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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is it time for a critical look at critical mass?

Joe Biel has produced a documentary, soon to be released, entitled A Post-Critical Mass Portland: Living in a Post-Revolutionary Bicycle Age.  Here's a preview and a few conversation-starter questions that he posted online: 

from Joe Biel on Vimeo.
What does it mean that Portland, one of the best North American cities for cycling, has virtually no Critical Mass? Is it no longer relevant in the evolution of cyclists or has the police crackdown just been so successful? What are the new goals of cyclists?
In a nutshell, critical mass is a leaderless group of bicyclists riding together in a city or urban environment, typically starting at a specified time and place, with the general intention of promoting the use of bicycles as transportation.  The leaderless element makes critical mass hard to pin down, though most participants seem to be comfortable with the idea that a critical mass is an explicitly political event.  The wiki format seems to work well for leaderless groups, and there is a critical mass wiki: http://criticalmass.wikia.com/.  It provides the following definition:

Critical Mass bike rides take place monthly in cities around the world. They are free mass participatory events, with no leaders or fixed agendas. However, the broad aim is to celebrate cycling and sustainable transport, and to give cyclists safety in numbers.

Based on this definition, the celebration of bicycle culture and community is inherent to any critcal mass: Fun is essential, or at least encouraged.  Costumed participants, unusual or unusually decorated bicycles, and musical accompaniment are not out of the ordinary.  On the other hand, the events frequently come into conflict with users of public roadways.  Critical mass events have been criticised for intentionally creating conflicts with motorists, and some participants and promotors do not deny these motives.  Thus, critical mass is a combination of cultural celebration, recreation, and political protest.
The experience of critical mass participants and witnesses vary widely.  Many neighborhoods welcome the "traffic calming" effect of critical mass, and the bicycle advocacy agenda is closely tied to the interests of pedestrians and public transit users.  On the other hand, motorists are often inconvenienced by critical mass rides that move like long, slow trains through dense urban streets.  The Wikipedia entry on critical mass supplies an overview of reactions and responses to critical mass events, but the intermingled issues are nuanced and complex.  Here, for example, is an experience reported by Gordon Inkeles on the Social Biking Blog:
Attempting to drive home in my Chevy pickup during the last critical mass ride here in Arcata [California] I was locked in place on a narrow road for at least a half hour while leering cyclists flipped me the bird and screamed insults at my pickup truck. "Hey," I wanted to add, "I'm one of you. I'm hauling a yard of compost for my organic garden." If I had been trying to get to a hospital, I'd have been out of luck. The people behind me had little kids in the car and looked pretty upset.

Whether or not you consider Arcata, CA, a dense urban environment, there are several issues prominent in this account: first, motorists inconvenienced by the event; second, blockage of the public roadway; and finally, the less than genteel behavior by bicyclists.  The last item, the behavior of the bicyclists, is particularly troubling because it occured during an event designed to promote tolerance and diversity.  This irony didn't occur by accident--irony never does--rather it suggests deeper complexity.
While the cyclists behavior toward Mr. Inkeles was inexcusable, critical mass in general needs to be understood in a larger context.  For example, it is critical to recognize that motorists are not the only targets during critical mass events.  An incident during a critical mass in NYC in July 2008 led to the indictment of NYPD Officer Patrick Pogan for misdemeanor assault and multiple felonies related to giving false statements.  This incident was the latest in "a pattern of excessive force and harassment against cyclists from even the highest ranks of the NYPD," according to Time's Up, a New York City-based not-for-profit environmental group).  Not surprisingly, ill-treatment of cyclists, and citizens in general, appears to occur most frequently during critical mass events and other political gatherings that celebrate, in theory, the values of liberty, diversity, and tolerance.  
Michael Bluejay's website http://critical-mass.info/ apparently served as a hub for critical mass activity and communication.  It was operated on a volunteer basis starting in 1998 until late 2008.  As it is no longer operating, it has the potential to provide an interesting snapshot of critical mass at a specific point in time.  This would be a great point of entry for a serious academic or journalistic research effort.
Is anyone taking a comprehensive academic look at critical mass in the US?  What is the current state of critical mass in cities across the country?  How does it fit into the landscape of bicycle advocacy?  What has it accomplished?  I suspect Joe's documentary will discuss some of these questions as they related to Portland, OR, but what about the bigger picture?  I don't think I have the time for this project at the moment, but maybe you're a doctoral student in political science, sociology, law enforcement, transportation planning, public administration, or something else, and looking for a research topic.  Jump on it! 
On the other hand, if you happen to have US$100,000 ready to grant to the project I could be enticed to pursue it further.  Please get in touch right away.  I'm sure Mr. Biel would be interested too.  You can find him here, and at Microcosm Publishing.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I completely agree. I love my truck AND my Bicycle. I am currently in Long Beach, CA. and they scheduled a day for "critical mass" they block the streets off and re-route traffic. It get's everyone on the news to support the environmental movement, while not giving motorist a distaste for environmentalIST!

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Classis Chevy Truck Parts said...

I have been to Portland once 2 years ago. Yeah! most people ride bicycle, and it's crowd of bicycle on the street!

Bike there, with directions: