Monday, August 17, 2009

RMM Rides Critical Mass--Thank God No One Spotted Me

On a damp Friday a couple of weeks ago, I was on my home from a training ride. I had time to burn and wondered what I was going to do once I was home. As I was heading out of Harvard Square towards Central when I noticed a clot of cyclists taking up the whole traffic lane going in the opposite direction.

There were about 50 cyclists riding deliberately slow while taking up the whole outbound traffic lane. They waved and encouraged me to join in their "fun." I shook my head and kept riding in the opposite direction. Behind the row of cyclists, there was a backup of confused, angry and frustrated drivers craning their heads and honking their horns.

Always drawn to drama, I pulled a hasty U turn and chased onto the back of the slow moving peloton, easily maneuvering through the near stand still auto traffic. Seriously, the cyclists were going less than 10 mph.

I was on my B road bike, easily the fanciest bike on the ride. Also, I was the only cyclist wearing a team kit, though a few cyclists had opted for black non bib shorts.

Bike handling was sketchy. Large gaps were allowed to remain open. And since we were riding so slowly, trackstanding skills were needed to keep a bicycle moving in a straight line.

As expected, this racer on an over geared race bike kept drifting to the front of the pack, exactly where I didn't want to be. Let me explain: for those who don't know, Critical Mass is a regularly scheduled ride that attempts to promote cycling as an alternative to driving by taking over urban streets with "critical mass" of cyclists who effectively halt auto traffic. They ride deliberately slow in order to cause traffic snarls, presumably so that motorists will realize the error of their ways. Motorists often become very upset at the delays, which prompts heated exchanges, which sometimes become violent. While I was curious enough to briefly join the ride, I am no demonstrator and I certainly don't want to become embroiled in any confrontations (at least not in this venue).

The route took us through Harvard Square, under the underpass towards Broadway, then U turn, back into Harvard Square out JFK, by Harvard Stadium, into Allston and then down Comm Ave. I broke off when the ride took a right onto St. Paul St. toward Brookline.

I didn't make friends on the ride. I recognized a few members of the cycling community, but mostly my "fellow" riders were engrossed in demonstrating and my race bike and Lycra outfit marked me as a visitor. There was one crash on North Harvard St., which occurred when a rider with a glass bottle of juice tried to place it in an empty recycling bin while riding. Somehow, he missed the recycling bin while simultaneously falling into the shattering glass. Thankfully no one was hurt.

I did take note of the rage of the motorists who were caught behind the ride.

As a sometimes motorist who was raised to drive with some semblance of courtesy, when on a bike, I make an effort to balance my need for safety against my desire to not unnecessarily delay fellow road users. For instance, when I am stopped at an intersection waiting for a light to change, I don't block the right turn lane if drivers can legally make a right turn on red. And when crossing an intersection against the light, I do not do so in such a way that will hinder road users who have the right of way.

As a someone who strives to be considerate, Critical Mass rubs me the wrong way. Provoking motorists will do nothing to make streets more bike friendly. For example, when the I went straight on Commonwealth Ave. and the rest of the CM ride went right off of Comm onto St. Paul St., I was left to deal with the previously delayed drivers as they passed me on Commonwealth. The drivers were upset to say the least. Two of them vented their rage, one by accelerating to a high speed and coming inches away from hitting me and another by rolling down his window to chastise me for being "an asshole" amongst other well articulated and right minded arguments against my behavior. While I don't approve of the behavior of the driver who buzzed me, I had to agree with the second driver who called me an asshole.

Critical Mass is asshole behavior and I am ashamed that I took part in it, even once. In fact, as the ride started heading toward Allston and then Brookline, I became concerned that someone I know would see me participating in this ride. Students' parents, students, former supervisors, professional references, potential employers, former colleagues, friends and even family all live in these neighborhoods. My parents taught me that if you are doing something that you wouldn't want the whole world to know you are doing, you probably shouldn't be doing it.

Critical Mass is a grossly misguided attempt to draw attention to an issue that I wholeheartedly support. In drawing negative attention to cycling, CM is hurting cycling. Assholes.

The next Critical Mass ride starts at Copley Square on August 28th at 5:30. If you plan on participating, let me thank you in advance for turning even more drivers against cyclists.


J. Bramhall said...

While I agree, isn't this kind of shooting fish in a barrel?

Colin R said...

Fish in a barrel still need to be shot. Good call RMM... for once you and I agree 100% on something.

RMM said...


Sure these fish are easy to shoot.

But Critical Mass is an uncomfortable stepchild of the greater cycling community. Like it or not, these riders influence the public's opinion of us and at times undermines some of the positive steps cycling-as-viable-transportation has taken in the realm of public relations.

While it would be easier to ignore Critical Mass altogether, I believe it is the responsiblity of cyclists to publicly state disapproval, lest we continue to be lumped in with them.

To muddy the waters even more, some organizations that you probably do approve of, in practice or in theory, support Critical Mass. What should we do with them?

Catherine Kerr said...

check out the new alternative to critical mass..... critical manners

RMM said...

Ms. Kerr:

While I don't approve of Critical Mass, I also don't see the point of Critical Manners. Isn't it just a group ride where everyone obeys traffic laws? I already go on those quite often.

Critical Manners seems like a more of a demonstration against Critical Mass than a way of raising awareness of cycling as an alternative to driving.

Aki said...

I never understood exactly what CM rides hoped to accomplish. I suppose it's similar to driving down I95 or the Merrit (well, that's near where I used to live) at 55 mph in all three/two lanes during the fringes of rush hour (when folks are normally going 70-75 or faster - I've been in the flow at 90+ mph). Such protesters can only use two (or one) lanes, since using 3 (or 2) lanes would be considered "impeding traffic" (based on an article about such protests many years ago).

I'm sorry that you had to deal with the fallout re: the angry motorists. It's frustrating enough when I see riders run reds near me when I'm riding - drivers just lump me in with the other rider. I can't imagine the pent up fury of those drivers stuck behind the cyclists.

gus c said...

dear mcrzy,

for once i agree with you 100%. a few times, while commuting back home from work (copley), i had the misfortune of witnessing a CM. it was embarassing, because most folks in this area are used to riders, be they commuters, racers, messengers and/or hispters. we absolutely need not upset the drivers. i guess a good way to convey one's relevance is to be a good rider and do your thing without getting into each other's space. now, as an example, what if i'm driving to the hospital with a pregnant lady? what if my kid needs to be somewhere urgently? what if you're late to a job interview? cycling is definitely a kick-ass way of life, but we'll be doing the cause a disservice when acting like big time a-holes. and though i'm a better than average driver, i have no trouble flipping someone riding in the middle of the road. and believe me, if someone in my family needs to be somewhere urgently, i have zero trouble driving through them. oh, but i do.

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