1990s a group of recumbent cyclists formed the Chicago area group known as WISIL. It was a coalition of Wisconsin and Illinois recumbent enthusiasts who eventually held meetings on a monthly basis, did their own group ride after each meeting and spent time showing off their latest home built bike creations and even having a test ride time before each meeting where newbies could come and see what the movement was all about.

Eventually a race series was formed to counter the original race series begun in California. This one had special rules that made more sense to its creators and a series of groups around the Midwest and Florida began holding races according to these new rules. Battle Mountain became an annual event to provide a face-to-face competition between the riders and their bikes. It is described thusly:

Source: Recumbents.com

During the week of September 10th through September 15th 2012, cyclists from around the world will gather on SR305 outside of Battle Mountain, Nevada for the 13th consecutive year of racing on what is arguably the straightest, flattest, and smoothest road surface in the world.The 4,619ft (1,408m) altitude road allows riders an acceleration zone of over 4 miles, enabling them to reach their maximum velocity before being timed over a 200 meter distance. The section of the road used for this event was newly refinished in 2009, with a smooth surface specially prepared for human powered cycle racing by the Nevada Department of Transportation.

Current WHPSC Records:

  • In 2009, Sam Whittingham broke his own record again for a human powered speed of 82.819 MPH! 
  • In 2010, Barbara Buatois broke her own record, with a women’s human powered speed of 75.69 MPH.
  • In 2011, Greg Westlake broke his own record with an arm powered world speed record of 45.68 MPH.

The WHPSC is the setting for the record of “World’s Fastest Human propelled by their own power”, and all records set are sanctioned by the IHPVA. Pre-Event Coordinators / Race Directors: Al and Alice Krause:  Email or (707) 443-8261 (10:00AM to 10:10PM PST)

At one point in time the idea was to Spread the Gospel of Recumbency. The movement was full of zealots who like myself wanted to spread the word to all the upright riders that there was no need to ride an uncomfortable bike that was slow and inefficient when you could ride a recumbent bicycle.

Too that end lots of recumbent riders spent their waking hours riding their bikes in search of “roadies to smoke”. We even had our own version of the ChainLink which eventually became BentRiderOnline.com. And for the recumbent movement the “man” was a cycling industry hell bent on putting riders on uncomfortable bikes. We pointed with ridicule at all the “new and improved” bike saddles that were meant to relieve you of penile numbness and genital discomfort. And by entering invitational rides where we could demonstrate the vaunted advantage of the recumbent design against roadie pelotons we were sure to win everyone over.

But eventually even the most strident members of the group became too old to outrun the upcoming roadies whom they used to smoke. A few of these ardent members even switched back to uprights (ouch!) Several of the original commercial brands of recumbents went bankrupt or died out when their owners did. And worst of all the sales figures for recumbents did not match expectations.

Today in fact the top selling recumbent is a tricycle! A bike that is great for aging septagenarians who are having balance issues. But trikes are a good deal less efficient than their two wheeled cousins and that sometimes means that to ride them fast you need to add a motor. Yikes!

Electric motors are all the rage among recumbent riders at the moment. You can read forum threads on Recumbents.com here. At the end of the day what created the recumbent movement here in the U.S. was a desire to innovate. And we have returned to that original core value. Only this time we are pulling batteries and motors off-the-shelf and adapting them to bikes meant to be pedaled.

Meanwhile our European cousins have continued their quest for the ultimate recumbent experience using velomobiles.

Could these revolutionize transit? (Photo: Roll Over America/Maarten Heckman)

The caption under the photograph from this article says it all. It is almost as if we have come full circle. Recumbents are poised to become truly meaningful in the cycling world at just about the time that the United States is poised to build the kind of infrastructure that could support the wide spread use of velomobiles.

These are actually trikes that have hardshell enclosures which make them suitable for year-round use on roadways. And they are quite fast! It is as if all of the good things about recumbents have come together at once. But they are expensive and really need to be considered as legitimate transportation rather than merely recreational vehicles.

For the first time since the Lightning Cycle Dynamics F-40 first appeared on the scene we have a recumbent capable of reaching speeds in the automobile range (in urban settings where 35 MPH is the upper limit) and which can signal the riders intentions.

You can signal turns and even braking all from the rear of the vehicle. And into the bargain you have a headlight portal for lighting your way in the dark. No wonder these little gems have taken Europe by storm. I got a chance to see the ROAM riders up close-and-personal last year. It was a hoot and made a lasting impression on me.

Reconsidering Critical Mass

OK. So it’s back to the discussion about our step child, Critical Mass. Like any middle schooler fun is always at the expense of the adults. Your hormones are raging and sneaking out to get a cigarette or to hookup with your friends is nirvana. But eventually high school comes and you decide to try out for the team and that means just sitting idly getting high is in direct competition with winning a spot on the team.

By the time you are ready for college you have to decide which school to attend and that might mean that you do so with your major in mind. If you plan to be an engineer you look at CalTech or IIT or MIT or even Purdue. And while these are all great schools they are far from “party schools”. And eventually you begin to realize that the very kind of human you hate most, adults is what you are becoming.

Critical Mass is kinda like Junior High. The point was always to “piss you off” if of course you were an adult. The more the cranky old lady next door hated you stomping on her begonias the better. But eventually you graduate from college, get married and settle somewhere that allows you to plant flowers or a lawn or even a garden and suddenly you are “pissed off” when the neighbors kids stomp on your kale plants.

Now some “urban hipsters” have managed to bring to life the idea of Arrested Development. They do this in the name of the “movement”. The movement is currently fixated on “protected bicycle lanes”. The local Cycling Advocacy group is touting them as the very thing to end “scofflaw cyclist behavior”, “increase the number of commuter cyclists by 3-5 fold”, “bring love and peace between motorists and cyclists” and “bring an end to pattern baldness”.

Now I am all for physically separated bicycle infrastructure which is frankly a good deal more all encompassing than the current hybrid “protected bicycle lanes”. My idea of good bicycle infrastructure would mean a network of bicycle highways that extended across the United States (or at minimum Northern Illinois, since I am selfish enough to want to have it in my own backyard). These highways would resemble the Chicago Lakefront Trail on steroids. They would have places to:

  • stop and get a morning cup of coffee,
  • get a flat fixed or your velomobile tuned-up
  • use a clean and well-equipped washroom
  • dive under shelter if you don’t like the weather
  • would be devoid of stop lights or stop signs because you would never interact with motorist traffic until you exited on the off-ramp
  • these highways could deliver you from the western, southern or northern suburbs to avenues for cycling here in Chicago without ever having to deal with cars
  • their surfaces would be glass free and most likely their surfaces would elevated (in the air, in the manner of elevated trains)
  • and if I needed a shower or to change clothes I could find a station at the end of the ride where this was possible
  • finally locking up my velomobile would be a cinch. There would even be parking attendants!

So how does Critical Mass as it is currently configured get me to my goal of a real transportation alternative? Frankly it does not. What it does do is provide a monthly excuse to ride for a dozen or so miles with other aging hipsters and the occasional newbie before heading for a bar or a concert to smoke a bit of weed or drop something that I hope is pure enough to get me high without overdosing. But as for doing anything concrete that job is left to the politicians and local governmental types who in conjunction with cycling advocates struggle to find money and a direction in which to head in building more cycling infrastructure.

But before we get all gushy about the future we need to take a long hard look at website like:

  • BikePortland
  • Copenhagenize
  • Amsterdamize
  • Montrealize

and not with some clear-headedness that all is not sweetness and light in those places we hope to emulate.

The Big Lie

The current big lie is that our problems will be solved by more infrastructure. Bicyclists will stop running red lights and ignoring stop signs. Motorists will no longer pose a threat to our morning travels. And the number of people who use cycling as an alternative to cars is going to approach that in Amsterdam or Copenhagen.

Our cycling advocacy groups need to justify their wages so they write letters to editors and columnists who pooh-pooh these notions or complain about the current level of scofflaw behavior among cyclists. Sometimes in the past they took to their keyboards to decry the myth of the scofflaw cyclist. But times have changed. We now read articles in which the cyclists openly admit not only to ignoring stop signs and stop lights but defend the practice as ethical if not legal. Bully for them. They are at least being honest about the situation.

In Oregon right now where oodles of dollars have been spent to create bicycle infrastructure they are still dealing with the fact that despite the infrastructure the issues persist. It is a bit like trying to wipe out drug abuse in the US by either putting more first time offenders in jail (most of whom are black, while allowing whites to skate) or creating an endless array of drug prevention or remediation clinics to deal with the aftermath. Either way we are pouring dollars into the pockets of those who either staff the prisons or man the clinics and at the end of the day we have precious little to show for it.

Libertarians argue that legalizing drugs drives down the prices and Evangelicals argue that going down that road is against God’s Will. And so in the meantime our kids are turning to opiates (if they are white and living in Appalachia) or crack cocaine (if they are black in living in blighted urban areas) and crime and gun violence soars.

We are about to enter an era in which cycling is going to have its endless wars of attrition. As more people on both side of the question the role of Critical Mass the aging hipsters are going to dig in and demand that the practice continue as aimlessly as ever. On the other hand there will be folks like John Greenfield who will attempt to bring some purpose to the practice by helping members of the African-American community get both white urban hipsters and black urban youth to ride in the same outdated Critical Mass but perhaps with more purpose than before. This time it will be to discover one another and not just to “piss off motorists”.

Cycling, if it ever becomes widespread, is going to leave a lot of the current hipster population a bit nonplussed. Why? Well as with the recumbent movement things change when the demographics broaden. As the recumbent movement aged so did the first-timers coming to the sport. They wanted and in fact needed comfort above all else. They were not people who would build their own bikes so the number of aging recumbent riders who can find someone to show off their latest creation to is dwindling.

If indeed the numbers of cyclists increased dramatically that will mean that folks will inevitably be riding Dutch Bikes which are heavy, slow and have fenders, lights, kickstands, bells, baskets and rear racks. Yikes! Where will hipsters find any comfort? Gone will be the preponderance of folks who at least pretend to ride single speed fixies. There will be actual brakes on most bikes. Gone will be all the cool places where you could “piss off” the man by U-Locking your bike to somebody fence and then complain loudly on ChainLink about the injustice of it all.

Bet your bottom dollar that somebody is going to figure out a way to provide governmental income via either John Kass’ tollway idea or through annual licensing or educational training on bicycle usage. In short the time of treating a bicycle as a toy will have passed. If velomobiles ever become commonplace it will mean that parking lots will have to be used or automobiles will have to contend with them in the very on-the-steet parking spots so coveted and in such short supply.

You don’t just park a dozen velomobiles outside the local Starbuck on the sidewalk. You are forced to find ways to handle that much cycling traffic and suddenly the people with whom you will have the greatest contention will be other cyclists. Count on it.

Make Critical Mass A Learning Laboratory

Tea Party politicians are long on Ayn Rand-ian theory and short, very short on practical governance. They are part Libertarian and part Reactionaries who are all about saving the government money. Actually they are really about having government dollars steered away from people (the poor) and issues (unwanted pregnancies and marry equality) they don’t like.

But what we need are people in government who have the cojones to actually kill of their pensions are readily as they desire to do away with those of governmental workers. Who are as ready to live with Constitutional term-limits on themselves as they are on the guys from the other Party. We need politicians who are more about doing civic good than finding jobs on K-Street.

The same applies to the cycling movement. We need fewer bureaucrats in jobs at Cycling Advocacy agencies and more people working in public service who understand the notions of surrounding physically separated bicycle infrastructure and are determined to find ways to pay for what will be nearly as expensive an operation as the building of super highways was back in the times of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and later Dwight David Eisenhower. We need to get over the notion that governmental control of cycling is unfair and embrace the fact that with the dollars to build the infrastructure will come some commitment on our part.

Right now we functional like a bunch of horny male hipsters ready to party on a Friday after the Critical Mass with any of the available Critical Mass groupies we can find. From our point of view if she is not using contraception that is her fault. We are just there for the sex.

But what if she gets pregnant? Are we willing to step up and “do the right thing?” For most guys in this Arrested Development stage the idea of commitment is frightening. What would happen to their lives it suddenly they had to come home to just one girl who is swollen in childbirth and then eventually build a life with just her. The idea of having to share your drinking time with the guys to actually father a child is a nightmare. But that is what the real world is all about.

“Bicycles are not nose rings.”  — Beezodog

You always hear from hipsters about the trench wars they fight in just trying to get to work in one piece. But what will their lives revolve around once the infrastructure is in place and the number of cyclists who join them on their daily commute is riddled with kids on childs bikes, soccer moms escorting them along the bike lanes, seniors getting to and from their offices and or their recreation centers, teenagers who can outride them speed-wise and despise these aging hipsters who are all cover in tattoos and nose rings. Life will suddenly have creeped up on them and they will be wondering how it all happened so fast.

For hipsters bicycles were a part of who they were as people. Their small numbers were a badge of honor. They were the ones who braved the cold morning and rain showers to get to work. Theirs was the stuff of legend when the gathered with the guys and groupies to regale one another with horror stories about accidents that happened right in front of them or to show scars from the last time they got doored.

Now with all the bike lanes protected from that sort of thing, their lives will taken on less meaning. Their aches and pains as they reach 40 years of age and then God Forbid 50 years of age will take their toll. Fixies will give way to bikes with broader saddles and wider tires to keep the bumps and bruises at bay. Brake levers and bells will become part of their everyday world.

And if Critical Mass morphs into something else for the next generation it will be they who are the targets of that movements “pissing you off” campaign. But frankly I doubt that Critical Mass will morph into anything. Instead it will do what it is supposed to do, simply die. In its place will be what happens in Amsterdam and Copenhagen when weekend cycling takes people from the suburbs into the main cities to enjoy concerts and picnics. In short it will become mundane.

Hipsters need to become attuned to the notion of term limits for themselves. It has been ever thus. If you want to have a legacy make it the rethinking of Critical Mass with a purpose. Critical Mass should be where people from all over the city get to meet one another. Get to ride with one another into their various communities and even dare I say it volunteer to lend a helping hand with clean up or maintenance of trails and roadways.

Critical Mass should be where groups turn to find a ready-made source of contributions to worthwhile causes in their communities which may or may not be directly related to cycling. Critical Mass should be where the Chicago Police do their recruiting for the next round of bike cops. Gone should be the days when there is mistrust between the cops and hipster cyclists, replaced by adults who have a common interest in passing on good cycling skills to the kids who will inherit all of this infrastructure.

Critical Mass would do well to redesign itself so that children are the focus of the event. There really is no need for a Kiddical Mass if you try and make this time useful to parents with children. Sure that might put a bit of a crimp in your plans to get laid after the ride, but even you are going to have to consider life alone at 50 years of age or married with kids and still biking and more importantly passing on to the next generation a love of cycling, not just a series of war stories about how darned difficult it was to ride the full length of Milwaukee back in the day.

Cycling Is A Lowest Common Denominator

“Poor people can ride bikes when they cannot afford cars. Rich people can ride bikes even if they can afford cars. Nothing brings an opportunity to meet someone you have feared all your life because they looked different than helping them fix their flat tire. If we don’t take Critical Mass as the opportunity of a lifetime then shame on us.” — Beezodog

Critical Mass has the capacity to do something for the City of Chicago that nothing else could. Because bikes are more on a human scale it means that when you ride into one another’s neighborhoods you do so at a slow speed and without pretense. You after all are on a bike. Stopping to buy luncheon from a local vendor is a no-brainer. You need food to refuel for the return trip.

You don’t have to fight with neighbors in the places you visit for parking spots. You don’t have to have special stickers to park on their streets. You can get just about anywhere you want in the city even during winter months. There is no need to spend time stuck in traffic on LSD only to find out that the darned thing is closed and you need to abandon your car.

If we do this thing right, people will learn to expect cyclists on the streets in their neighborhoods and that will be a good thing. They can look out for you and you for them. After all if everyone is moving around on bikes breaking glass on streets is everyones problem. Besides if you know your neighbors and they frequent your part of town on bicycles you are extending the kind of situation known usually only in small towns.

There really is no need to artificially create this sort of thing with Open Streets. It will simply happen because block club parties and neighborhood festivals are part of life in Chicago neighborhoods. Imagine who the hipster perception of suburbanites would change if they were coming weekly into the city to enjoy the goings-on by bicycle. Imagine what would happen if they could expect hipsters and black urbanites to visit them by bicycle to enjoy their municipal street festivals and jazz concerts and county fairs.

And all of this could be done without having to “piss off” anyone. Just imagine.

A word to the wise ain’t necessary — It’s the stupid ones that need the advice. — Bill Cosby