Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Contemplating Critical Mass

So evidently they've largely stopped arresting cyclists participating in New York City's monthly critical mass group bike ride. I suppose this is a good thing, except perhaps for those who consider their participation in same to be civil disobedience in the proper sense of that by now worn out term. After all, disobedience becomes all too civil when arrests don't follow.

I'm not a big critical mass supporter or opponent, and I believe I've written about my ambivalence on the topic on this blog before. The gist of my ambivalence is this: when I've participated, all I've seen is a bunch of pissed off drivers. I'm not sure they're going to be any more charitable to cyclists they encounter on the road in the future for having been held up behind a phalanx of cyclists taking their time. On the other hand, the intrusion, on balance, is minimal, and I do like the consciousness-raising as well as the community-building aspects of the enterprise. In short, while I will probably continue to ride only rarely, I certainly respect those who do so every month and would defend their right to do so.

Here's the reason I'm writing about this, though. Evidently, the police in New York were arresting dozens of cyclists each month for parading without a permit. A judge, however, rebuked them for doing so, either ruling or strongly suggesting that the charge cannot apply to this activity. In lieu of mass arrests, this month, police handed out summons for, inter alia, crossing against a signal and riding the wrong way up Broadway.

And this is where my question comes in. Wouldn't it be far more demonstrative if in riding en masse the group obeyed traffic signals, yielded to pedestrians, and so on? In Pittsburgh, scouts essentially shut down intersections with their bodies and riders disregard the relevant traffic signals, which of course is that aspect of the ride most infuriating to drivers.

But it's not parading without a permit, or parading or demonstrating at all, if a bunch of people driving their legal vehicles on public roads and observing all relevant laws, happen to end up together and take up a lot of space. And that's where the ride would be far more interesting in not violating signals.

Sure, the group would have more trouble staying together, but in becoming more strung out the "statement," if that's what it is, would merely be bigger, the number of people conscious of what they're seeing greater, and the impact more diffuse but no less significant.

I don't observe all laws when I'm on my bike, because I ride in part to not sit in traffic, to not wait mindlessly at red lights where no traffic is in sight, and so on. I try to keep moving, for practical and aesthetic purposes. But the more treacherous the situation, the more legal my riding becomes; often, in evening traffic, I simply slide out into the lane and wait my turn with the other cars; similarly, at busy intersections, I also bide my time. Not because I must, but because it's safer and thus less stressful.

I by no means intend to defend the New York police. In arresting people on a trumped up permit charge is patently ridiculous under the law, and just meanspirited. But as I've said here before, the real critical mass is individual people riding often, taking up their rightful places on the road, behaving well, integrating themselves into traffic where necessary and being at once firm about their own entitlement to the road and polite to automobiles who share that road. "Share the road," that is to say, should cut both ways. I wish fewer people drove, but the reality is that many people have no option, especially in a mass transit-starved city like Pittsburgh.

I'm curious whether any of my readers have thoughts on the role of Critical Mass rides, their effect, and whether it mightn't be more effective to restructure the rides to respect the laws we so adamantly demand that cars observe when it suits us then flout when it doesn't.


Blogger Michael said...

I have no particular insight into whether the critical mass rides have any effect other than my own opinion. I will say that the one time I saw one, no one in cars seemed pissed off or annoyed. I happened to be on foot, so I checked out all the cars to see if the drivers displayed any signs of anger. Regardless, I do like the suggestion of the rides obeying all the traffic laws. Riding around flaunting the traffic laws can only serve to piss off delayed drivers and make them less sympathetic to bicyclists, but a large group that obeys all the laws seems a little different and a little more supportable.

Further, I think individual bicyclists probably do a lot of harm to goodwill. In Seattle most cyclists paid a fair amount of attention to the traffic laws (that's not to say they obeyed strictly, god no). Moreover, bicyclists here seem to have an aversion to helmets and reflective gear, especially at night, than was present in Seattle. I've seen more idiots riding on busy streets at night with no helmet, black clothing, no reflectors, and no lights than I thought possible. You'd think there'd be some amount of death to naturally select the opposite behavior. I guess what I'm trying to get to is that I see a lot of really stupid choices made by bicyclists here that probably antagonize a lot of drivers. While I wish I didn't have to deal with exhaust and motorists with complete disregard for the area around them, it's going to be a fact for a while, and cyclists could do a hell of a lot of good by being the better people in traffic. It's also good survival policy.

9:45 PM  
Blogger Moon said...

I think you're dead-on regarding the nighttime visibility stuff. The helmetless thing is more or less your problem as a cyclist. I think it foolish, but then there have been a few occasions -- lazy days, to a one, when I'm basically tooling around -- when I've felt like riding without one and have done so. I have to be a little sympathetic. I also usually have a bag one with enough tools to repair basic problems, but sometimes I feel like riding without it. But wearing dark clothing at night and being unilluminated makes you a menace not just to yourself but to others, and I fail to see the point of that, especially from people smugly riding around with Cars are Coffins stickers on their top tubes.

As for Critical Mass, I've ridden only one anywhere, and it was here this past fall. Of course, the unpissed-off drivers go unremarked, because they are quiet; I've no doubt there were many of those behind and around us. That said, there were plenty of horns, plenty of curses, and one woman who actually bumped one of the leaders of the ride when she refused to yield to the ride and found herself surrounded on all sides by fist-waving cyclists. She was furious even though she was solely responsible for putting herself in that position when every other driver had the perspicacity to back off and let the crowd do its thing. Especially vivid in my memory of that ride was negotiating Penn Circle, four lanes of one-way traffic circling downtown East Liberty. That just felt lethal, and while we were there any number of people mouthed off and honked and revved their engines and generally made their displeasure blatantly obvious through their reckless and even aggressive behavior.

Perhaps it was friendlier in Seattle, for all the reasons mentioned.

10:59 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I didn't mean to suggest that it was friendlier in Seattle, just that the cyclists were better about their responsibilities as cyclists. The city itself was friendlier in that the roads were in better repair (this might be a factor of climate) and there were bike lanes. Unfortunately, most of the bike lanes were worthless. Picture the left hand side of a one way street, and being constantly cut off by taxis, trucks, and other motorists ignorant of you. I was almost hit several times before I got the hint and just kept to different streets.

I wish there were a good solution. Ok, there is a good solution, but I don't think most people are going to go for banning cars within the city limits ;-)

10:44 PM  

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