Is Critical Mass Good for Cycling?

<strong>Critical Massers ride through Minneapolis.</strong><br>Photo: Stephen Regenold

The car revved its engine from behind as I signaled a turn, my arm outstretched to motion a left. It was just before 5 p.m., the last Friday in July, 2008, and I was riding my bike to a gathering in Loring Park. "Go get yourself killed!" came a shout from the driver as I bumped off the road.

Thus was my introduction to Critical Mass, a monthly gathering where cyclists meet in cities around the world—from Sao Paulo to St. Paul—in a show of solidarity on city streets clogged with cars.

Since its inception in the early 1990s, Critical Mass has no doubt brought attention to how unfriendly cities can be to cyclists. But the controversial rides have also spurned violent outbursts by bikers, property damage, and the deployment of riot gear on mobs of riders refusing to obey traffic laws.

As social phenomena go, Critical Mass tends to polarize, be it the view that the bikers are arrogant punks bent on anarchistic confrontation or that of car drivers as smog-spewing street hogs oblivious to pedaling commuters on the road. As a longtime bike commuter—though one who respects the laws of the street—my view was somewhere in between these two extremes when I pedaled to the park for the July ride.

Ride On

There is no leader at a Critical Mass. There is no common agenda. Riders meet at a universal place and time—for example: 5 p.m. in Minneapolis at Loring Park, the last Friday of the month—and hang out until a few people initiate a ride through the urban grid.

When I rolled up in July, about 200 cyclists were milling in the mist of Loring's dandelion fountain. Police watched from the north side of the park, a quiet tension seething through the crowd as three Mass participants shouted for attention before starting an ad hoc "arrest protocol session." "If an officer stops you make sure to ask 'Am I being detained?'" a presenter yelled out.

Soon we were pedaling south on Hennepin Avenue, a line of massers riding slow and blocking traffic. We took up the southbound lane. We ran red lights. Cars honked while many pedestrians cheered.

I coasted up to Justin Kalemkiarian, 24, a mass rider from Minneapolis. "We need to make cars aware that bikers are allowed on the road," he said.

Force of Law

On the ride, I counted 28 police officers spinning on mountain bikes. Squad cars circled the mass, honking, blaring sirens at will.

Critical Mass
Photo: Stephen Regenold

 

But tension faded as the mass took a right on Lake Street, a major thoroughfare, 10 minutes into the ride. By Lyndale Avenue, where the mass turned back north toward downtown, I realized the law enforcement was blocking the intersections for us, serving to keep the ride running smoothly.

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