Critical Mass is Alive and Well: Guadalajara’s Paseo de Todos
by Clarence Eckerson, Jr. on November 18, 2011
Walking and bicycling in Guadalajara can be dangerous in many parts of the city, but there’s a big movement among many citizens to alter that. GDL en Bici is a group of wonderful citizens and bicycle advocates who have been organizing multiple weekly bike rides for years, and nothing is more impressive then their first Thursday of the month ride – the Paseo de Todos – which regularly churns out up to 5,000 riders to celebrate and demand safer cycling conditions.
People just have a lot of fun. You’ll see families, students, and older citizens heavily sprinkled throughout the critical mass. Drivers who usually rule the congested roads seem to mostly tolerate the inconvenience. The police largely ignore the whole thing. Helping matters is that each of the rides is theme-oreinted: one month it might be to celebrate Mexico’s Independence. Another week it could be comic books. This month was particularly fun since it was all about celebrating the Day of the Dead!
Streetfilms would like to thank Guadalajara 2020 for making it possible to make the journey to document this wonderful event & sponsoring the film. And to Gil Penalosa, Executive Director of 8-80 Cites, for organizing the details.
Carmen Diaz: [00:14] We’re at the Paseo de Todos, the monthly ride that we organise. In this ride we invite all cyclists to come join us in a nightly ride where we take back our streets.
Speaker: [00:26] One of the great things, one of the highlights of night rides is that they are totally citizen organised and community done. And once a month, on the first Thursday of every month, all the rides get together and they do a huge ride with thousands of people.[music]
Ovi Montiel: [00:52] Around 4 or 5,000 cyclists come. Students, whole families, grandpas, what’s so nice is that whole families come to ride.
Speaker: [01:07] It’s a cool experience because it’s strange to ride through the whole city on bicycle.
Speaker: [01:14] You feel like you own the city for a little while.
Speaker: [01:17] I ride my bike every day but riding with a whole bunch of people is a lot more fun.
Gerardo (El Chino): [01:24] This night ride was created to take back the space that cyclists need, to take back the streets, to make ourselves known and to have rights.
Speaker: [01:41] Basically to demand that drivers respect us and to know that we are part of traffic.
Carmen Diaz: [01:52] We have a theme, different theme every month. And for tonight it’s going to be the deaths night and the devil’s night.
Speaker: [01:59] In this vicinity is the day of the deaths we celebrate in Mexico. We don’t celebrate Halloween. We celebrate death and in a happy way.
Speaker: [02:09] Let’s go! Let’s go!
Speaker: [02:14] This is stress relief, that’s it. That’s it, stress relief. I mean you just want to be home sitting down watching TV, eating popcorn? No, come out here, enjoy yourself.
Speaker: [02:25] It’s a great way to meet one another, of showing how the bicycle is a great way of helping the environment.
Speaker: [02:32] Reducing the amount of cars – increasing the amount of alternative transportation, bike lanes, buses and light rail.
Jess Linz: [02:44] And you see a lot more people riding who aren’t normally out on every Wednesday night ride, thousands of people every Wednesday. But this gets more people who have other obligations.
Speaker: [02:56] It’s a great way for people to meet one another while using an alternate means of transport.[music]
Speaker: [03:09] For those of you who have candles, we’re gonna stop at el andador Escorza to leave them there.[music]
Speaker: [03:19] It’s difficult to ride your bike during the day as a means of transportation. It’s risky to ride alone.
Speaker: [03:26] This is a good way to make the people in the government that this is important to have ways for the people that is in bicycles.[music]
Speaker: [03:58] It’s cool, everyone’s in a good mood, we’re physically active, we want a cleaner city with less cars.
Speaker: [04:10] It’s fun, you get to see the city from a different point of view.[music]
Carmen Diaz: [04:17] For me it was this sensation of freedom, of being able to live today what I would like to see one day.[music]
Gil Penalosa: [04:29] Every time that I come to Guadalajara, and I come quite often for some kind of work, I come to this because you really get energised from riding with people, and there you get enough energy for a few months.[music]
For many cyclists who live outside of urban areas the notion of Critical Mass leaves a “bad taste” in the mouth. The further you are from the center of urban activity the less appeal the ride seems to have. In fact suburbanites are often unwilling to visit large cities for all the reasons that seem to attract others to it. The critical factor I would suggest is the level of stress that large densely populated areas engender in many people.
I watched a couple last Sunday with their son at the Native Foods Cafe in Wicker Park. He was in mid-to-late twenties and they were obviously visiting him from “out-of-town”. I felt a bit “sorry” for the mother and father as they were clearly uncomfortable in their surroundings. In fact you could see that the son himself was having a bit of discomfort because he could sense their discomfort through their body language.
It got me to reflecting on the nature of the stress and anxiety that cities inherently bring to the table. Even the folks who were born and raised in urban areas are aware of the levels of stress and eventually need relief from it. Cities are more expensive places to live than their suburban counterparts. For middle to lower income folks the choices are not quite as varied as one might find in a suburban area. The housing if often older and more densely packed. And aside from the parks that are planted around a city the level of greenery is a lot lower.
The predominate theme in a city is asphalt and concrete. The very idea of densely packed urban area becomes palpable when you take to its streets on a bike. Bike riders speak of car drivers in very unflattering terms. They think of the automobile as a metal cage. A cage which to the minds of committed motorists is a welcomed buffer from the noise and danger of city traffic.
Cyclists who ride each day eventually find that they need a stress reliever. Critical Mass is just that. It is the physical and emotional equivalent of the cubes office workers use to relieve stress. They crush and warp these spongy objects and imagine their ogre of a boss’s face on the cube. They take out their frustrations on that piece of dense foam and it helps.
Critical Mass is payback for all the fear and hurt and anxiety that riding in city traffic engenders in otherwise normal unstressed individuals. In fact it would not surprise me to learn that survey numbers for commuters max out precisely at the levels they do because the activity of riding in urban traffic creates an entire class of people who are the “walking wounded”. Unless they can find solace in a group of riders their lives are not quite as stress free as needed.
If you consider the issues surrounding urban cycling you realize that it takes commitment to ride each day. You may need a shower and a change of clothes. And that is only the beginning. You need a place to park your bike where the thieves who ply their trade in broad daylight cannot succeed in depriving you of your ticket home.
Why would anyone ride on a daily basis in an urban environment?
People have all sorts of reasons for riding. The act itself can bring a bit of relief from the anxiety levels that build up at the office where the stress may be even greater than riding on the road. But it can also be cheaper than paying for a car or even riding public transit. The tradeoff is that your personal safety is diminished when you ride. Large intersections where three or more streets meet (and some even have on and off ramps from highways added into the mix) are a nightmare for motorists.
In fact even the motorists are not immune from the stress factors that simply make getting around in the city something of a nightmare. It is their stress levels combined with that of the cyclists which is a bit like mixing gasoline and kerosene together and using it to clean the grime on your outdoor grill, all while smoking your favorite Cuban cigar!
The blending of urban cyclists and drivers is a sure fire way to bring about the stress-aggression syndrome that is by now well known in the scientific literature. (See Stress And Aggression Reinforce Each Other At The Biological Level.) Critical Mass is a means of restoring a sense of control in a situation where the cyclist is at the bottom of the pecking order where vehicular traffic is concerned.
The phrase one often hears at these Critical Mass Rides is “taking back the streets”. It is precisely analogous to the language that the GOP uses in speaking about the defeat of Barack Obama. The stress levels that white voters have in knowing that a black man is in the White House are such that people openly speak about assassination. The President becomes the equivalent of the hated SUV that urban cyclists despise.
Failing to understand these situations that bring stress, a stress induced by an overwhelming feeling that the world is somehow beyond your immediate control is something we do at our own peril. What is very ironic however is that in the midst of all this stressful activity we are attempting to entice others to join us. How we are attempting to do that is interesting, we plan to use green paint!
Creating A Buffer
I spoke a moment ago about the cocoon-like effect that the steel cage of the automobile has on drivers. Automobile manufacturers understand this principle and exploit it to the maximum degree. The fronts of today’s cars look more like angry beasts than sleek modes of transportation. My minivan has a decidedly aggressive front grille. I take it that since many other manufacturers have done the same (especially the guys in Detroit) that this is a trendsetter.
Drivers like to feel empowered and nothing says empowerment like painting your face blue and giving a bloodcurdling scream as your side descends as a horde on the opposition (all apologies to Braveheart fans). But I think the case can be made that the reason automobiles are larger and more imposing than ever is because it gives the driver a sense of being surrounded by a protective shield. And that makes the assault of the urban landscape seem all the more secure.
It has the opposite effect on cyclists who are staring down these massive metal projectiles and hoping to live through it all. Cyclists are very sensitive to the notion that their chosen mode of transportation not be deemed as dangerous. But they know that it is and they are willing to grasp and any options that help them face the vicissitudes of life yet another day.
To help in this matter traffic engineers have decided to offer a less expensive alternative to the preferred solution of Europeans (what we Yanks would call a bike trail). Thus is born the “buffered lane”. It provides an essential ingredient for cyclists and that is a sense of space apart from the moving traffic.
By placing the bike lanes to the outside of the streets (alongside the curbs) and moving the automobile parking in towards the middle a “buffer zone” is carved out which allows cyclists to avoid two major stresses as they ply their way along busy thoroughfares:
- They avoid the dreaded “Door Zone“. A driver exiting or even entering their vehicle creates a physical impediment to cyclists passing the opening to their vehicle. If the door is opened at just the wrong moment injury can result. Moving the cyclists to the passenger side of parked cars avoids the problem where drivers side collisions are concerned. Taxi cabs however see most of their entry/exit activity on the passenger sides of these vehicles. So cyclists still need to be alert.
- The sideswipe is eliminated. Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of cyclists like a vehicle (especially large ones) passing mere inches from their bodies as they ride down busy streets. Many states have sought to create a “3 foot passing rule“. This is all to keep cyclists from freaking out every time a vehicle whizzes past at the very same time they are attempting to scan the bike lane ahead for drivers opening doors or pedestrians darting out from between parked cars.
The painting of these buffered lanes a green color is not done by accident. The color green is one that soothes and calms the viewer. It alerts the drivers as well to the fact that here is a segment of the roadway that is reserved for cyclists. To enhance the effect plastic lane separators are secured to the pavement. They are actually sections of PVC pipe that are quite fragile when struck by an automobile or bus, but give the cyclist the impression of being secure in their “buffered lane”.
Europeans have taken the problem of the safety of cyclists to heart in a very real way. They recognize that the only certain way of providing security for the cyclists is to provide them with something that is wholly other than the roadway used by motor vehicles. When they speak of bike lanes, they are envisioning a trail that tracks alongside a busy thoroughfare or what we might see as a very wide sidewalk (on a raised surface) not unlike the ones along streets leading from Michigan Avenue to the Lakefront’s Museum Campus.
This design is great because once the cyclist reaches the Lakefront Trail they are able to ride unimpeded for miles in either direction all the way to the south and north sides of the city. Furthermore when you exit or enter the Lakefront Trail in many spots you pass under Lakeshore Drive. This means that you avoid the dangers of walking a bike across six or more lanes of traffic. And because the overpass created a disadvantage for the elderly and handicapped it will probably fall into disfavor as the underpass is easier to negotiate for everyone.
“Buffered Lanes” have a very big Achilles Heel, the Intersection. The sad fact is that most accidents occur at intersections. It is at intersections that all lanes intersect. The first and foremost danger to buffered bike lane riders is the dreaded Right Hook. There is even a warning sign designed to alert both motorist and cyclist alike of the danger.
Nothing about the design of buffered lanes prevents this sort of thing from happening. There are some curb designs that have been suggested because they prevent the driver from making anything less than a fully maneuver to complete a turn.
But there is still the dreaded left turn. Bicycle Boxes have been offered as a solution to this problem.
Of course when you create a Bike Box you need a left hand lane (as shown in this video). This means that the safe buffered lane has to be vacated and the rider has to move left (out of their comfort zone) into traffic in anticipation of the left turn lane for cyclists.
But the Europeans have an alternative to the left turn bike lane which is more consistent with “buffered lanes”. Salt Lake City has installed a Copenhagen Left Bike Turn Box:
The beauty of this design is that it does not call for the cyclist to leave the buffered lane to make a left turn. The continue into the intersection to an island of safety provided a green bike box. They orient their bike to turn left and wait for the signal to allow them to proceed in an entirely new direction.
What About Impatient Cyclists?
Crackdowns on red light runners have been going on all around the country. Boston University is among many who have gotten fed up with scofflaw bicyclist behavior. Scofflaw behavior when seen against the backdrop of stress and aggression becomes clearer as a symptom of the inherent fear that cyclists have to deal with on a daily basis.
Take for instance your demeanor when riding down Chicago’s Lakefront Trail. If it happens to be a weekday when few pedestrians are out and about the trip can be quite pleasant. You seem to be in another world. The noise of the Downtown section is far removed. The lake to the east is a peaceful sight most of the time and aside from winds coming off the lake there is little to make you regret a lakefront ride.
You actually have to push yourself a bit to keep a pace that will get you into the office. The ride home has little stress aside from the occasional jogger or dog walker who blocks your pathway forward. And assuming that you are traversing the trail before dark you feel safe and secure traveling in either direction.
On a busy street in the city like Lawrence of Milwaukee the ride is anything but leisurely. It is hectic. Your adrenaline is pumping and you feel our anxiety levels surging. If you have no stomach of snarled traffic and insensitive drivers you take a side street and negotiate the many stop signs installed to “calm traffic“.
Seasoned urban riders always seem to be in a hurry. This translates into an impatience with anything that impedes forward movement. And that includes stop signs and more importantly stop lights. This is a dangerous practice because it aggravates motorists which raises their stress levels and brings on the resultant aggressive behaviors that they exhibit. Failure of the cycling community to recognize and deal with their problem is something of a tragedy. Randy Cohen’s admission that he blows stop signs and runs red lights is both an hindrance to further progress and a bright light in one respect. He literally puts the spotlight on a dangerous behavior that can cost lives.
While the effort to create buffered lanes is a step in the right direction, it is by no means that only or even the best solution. It is in terms of dollars the most cost effective in the short run. In urban areas where land is scarce and quite expensive it offers at least the hope of creating a situation which helps to ameliorate the stress that so many cyclists face on a daily basis.
Saving money or helping to make the planet a more “green place” is not always enough to keep people riding their bikes back and forth to work. Winter and generally inclement weather is another stress-er especially in urban areas where the streets tend to be very grimy, salty and dirty all of which are devastating to metal bike frames.
Critical Mass will have to do for many riders who need to relieve the stress that builds up over the course of a week of urban riding. I suppose that the Saving Grace for urban cyclists is that their commute distances are nothing like those for riders trekking in from the suburbs. But nevertheless the prospects of dealing with equally stressed motorists and indifferent and often quite aggressive cabbies is daunting.
Be safe out there!