Bicyclists take back the streets

Imagine you are driving along a busy street filled with homebound motorists. It is only six o’clock and you are headed home. But as you and the rest of the car-bound pack are stopped at a red light, suddenly one, then two, then what seems to be hundreds of bicyclists turn the corner and fill up the road ahead. As you watch the road, a neverending stream of riders on bikes swells.

After a few minutes, you can no longer see the street, nor stoplights, nor cars ahead, only bikes. As the bikes continue to pass, one of the bikers who is stopped in the middle of the road, ensuring that all the cars stay put, until the mass of bicyclists have passed, hands you a flyer. “This is Critical Mass,” the flyer shouts, “grab your bike and join.”

I, myself, have had the honor of being part of that mass of bikers cruising by; I’ve also had the annoyance of being a car-bound onlooker, stuck behind the mass, for what seems like an eternity. In Chicago, the Mass, the very critical mass, hits the streets on the last Friday of every month. But in metropolises all around the world – Cleveland, Johannesburg, Taipei, Budapest and Bogotá – the Mass comes out on a more or less frequent basis.

First thing you notice about the Mass, whether as an observer or a participant, is that the Mass is no race. The ride typically lasts for two to four hours, so going fast is just not on option.

If you are a motorist who has been trapped behind the Mass, be careful where you turn. The Mass does not follow any route; it turns and rides wherever the flow suits it. Sometimes it hits freeways and highways, too, so if you’re in a city, you’re not safe.

Generally a few bike cops ride along to ensure that neither bicyclist nor motorists cause any trouble, but for the Mass causing trouble is not the point. What is the point? Why do hundreds of bike riders take to the streets en masse? What are they trying to do, is it some sort of protest?

If you search for information about Critical Mass on the web you’ll find that “Critical Mass is not an organization, it’s an unorganized coincidence. It’s a movement ... of bicycles, in the streets,” but that is hardly enough to answer your or my questions.

If you ask the riders, they generally don’t have a set goal. “Why do I ride?” a friend of mine named Robert responsed when I ask him, “I ride for fun, for health, and because it sucks to be in a car.” Critical Mass, as a phenomenon, is largely a response to the traffic, pollution and danger caused by our car-centric society.

But to the millions of commuters – I mean bike-commuters, whose bikes are their main transportation – Critical Mass is also a chance to take back the streets. Cars, after all, kill people; bikes, on the other hand, are rarely a danger to others. And thousands of people in every city across the country choose to brave the streets without the protection of a ton of metal, with only a plastic helmet to protect them.

The riders include those only out for fun and those whose bike is the mainstay of their transportation, including those on specialty or fun bikes, those on hard-core fast racing bikes and those on rugged mountain bikes. The masses in the Mass vary in age, but many are young, in their twenties or thirties.

Although I’ve been both a motorist and a bicyclist, I’ve got to admit that biking is definitely the best way to go. It’s healthier, safer, faster and cheaper, but most of all, it’s more fun. So to all who are reading now, I say drop the paper, grab a bike and ride on!

The author can be reached at bkishner@pww.org