A Defense of Critical Mass

Pierre Grzybowski


Critical Mass rallys often tend to just make people mad. Why don't you do something constructive and work to get better bike amenities to area roads instead?


I agree that work needs to be done to improve biker amenities on area roads. However, I feel that Critical Masses can be an important, constructive, and complementary part of that process.

Critical Masses address issues that biker amenities can not. Bike lanes can not and will not be put on every road. In addition, bike lanes and wide curbs still must cross intersections, do nothing about left hand turns, do not prevent bikers from riding the wrong way, etc. The consequence is that bikes and cars will continue to interact on the road system, resulting in accidents, intimidation, and injury. These sorts of problems must be brought to the attention of the public in order to address and assuage them. Critical Mass is a forum in which to raise this awareness, through signs, leaflets, and the extensive positive media coverage it receives.

Critical Mass attracts the media, a useful tool for disseminating information. Unfortunately, the media will probably not find something like a town council meeting worthy of press coverage. However, an event such as Critical Mass, where laws may be broken, has just the sensationalist edge that makes it attractive for newspapers and television. Critical Mass is a compelling story because it is a form of civil disobedience, in which the participants break a few traffic laws in order to achieve a higher good: less driving, more biking, a cleaner environment, safer roads, and fewer oil-related wars and conflicts.

Critical Mass influences policy makers and planners. They do not operate in a vacuum. They read newspapers, they receive citizen input, etc. The last three Critical Masses have all received extensive media coverage. Hopefully, the various pro-bike messages presented will filter into the policy makers^ and planners^ future projects. Further, Critical Mass is a show of force by the biker community, a way to say that bikers will not lay down and be complacent. Policy makers and planners will be more likely to listen to and implement pro-bike ideas if they know that they must answer to a large group. Finally, if policy makers and planners refuse to accommodate bikers, Critical Mass is a very convenient forum through which to stage a demonstration or protest. Unfortunately, in some cases, those in charge concede little or nothing without a fight. I wish it were not so, but sometimes planners must be forced to act. If bike commuting is viewed from an environmental standpoint, bike advocates have the moral high ground over car advocates, and should not accept an inferior compromise. Appearing self-righteous is very unappealing to those with whom you disagree, but sometimes lines must be drawn, and demands set in stone. Of course, the demands must be somewhat realistic and attainable.

Critical Mass is emerging as a social movement. It is said that social movements go through three phases: ridicule, consideration, acceptance. That has been seen repeatedly throughout history with the abolition of slavery, women^s suffrage, and the civil rights movement. It is presently occurring with the animal rights movement and the bike advocacy movement. To have movements accepted, advocates must fight long and hard. There are many different tactics through which to achieve this end, ranging from social to institutional to unconventional. Social tactics include personal and non-governmental interactions, such as discussing issues with friends and co-workers. Institutional tactics are those used when "working with the system." These include attending town council meetings, writing letters, and meeting with VDOT officials. Unconventional tactics include those that are theatrical or illegal, those that are not usually considered part of regular political operation. Some examples of unconventional tactics include the marches led by Martin Luther King Jr., protests and demonstrations of all kinds, and Critical Masses. Unconventional tactics are often used when activists feel that social and institutional participation is useless or too slow. It is also very useful for focusing attention on an injustice. If it is not safe for a biker to ride on the shoulder, then she will be forced to take the entire lane. A lone rider taking an entire lane is not always safe, and so a symbolic "taking" is performed in a Critical Mass.

In all social movements, a number of problems emerge among activists. Ego^s clash because those who are outspoken or work extensively on the issue have strong opinions. In addition, activists often argue over what the best tactics are to achieve the common goal, provided one exists. If the public or policy makers catch wind of the dissension, they may balk at the movement^s demands, hoping that the lack of unity will prevent an effective counter-action. This is detrimental to the "cause," but as far as I can tell is unavoidable. Sometimes the differences in tactics are too great for any common ground to be found. However, I believe that bike advocacy is an issue where common ground is easy to be found, and that activists on all stripes must strive to remain open-minded and supportive of each other.

Critical Masses are the not the cure-all for biker problems. They must be followed up by institutional and social work both before and after awareness has been raised. Second, Critical Mass will always have its critics both within and outside the movement. For my part, I try to remain open-minded and receptive to all constructive input, for the last thing I want to do is be a detriment to the movement. As for drivers and others who may get mad at being forced to share the road with bikes, I have little sympathy. Some people also got mad when it was suggested that slaves, once for their exclusive use, would now be sharing freedom with them. Some people again got mad when they were forced to share water fountains, lines, and lunch-counters with African Americans. Some people got mad when they were forced to share the vote with women. The point is that anger is an expected part of any movement, and the issue at hand is probably not a very important one if it ruffles no one in the power structure^s feathers.

The above is kinda a way for me to explore some of my ideas regarding Critical Mass. It is in no way my final thoughts on the matter and I would greatly appreciate any and all comments, criticisms, concerns, holes in my logic, etc. Please respond everybody. This and all further comments will be placed on the TREE listserv unless the future authors request otherwise.

Please send any response to tree@slac.com.


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