Saturday, March 1, 2008

Knowing WTF I'M Talking About: My First Critical Mass

I attended my first Critical Mass last night. What I saw and what I experienced has got me thinking. And I owe the people who participate in CM an apology.

On November 13, 2007, I had a letter published in the P-I, in which I used stereotypes of Critical Mass to make some rhetorical points.

I was trying to get drivers who equate cyclists with blocked traffic to think about traffic congestion, and their own behavior, in a different way. I did that by suggesting that drivers created congestion all on their own, and I likened their behavior and its outcome to Critical Mass. In doing so, I let my own ignorance about Critical Mass reinforce negative stereotypes of the movement. What I did was unfair to participants in CM. And by reinforcing these stereotypes, I worry that I may have done more harm than good to cyclists. Let me quote the letter at length, and comment, on the basis of what I experienced last night:
Eyewitnesses in downtown Seattle reported recently that during the evening rush hour, traffic was snarled for blocks when a group of individuals chose to use the streets in a manner that prevented commuters from moving.

I didn't see anyone acting in a way indicating they were trying to snarl traffic, and traffic was not snarled. I lagged behind to see what happened in the aftermath of CM moving through. No snarls.

Automobile drivers, almost all driving alone, simultaneously drove their vehicles into the streets of downtown Seattle and instantly created gridlock, impeding the progress of buses, cyclists and in some cases, pedestrians. Apparently fully understanding and anticipating the consequences of their actions, the automobile drivers nevertheless chose to act in a manner that made movement through downtown difficult.
Some riders momentarily impeded the movement of traffic to enable the group to move through intersections quickly and compactly. This resulted in delays of seconds, and if they hadn't done this, the movement of the ride through traffic would have been much more disruptive.

One frustrated cyclist, choking on the fumes emitted by the automobiles stationed around him, gasped, "I can go 25 or 30 miles per hour on this street. I should have been home by now. Instead, I've moved one block in the past five minutes!"
Comparing CM to a traffic jam to stigmatize the creators of the traffic jam implies that CM and a traffic jam are in some fundamental way alike. Nothing could be further than the truth. What I saw last night was a living demonstration that a large group of cyclists can move in an urban environment in a way that does not create congestion.

The immobilization of downtown Seattle streets by automobiles, although executed without central coordination, was highly effective. Commuters are cautioned to expect more such "critical mass" events, up to 20 times per month.
Again, I saw no behavior last night to indicate that "immobilization of downtown Seattle streets" was the intent of the ride, and it certainly was not the outcome.

Some additional observations from last night:

  • Several of the more experienced members worked smoothly to hold drivers back for the few seconds necessary to enable the group to move through intersections with minimum impact. They were unfailingly polite.

  • It's true what they say about CM. There is no central organization, no list of rules. No leaders.

  • Nevertheless, there are rules, or at least suggested behaviors. CM is not chaos. I heard CM riders informing each other on what to do to keep everything moving smoothly.

  • Of the comments I heard from non-participants, I think about 80% were positive and 20% negative. But I recognize the tone of the negative comment-makers. These are the drivers who will rage at you no matter how far you ride to the right, no matter how much you obey the rules. They consider cyclists' existence an affront. If we would have been following all traffic rules, staying within bike lanes, &c, they still would have raged.

  • I imagine there are as many motivations for riding in CM as there are riders, even more. I don't know what others' motivations were. But I had a realization while riding about why I wanted to be there, then. I wanted to help show how smoothly and unobtrusively a large group of cyclists can move around downtown. Imagine if each of us were in a car (one per car, as Seattle drivers overwhelmingly seem to prefer). How long would it have taken us to circle downtown? With what impact?

  • Will I do it again? You bet!

The points I had wanted to make in my original letter may be valid -- I still think they are -- but I regret using CM as a "bogeyman" to have made those points, and doubly regret doing so in complete ignorance of what CM actually is. Apart from the implicit slander of CM participants, I am disappointed in myself.

1 comment:

DrMekon said...

"to help show how smoothly and unobtrusively a large group of cyclists can move around downtown."

Very good way of looking at it. I think that's a banner a lot of cyclists could get under.