Critical Mass Is A Missed Opportunity

Well the ChainLink faithful have awakened once again from a collective stupor and decided to tackle yet another weighty problem. One would think that after nearly two decades and some some 240 occurrences in nearly 300 cities the concept of Critical Mass would be well defined. But it is not. And this discussion does a great deal to dispel the myth that any one person knows.

It begins with a simple query:

Barry Aldridge on September 23, 2012 at 1:12pm

After slamming Critical Mass, I’m thinking of doing the one in September so I can see what it’s like to participate. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but I can’t reconcile all of the inconvenience and disruption caused by CM with its lack of meaning. I appreciate civil disobedience, but only if it’s to work toward some goal, which CM doesn’t seem to have.

Can you help me understand CM better to help me decide if I should participate? I’m not trolling or being a devil’s advocate – and I understand if no one wants to beat this dead horse yet again.

The sad thing is that the participants in this activity still have to ask this question. If we were talking about a particular presidential campaign the only one that comes to mind with as little clearly defined purpose and agenda would be that of Mitt Romney. He is struggling to find his footing. If he lets himself be defined by his opponent and never gets his message out he loses. Critical Mass is a losing proposition if the same applies after two decades. Every single iteration of this activity should begin with some sort of understanding as that what is about to happen and the meaning of that activity.

If it is just a simple bike ride among friends then it really has no meaning and should not be considered either a parade or a protest. Indeed these two descriptions are eschewed by the folks who conduct Critical Mass rides because those kinds of activities require permits. A permit is usually needed to conduct either a parade or protest because there are usually street closures other formalities that require planning and often are accompanied by fees that I am sure Critical Mass participants are more than happy to avoid paying.

So the Critical Mass rides are treated more as if they are Flash Mob activities than anything formal. And it is this attempt to fly “under the radar” that makes the thing a bit goofy. You really don’t need a flash mob message to gather the last Friday of each month and ride (with police escort) through the streets of the city shouting “Happy Friday” and derisively slapping the hoods and roofs of stalled motorists. In fact trying to dignify this sort of thing trivializes a real protest.

Compared to the kinds of abuse suffered at the hands of police by Freedom Riders and Civil Rights Marchers in the South in the 1960s this thing is a travesty. And anyone who even attempts to think of it in loftier terms than a singles bar crawl is frankly either foolish or misguided. This is the protest equivalent of a Dude Ranch for young urbanites who want to have an edgier evening and then go drinking afterwards on the off chance that they might “get lucky” with someone who also rides a bike and is dumb enough to consider this a protest ride.

The first response is precious:

Reply by cutifly 14 hours ago

I want to beat a dead horse every way possible. At least to make sure it is totally dead and not just kind of dead.

Mass is always more meaningful when your you’re single and drinking, that is my take at this point. I never did make any money from it, so I can’t give it top priority anymore. It is something never to forget being the very last person in the pack on Lake Shore Drive with a sea of cars almost driving over me and a very upset punk fool who was seriously considering running me over. But I have to admit some of the best times … Let’s have a real LSD mass and see how well everyone does then…

Testosterone is a key ingredient in any protest. I would imagine that getting stuck in traffic on the LSD one evening would cause a good deal of this to flow.

Now at this point the next writer decides to go the lofty route:

Reply by Anne 10 hours ago

“…Critical Mass and its lack of meaning”

what an interesting sentence; really, after all of the horse-killing, perhaps the true lack of meaning is in the tyranny of the automobile, the auto industry, the acceptance of thousands of lives lost of the roads everyyear every year?

is CM Dada?

Actually yes. Critical Mass is Dada. And it is that way because the folks that run this Dude Ranch want it that way. They are too cheap to spring for permits so they dumb the thing down to get a freebie. But what is really hilarious is having the cops riding along with you as you plan your next edgy move. It kind of makes you think about a bunch of edgy guys in stocking caps planning a terrorist bombing and not realizing that everyone in the room is either an undercover cop or a hapless anarchist. It would make a better theatre drama than a film documentary. Cut the loft ideals crap and get real.

Now here is a more realistic appraisal of the situation:

Reply by Lisa Curcio 9 hours ago

Does CM have a point? I don’t know. I have ridden in one CM–last month on the south side ride. It was great fun and for the most part the people we passed–whether in cars or on the street–joined in the fun of “Happy Friday”. The participants were everyone from “hipsters” to families with children on bikes, children in trailers, children on tandems. I rode places I would not normally have ridden and saw parts of the city that I had not seen. Yes, the ride blocks traffic for a period of time. I think in most places it was probably about 10 minutes. I have been stuck in a car in traffic jams for far longer on more occasions than I like to think about.

Bicycle police participate and even some police cars. They helped things along and seemed to help keep things moving.

Will I ride in many CMs? I doubt it. But I will do it again.

Now everyone who tries to find meaning in a Critical Mass traffic snarl points to the fact that they have been stuck longer in “real” traffic jams. I suppose the implication is that the traffic jam they created is not quite as bad? But this sort of thinking is a bit goofy.

If this is supposed to be a protest is not the notion of traffic congestion at the very heart of the problem where cars are concerned? I doubt seriously whether the articles titled The State of Copenhagen Congestion in Copenhagenize are given greater meaning and validation by having yet another traffic snarl created by the very folks who consider them obscene. This is a bit like protesting lewd behavior by spending a rollicking evening in a brothel.

Okay, it’s time for the touchy-feeling approach to understanding Critical Mass. Get out your hankies:

Reply by clp 8 hours ago

Sorry you’re having a hard time understanding CM. My first Mass didn’t mean much to me either…until I returned to my Lincoln Park neighborhood, and noticed that, yes…more and more bikes are actually pushing cars from their position of dominance.

Frequently this summer, I’ve noticed drivers are apt to slow, stop and give way to cyclists and pedestrians. They’re starting to drive defensively…cautious and cowed. At least here, we’re starting to make our neighborhood streets resemble CM on a 24/7 basis! I can only wonder, with increasing gas costs, what will our streets look like in 2022?

And it was Critical Mass that first gave me this glimpse of the future…where it is the few remaining DRIVERS who become the second-class citizens of our roads. And us cyclists, abundant in numbers, assume our rightful place as the primary users of our neighborhood streets.

Commuters with bicycles, electric bikes and mopeds move across the street, Friday, May 23, 2008 in Shanghai, China. While two-wheelers have long since yielded the roads to sedans in this increasingly affluent society, the bicycle is far from dead. In fact, its numbers are growing. For many, if not most Chinese, pedal power remains a mainstay, for commuting, sending children to school or making a living. (AP Photo)

I like the idea being put forward here of envisioning the future when bicycles rule to roost. But frankly you don’t have to wonder you can Google actual pictures of what that looks like.

Clearly this individual has not thought through the implications of a bicycle centric society any more completely than traffic managers did a society dominated by automobiles. Neither transportation is inherently bad. What is intolerable are the snarls. And that is something which can be fixed by automation.

We can create smart vehicles that know how fast to travel to avoid delays at stop lights. We can create systems that group cars on highways into virtual “trains” which facilitate their passengers being dropped off at the right exit at the right time and escorted to a suitable parking facility with a minimum of fuss. And in the case of automobiles if the primary vehicle type is electric things get even better!

Having thousands upon thousands of bicycles crammed onto the roadways is about as appealing as watching sausage made. What would be worse is then eating a pound or so after your factory visit. I suppose washing it all down with a good beer or ale would make it better, but wait that has already been done. They call it Critical Mass.

Sorry could not resist.

Now ‘h always wants to be all things to all people. And his response is predictable:

Reply by h’ 8 hours ago

I don’t think anyone can speak meaningfully of a ‘meaning’ beyone what the ride means to them.

When I started participating it was about being counted for me. I didn’t know anyone and felt very much the outsider but understood the basic ‘Critical Mass’ concept as the overall mission.

Over time it became about reclaiming streets, at least on a once-a-month quasi-symbolic level, from the death machines.

As the ride grew and the culture it helped foster, it became about celebrating the bike culture we all helped create.

Oversimplification here, but I have a million things to get done tonight…

Note the lofty idea of “reclaiming the streets” from the “death machines”. Obviously none of these Dude Ranch riders has really considered a truly snarled Milwaukee Avenue where the car traffic alongside the overwhelming bicycle traffic begins to resemble the Chicago Lakefront Trail just after the Blue Angels act has ended and folks are heading north to their neighborhoods and you are traveling southbound against the overwhelming pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

And it is not just the size of the throng but the fact that every twenty-something male cyclist considers it his God Given Right to pass everyone on the left (without a single bell ring or vocal announcement) and does so by barreling along towards the oncoming traffic in a cosmic game of chicken.

Yep! Can’t wait to usher in the Bicycle Culture. I can almost hear the guys at the front door who being from the Government are here to help me. This is pure crap and Howard should know that. Our “segregated bike lanes” are hardly like the ones in Europe. There at least you don’t have to contend as often with motorist traffic. But you do have to move along at a good clip because this is not the sort of Bicycle Culture where stopping to chat with a friend on a lazy morning with thousands of cyclists approaching from the rear are likely to welcome your congestion causing tete-a-tete.

Uh huh! Now we get the pragmatist:

Reply by Adam Herstein 7 hours ago

Critical Mass is a bunch of people getting together and riding their bikes. Nothing more.

Great! This is a confirmation that every bike club group ride is as significant as Critical Mass. I am certain that suburban bicyclists will breath easier knowing they too have contributed to the advancement of the Bicycle Culture. So it makes one wonder why ChainLinkers are so disdainful of the L.A.T.E. Ride and the suburbanites who are stupid enough to pay for the privilege of enjoying the streets of Chicago at night.

By Adam’s admission just about any ride has as much significance as Critical Mass so why not welcome them all?

Well finally the “Party Animals” get their chance to sound off:

Reply by bk (aka: Dr. Mambohead) 4 hours ago

Is the St. Patricks Parade civil disobedience? Is the Pride Parade? CCM is a parade. The CPD rides with us, stop traffic, etc. It could be the most helpful cop experience I have ever experienced.

The Pilgrims who initially “founded” America were frustrated puritans who were too freaky prudish to stay even in starchy England! Look: $5/gallon gas is coming soon. Let’s not change a thing! Let’s expect the fake-partisan, for-sale professional wrestling polticians to fix it. After the Puritans? This country was founded by scofflaws to the British Crown… By EVERY definition we have been asked to hynotically chant these past 11 years THEY were TERRORISTS! At what point does a Lemming break away? If you do not stand for something?.. You will fall for anything!

A while back, I hitch-hiked a drive with a cat who had the similar pious C-CM apprehensions… he drank beer and smoked weed behind the wheel… while he lectured me about C-CM and civics… while speeding… and doing a rolling-stop at every stop sign. Puritan Scofflaw!

Methinks he doth protest too much!

I beg you… Search your head and your heart…

…Join the parade!

Okay! So we are back to the notion that this is a drunken Irishman’s delight. Oh wait, no it is more like a float load of drag queens. Oops, no really it is just a parade. Ah, but wait that would mean having to get a permit or two, pay some fees and publish your route beforehand.

Ouch this dang thing is really gnarly. I suggest we all repair to the bar and discuss the meaning of a meaningless activity until we forget where we parked our bikes. I just can’t wait until the majority of the drunken drivers are piloting bicycles around the sidewalks of the night club district in Chicago. It could help bring back fond memories of past Sturgis Motorcycle rallies.

Bring on the glorious Bicycle Culture comrades!

Some Thoughts

All sarcasm aside. This thread highlights a peculiar problem for the Critical Mass proponents. They have no message for their participants. If you can run a political campaign with this little focus you are bound to know loss. Critical Mass is a missed opportunity in that it could be purpose-driven.

I was on the North Shore Century this weekend. I watched as a group of “occasional cyclists” from a volunteer group discovered that they were supposed to be in the left turn lane on Ridge and were instead in the right hand lane. Their solution was to peel off as if they were taking the pedestrian walkway and then veer onto the street in a “J-walking” motion all while the light was RED. You gotta love the ineptitude of novice riders.

But they were only mimicking the goofiness of more experienced riders who continually blew through stop signs and when possible ran red lights with abandon. I am waiting with clenched teeth for one of these knuckleheads to miscalculate and end up splattered across an intersection. What is up with not being willing to wait for the light to turn green before proceeding. Were I that impatient I’d choose a motor scooter before settling on a bicycle.

Critical Mass should be all about teaching folks how to ride safely on streets. Instead it creates the very traffic congestion it claims to want to do away with. That is like being angry one day with the “47% of the US population who only want government largesse” and then realizing you got it all wrong and deciding in the next breath that you are “all about the 100% and can I have your vote”.

Get real!

You cannot be a salesman for a product whose nature you cannot describe. If you cannot agree among the other salespersons on your staff what you product really is how do you ever propose to sell it to folks who are potential customers? Selling the general public on the need for bike lanes is made more difficult if their only visual image of your Bicycle Culture is the last 10 minutes they spend waiting for Critical Mass to pass through their intersection.

If you leave the general public with that vision of the future how eager will be they be to sign your petition. How easy will it be for the opposition against all trivial spending and eager to find budget cuts to get mass approval to return to spending the bulk of our funds on securing a war footing somewhere else in the world?