Reaching toward critical mass
In case you missed the announcement, last Friday was the inauguration of what may become a monthly event linking Sonoma with 300 or more cities around the world during which clots of bike riders create a “critical mass” on the last Friday of every month.
Critical mass started, appropriately, in San Francisco in 1992, and has since become a global phenomenon.
In some cities it has become a form of informal protest allowing cyclists, by virtue of their numbers, to “take back the streets” and rule traffic on two wheels.
Often at issue during critical mass rides has been the ethical question of whether or not cyclists should obey traffic rules by stopping at red lights and stop signs, yielding rights of way and not deliberately blocking vehicular traffic.
Disagreement on that issue, among cyclists themselves, has spawned parallel events variously called “Critical Manners” and “Courteous Mass,” during which cyclists attempt to obey all traffic rules.
Kidical Mass, a family ride for kids, was born in Eugene, Ore., and has gone national, with at least one nearby event in Napa.
Underlying the CM phenomenon is the nearly universal adherence to an organizing model of disorganization – no central planning, no one in charge, no one deciding where or when to ride. Critical mass plans – pre-social media – were circulated by word of mouth and through printed leaflets, but now all it takes is a Facebook or Twitter notice and everyone knows. Advantages of the laissez faire model are that parade permits aren’t generally required when the gatherings are conceived as spontaneous with no one in charge, and because no one’s in charge no one can be blamed, held responsible, charged or sued over the collective consequences of a ride. And there’s an element of anarchy that appeals to some people who relish the opportunity to revolt against the oppressive presence of cars.
Sonoma’s first ride fell well short of achieving critical mass when an estimated 30 riders congregated on the Plaza before pedaling down Broadway. It’s too soon to tell whether a Sonoma ride will gain traction, but we’d like to suggest that it presents the opportunity for a useful dialog about the benefits and future of bicycle-based transportation. Since no one’s in charge, it may prove tricky to engage critical mass riders in a formally-organized conversation, but here are a few of the issues we’d love to see addressed:
Why is it OK for cyclists to ignore traffic laws? The message circulated for last Friday’s ride announced, “You may choose, or choose not, to obey the law, your choice.” Is that the response we want to model for our children?
How can we instill more respect and caution in motorists toward cyclists?
Can we adopt a coherent and enforceable policy regarding bikes on sidewalks?
How can we create a truly bike-friendly system of on- and off-street lanes for cyclists within the city and outside it?
What would it take to construct a Class I (physically separated) bike lane from Napa to Santa Rosa, or even Sebastopol?
How can Caltrans be induced to more aggressively follow its own policies, which require that all its projects accommodate all users, including bicyclists and pedestrians?
Bicycles are the most energy-efficient form of wheeled transportation on Earth. Would that we had the infrastructure, and the culture, to maximize their use.