Critical Massholes (or: Why I No Longer Ride with Critical Mass)

by Joey deVilla on September 29, 2006

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:

Joey deVilla's bike
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.

Critical Mass

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.

And Finally…

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.

Related Reading

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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 9:58 am

That’s pretty much why I and most of my friends stopped going to Ottawa critical masses (back when I lived in that city.) The rules for the ride are supposed to be defined by those present at the start of the ride, but we had a discussion one time where everyone agreed to “follow the law”, including the ride leaders who 5 minutes later led us through an illegal left turn onto Bank Street followed by some wrong-way-on-a-one-way action. If I recall correctly, that was my last critical mass.

As a result, Critical Mass is all but dead in Ottawa. Every now and then one happens, but there’s never enough momentum to keep it going month to month.

Anonymous September 29, 2006 at 1:12 pm

When I was commuting by bike in seattle, I went to one critical mass, and left halfway through because I just didn’t want to be a part of it. It wasn’t helping anything, just a bunch of cyclists being jerks in public.

Oddly enough, as I was in another part of the city, I experienced the one and only time I was ever harassed by police when I was on my bike. Coincidence? Causality?

Anonymous September 30, 2006 at 8:49 am

In NYC, the cops got fed up with the riders, started doing mass arrests at each ride. Hopefully Toronto will start doing the same.

If these cyclists were actually doing anything constructive, I’d hate the idea of mass arrests. If they were advocating for more bike lanes, or fewer cars, or whatever, I’d be all for them. I hate the idea of mass arrests of anyone, on general principle.

But they’re not doing anything constructive. They’re not advocating for anything. It’s just a demonstration of civil disobedience for its own sake, no different than graffiti or throwing rocks at cars from a highway overpass. “We’re too many to arrest us all” is the only message conveyed. Screw that.

Anonymous October 1, 2006 at 4:52 am

I ride *a lot* and I’ve always said that a cyclists worst enemy is another cyclist. CM is a farce everywhere from what I understand. The Winnipeg event is no more noble than the one here in Toronto – ruined by a bunch of dicks with anger management issues.

We do need a better form a cycling advocacy in this city though. Toronto politicians aren’t doing Toronto any favors by shortchanging those that prefer this form of transportation and leisure. Its bike routes are an embarassment, and in a lot of cases, dangerous.

We deserve better.

Anonymous October 1, 2006 at 9:21 am

“It was two kinds of stupid coming together for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of ass-hattery…”
Nice!

Anonymous October 2, 2006 at 10:06 am

Heya,

Someone posted a link to this post from the Ottawa Critical Mass Blogspot. In fact we have been going every month (except December) since November of last year, with dozens of people each time.

Some of the old school CM people turned up at the first one in November and did the sort of stuff you are talking about and other bullshit— running red lights, drinking whisky out of flasks and being sexist. The rest of the participants made our views regarding the innapropriateness of this behaviour clear and they haven’t been seen at a ride since.

Here is some discussion from the blog about safe practices. We have pretty much been following the suggestions that were put forth in this post.

We are learning how best and most safely to do the ride and when there are issues they are discussed and learned from. You can check the blog archives for part of the discussion if you are interested.

Joy,

Gwen

Anonymous October 2, 2006 at 10:10 am

My understanding is that the arrests of cyclists in NYC was predicated by their participation in protests against the RNC and that there are heavy political overtones. There was no police attention to the rides prior to the RNC and a heavy crackdown during and after.

Backstory available. I have seen the movie “Still we ride”, it is excellent. If you have a chance I highly reccomend it.

Anonymous October 31, 2006 at 11:54 am

I still miss you playing your accordeon during CM. I am sad you no longer ride. I respect why you don’t.

The BS that used to occur years ago now it seems is no longer

going on.

I just hope you don’t feel about everyone who rides the same way. It would not be fair.

tino

Anonymous March 9, 2007 at 6:43 pm

I’ve had the same reaction to Critical Mass rides in Chapel Hill, NC and Berkeley, CA. They are about both asserting their “rights” and protesting oil usage. These rights amounted to ignoring all traffic laws, putting themselves and others in danger.
The one ride I participated in was enough; I was practically ashamed to be in a group of people so obnoxious.

Anonymous March 11, 2007 at 1:19 pm

I remember last spring when I first got my bike and moved to the Annex after hearing only good things about the Critical Mass events for so long, that I was really excited to attend.

Unfortunately, I found that the behavior of some of the ‘critical massholes’ really confused me and made me wary. Illegally going through lights, not signalling, cutting off cars, GOING THE WRONG WAY on busy streets, (The same crimes that cyclists complain drivers are heinously guilty of doing) There were definite ‘leaders’ of the pack, and there was an especially tense altercation where one guy was attempting to block cars from turning on bay around college while a fleet of us flew through, (on a green thankfully) but the driver got infuriated and DROVE over the cyclist, knocking him off the bike (he wasnt hurt thankfully) and one of those cops just let the driver go.

I understood what happened, but it was violent and there was no excuse for attempting to MAIM the cyclist and it really shocked me to see the strain between the cops and the group when the cop just let the driver go.

I managed to get away from that group and have a good time with a few people when we hit the harbourfront because we were actively OBEYING laws and still having a good time without fear of harm. But when I got home and looked it up on the internet, I was saddened to discover it wasn’t an isolated event. I haven’t participated in any other Critical Masses and probably won’t. It’s a shame.

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