Before I Begin…
…let me first show you the Scorpion King, my bike, which I bought immediately after getting hired by Tucows back in 2003. She’s still running well:
My bike. Yup, that’s a keytar in the rear basket.
Now let me point you to a couple of articles by Accordion City’s favourite Crazy Biker Chick, Tanya:
…and now, the meat of the article.
Today is the last Friday of the month, which means that in many cities all over the world, there will be a Critical Mass bike ride. I won’t take part in it — partly because I have a prior engagement, and partly because I refuse to take part in it anymore.
The simplest way for me to describe Critical Mass is to borrow a line from this page: “a monthly bicycle ride to celebrate cycling and to assert cyclists’ right to the road”. The closest to organization that the event comes is that there is an agreement for interested cyclists to meet at some specified location and go for a bike ride en masse. No leadership or central body coordinates its activities and the route taken is determined as the ride takes place. It’s up to the participants in each of the cities to make it what it is, oftentimes as it happens. It’s rather like the BarCamp/DemoCamp “unconferences”, which shouldn’t be surprising: both arose from the culture of San Francisco.
While I wouldn’t call myself “hardcore” — I’m neither a mountain biker nor a bike courier — I could honestly self-identify as an avid urban cyclist. Ever since coming back home to Accordion City from my (unexpectedly long, but rewarding) stint at Crazy Go Nuts University, I’ve biked to work whenever possible. This city is a pretty decent one for cycling by North American standards, and there’s a certain way that travelling the roads by bike puts you in touch with the “feel” of a city that travelling by motor or even on foot can. The benefits of exercise as well as not being beholden to the Saudis and other equally unpleasant terrorist-funding oil states (as my pal Cory likes to say, “an oil state is just a failed state that happens to have oil”) are bonuses. It is my love of cycling that led me to participate in Critical Mass.
Why I No Longer Participate
It is also my love of cycling that led me to stop participating. I understand that the character of Critical Mass varies from city to city, and in this city, it seems to have degenerated. It’s turned from a celebration of cycling into a bike-driven way for hipsters and the angry underemployed to act out their unresolved rebellion issues against their parents. I think that Critical Mass Toronto does more harm to cycling than good. That’s why I no longer participate in it, and that’s why I’m speaking out.
The battle cry of Critical Mass is “We’re not blocking traffic, we are traffic!“. I agree with that sentiment: bikes are vehicles with as much right to the road as cars. The problem is that Critical Mass participants here in Toronto seem to have forgotten that with rights comes responsibilities. The rally here tends to hold itself above the law, hogging as much of the road as possible, holding traffic by running red lights as a group and harassing drivers for committing the heinous crime of driving a car.
There’s a regular participant in Toronto’s Critical Mass, a bike courier type with curly brown hair and always in shades. He tends to bike ahead of the pack and seems to take great joy in either goading the police or threatening drivers. He often bikes up to cars to block their way and hurls verbal abuse at their drivers. At the last Critical Mass I attended, a guy in an SUV asked him how long they’d be blocking the intersection, to which he replied “Go fuck your mother.” In retrospect, I should’ve given in to my urge to clock him with my Kryptonite lock.
The problem is that in the sort of working anarchy that things like Critical Mass are, enthusiastic participants like him tend to define the spirit of the event, and the rest follow suit. The end result is that Critical Mass becomes less about celebrating bikes and more about acting out revenge fantasies against “The Man”.
In the meantime, the people in the cars who have been barricaded by the bike rally aren’t likely to be convinced that bikes have a ride to the road. What they see are ruffians who are flouting traffic laws and hurling abuse at them. For the most part, they’re people who are willing to share the road; they’re probably less willing to do so after encountering the two-wheeled barbarian horde.
In the last few Critical Mass rallies I attended, some bike cops escorted the ride with mixed results. Some of the crowd were a bit annoyed at the presence of the cops, and a couple of the cops shoved some of the cyclists about, follwoing it up with a “Go ahead. Hit back. I dare you.” It was two kinds of stupid coming together for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of ass-hattery.
Some People Share My Sentiment
I don’t think I’m alone in these sentiments; consider the comments by otherwise sympathetic people in this blog entry. I find myself in the weird position of agreeing with a writer from the “Moynihan Institute” web site, who wrote this about Critical Mass in a pretty good article about bike commuting:
I understand the statement they claim they are trying to make but the truth is that they come across as a bunch of douche bag hipsters living off trust funds. No one has ever taken up the cause of the cyclist as a result of these fart knockers grid locking traffic.
That’s the problem with Critical Mass Toronto: does it want to be about celebrating and promoting bikes as a better alternative, or about punishing people for using their cars? And really, when you boil it down, isn’t it about punishing people for not sharing your lifestyle, which is the sort of thing for which one typically blames “the conservatives”?
As long as it’s about the latter, then they’re Critical Massholes. I’ll still bike, but not with them.
Back in 2002, I wrote about a similar event, “Reclaim the Streets”, in an entry titled Not-So-Smart Mobs, which got a link from BoingBoing.