Looking Back at the Critical Mass
October 5th, 2012 [photography]
The critical mass bike ride turned 20 last week. My first exposure to it was about 10 years ago in San Francisco, the city of its birth. It was my first big bike ride, and a sight to behold. There were hundreds of cyclists, too many for me to see the group’s beginning or end. The ride started in Chinatown, on a one-lane road that we overwhelmed. Later we merged onto larger roads, where I was exposed to a mixture of angry honks and supportive honks from the cars. At times it felt risky, but overall the experience was exhilarating. There was a palpable camaraderie with the other cyclists, and even with many of the drivers who cheered us on. At times, it felt like being in a parade.
Years later, I began joining the monthly critical mass bike ride in Washington, DC. This city has a much smaller attendance, ranging from a handful in the colder months, to a couple dozen on a typical night, and the rare large outing of over 50 cyclists. There are a few regulars, and I’ve seen others who check it out once, never to return.
Group rides in the city have inherent obstacles, more so when the ride is purportedly leaderless. The tone of the ride depends on whoever shows up. My friends in the biking establishment would never participate in the critical mass because of the ride’s reputation for confrontation with automobiles. I have seen a few verbal exchanges, usually initiated by a driver when the cyclists are in their way. More typical are the goodwill ambassadors, who shout “happy Friday!” to passers-by, and invite other cyclists to join in.
Some of the cyclists will intentionally “cork” an intersection, where they block cars at the crosswalk to allow the remainder of the group to cross against a red light. In addition to being illegal, this often angers drivers, though I have also seen many drivers who are happy to help out. Corking both dilutes the diplomacy of other cyclists, and of course is dangerous for everyone involved. While it may feel empowering to some, others feel vulnerable or embarrassed. Besides, stopping at red lights lets cyclists chat with each other, and allows the slower riders to catch up.
There are of course many wonderful benefits of group rides. The large groups let beginners “test the waters” by riding with others. It is the responsibility of more-experienced riders to offer guidance and set a good example.
The original goal of the critical mass is to assert cyclists’ right to use public roads. Simply participating in a group ride increases the visibility of cyclists. Visibility is an ingredient of advocacy.
Washington has many annual biking events, but for a long time the critical mass was the only monthly ride. And because most large cities have critical mass rides, it was a good way for newcomers to discover the city’s bike culture. Now there are other regular rides. Most notably, the bike shop BicycleSpace has several weekly rides, as well as the popular full-moon rides. The DC Bike Party is a new monthly ride. The Mt Pleasant Cruiser Ride is a small monthly ride, which peacefully coexists with traffic and has a more leisurely pace (and has fun themes each month). Dandies & Quaintrelles has introduced two annual bike events, the Tweed Ride and the Seersucker Social. WABA keeps a list of Upcoming Events, and local biking blog WashCycle announces most events.
I have always enjoyed the DC critical mass, and have met many wonderful people there. The photos below illustrate the happy memories.
More photos on Flickr: Sep 2012, Jun 2012, May 2012, Mar 2012, Jan 2012, Dec 2011, Sep 2011, Aug 2011, Jul 2011, Jun 2011, May 2011, Mar 2011, Feb 2011, Jan 2011, Dec 2010, Nov 2010, Oct 2010, Sep 2010, Aug 2010, Jul 2010, Jun 2010, May 2010, Apr 2010, Jan 2010, Nov 2009, Oct 2009, Oct 2008, Nov 2007.