Although some folks seem to have independently come up with the exact same idea, I’ve been thinking awhile of a sustainable alternative to Critical Mass.
Critical Mass is an event held on the last Friday of the month in nearly every major city of the civilized world. Cyclists get together at some traditional location and just ride slowly around the city for a few hours. In the process, they usually block traffic, yell at motorists, and occasionally get into fights with both drivers and the police.
The parade-like atmosphere is thrilling for most participants, seeing hundreds or thousands of fellow cyclists reclaiming the streets on which we usually are forced to scurry from wayward SUVs. Neighbors and bystanders sometimes go grab their bikes and join in the fun for a few blocks–how great is that?
The downside is that it is extremely rude and confrontational to drivers. To avoid splitting up the ride, Massers block intersections and ride through red lights. Angry motorists are yelled at and sometimes attacked. Traffic backs up all over the city and onlookers can be left with the impression that cyclists are a bunch of self-indulgent, overprivileged hooligans whose only goal is to disrupt normal folks’ day-to-day lives. That’s exactly the impression that most bike commuters and utility cyclists try to avoid.
Is there a way to keep the good parts of Critical Mass without the bad parts? Can we avoid tear gas and arrests while keeping the carnival atmosphere? I think so.
I call it “Courteous Mass”, some call it “Critical Manners”. The idea is to ride slowly around the city, but while following the traffic laws and obeying signals. Rather than yelling and cursing drivers, cyclists could wave to them and smile.
Unfortunately since the law only allows for riding two abreast, the line of riders could end up being several blocks long. Red lights could easily break up the ride. I think the solution in that case would be for the slowest riders to always be at the front of the ride and the fastest at the back. If the ride gets split, the front part could slow down even more until the riders at the back catch back on. Or if the ride splinters into several smaller rides, that wouldn’t be awful either.
The main idea is to have fun. I’d say that 98% of most Critical Masses are composed of normal folks who just like to ride bikes. The other 2% are angry youth eager to bash heads and mix it up with the police. I don’t have any great ideas for how to deal with that 2% yet if they show up to a Courteous Mass ride with the intention of causing problems. I’m confident it’s a solvable problem, though. I would guess that most non-violent protests face the same problem (although I wouldn’t think of Courteous Mass as a protest so much as a celebration).
What do you think? Is it something that could work in Michiana? Would you be interested in a monthly ride like that? What are some problems you foresee? What are some solutions you propose?