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Critical Mass: A Step Too Far?

by Bryn — last modified Jul 31, 2009 10:41 AM
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You might note that while Vancruisers is all for cycling (obviously!) we typically don't become involved in Critical Mass rides. Ever wonder why?

I came across this blog which sums things up quite nicely:

First, the flash-mob nature of the movement diminishes the degree to which participants are accountable. Without clear leadership, nobody is accountable for the impact Critical Mass can have on people’s lives (for however short period of time). What will happen if somebody is in an ambulance heading towards St. Paul’s Hospital and Critical Mass disrupts traffic and the patient dies? Who should be held accountable and who would be responsible? Nobody, since Critical Mass has “no leader”

Second, the degree to which disruption occurs has diminished its effectiveness as an awareness-raising event. It has become unruly social disorder. Disruptive mobilizations have a place in social movements, but when Critical Mass’ mandate has been overshadowed by the general perception that it alienates people, making drivers furious and leading to confrontations, then it’s time to change the strategy.

Third, the non-cooperative approach of the movement creates confrontations. These face-offs between drivers and bikers preclude finding any solid, sustainable approaches to increase awareness. A sustainable transportation policy by nature requires stakeholders to negotiate points of agreement and common ground. But given that there is no apparent leadership and no accountability, there is no way to create common ground amongst actors.


I couldn't agree more!  When Critical Mass started in Vancouver much of their focus was on tackling specific areas that needed help like the Burrard Bridge.  Today it's become the monthly "let's block off Lion's Gate" ride which seems somewhat counterproductive to me.  Lion's Gate Bridge actually provides a pretty darn good cycling experience (with the exception of the climb!) - it's got a very wide, completely traffic separated bike/pedestrian path on both sides, you really can't ask for much more than that.

One thing that's important to realize with all of this is Vancouver DOES have a lot of great cycling infrastructure.  It definitely isn't perfect, there's lots of places that need more/better street crossings, or bike routes that dump you in the middle of nowhere.  If we want to identify and correct the shortcomings though, blocking off Lion's Gate doesn't help much!  What would be way, way, way more effective is taking a ride that follows actual cycling routes as much as possible, and causes traffic problems where those routes fail.  I include the "1m wide lane next to 80km/h traffic with nothing more than a painted white line" in the "failures" by the way.  To me the most effective form of "protest" or activism would be to BIKE PLACES WE'D ACTUALLY WANT TO RIDE!!

For instance, if you really want to play with traffic, let's think where some glaring holes are in our cycling infrastructure.  For me one would be Kingsway.  Kingsway is flat out the best possible route from a cycling perspective from Downtown to Burnaby - because it was originally chosen for the old interurban railway, it has as gentle a grade as you could possibly find.  Take out the on-street parking on either side and give a lane to cyclists and you'll have one of the best inter-city bike routes around.  Yet I've never seen Critical Mass ever go anywhere NEAR that direction!

Another thing I always remember was being out in Stanley Park one night riding the SeaWall.  We'd gotten separated from our group, and I saw a pile of cyclists up on the upper roadway I figured was us.  Powered up the path only to discover it was a Critical Mass group riding the road through Stanley Park in the dark.  "Hey, why don't you guys come down here to the SeaWall - moon is full and just rose, it's a beautiful night!" - sold.  Here comes about a hundred cyclists down to the actual bike path.  The number of people expressing how they'd never been down there or what a unique thing it was to be riding there was astounding.  So you chose to ride around on the road "fighting" for bike infrastructure but you'd never ridden one of the most prominent recreational cycling routes in the city?

The problem is right now Critical Mass is a ship adrift in the middle of a very crowded waterway.  The actions and behaviour of that group has begun to illicit a substantial response from the police, which doesn't help any of us.  I don't want to end up getting hassled when we're out for a cruise because the cops think we're Critical Mass! 

What it all comes down to though is the lack of leadership or direction.  In reality that statement is pretty false.  Somehow the group ends up at the top of Lion's Gate every month at about the same time - well, someone said "Let's go this way!" and managed to get enough followers to steer the group.  Before everyone started riding the wrong way down one way streets someone had to decide to turn there.  There ARE leaders, maybe not official ones you can look up on a web site somewhere but the group would just stand around and never ride anywhere if there wasn't.  Those who lead need to realize that they have a great deal of power - the ability to steer an entire city full of cyclists in to essentially any direction.  Choose wisely.

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Good one!

Avatar Posted by Teddy at Jul 31, 2009 11:25 AM
I definitely concur. There is a backlash now against the CL'ers, and they are taking it to the streets! Check it out. I'd be curious to try that just once to see what it's like.

I personally don't want anything to do with the 'Massers as that event gives cyclists a bad name, and jeopardizes our rights and current freedoms that we have as cyclists.

I just want to ride my bike.


Avatar Posted by bryce rasmussen at Jul 31, 2009 06:22 PM
yep-I sorta still have a bit of fondness, and let 'em roll, due to haing once been a CMer, and having met some great people, but now-well,y'see, the CMers are unwittingly fighting for MORE bureacracy-which is Not A Good Thing. Man, I can wear a helmet or not-and fighting a helmet ticket is as easy as going to court-the cops neer show up-got afriend who fought three tickets that way. And that's ALL the bureacracy I want, or can stand. Cause you know how the city works-"you want this and that, huh? Sure thing-and here's your upgraded helmet laws, a bicycle licence, and, let's see-retroactive new tax-to pay for yourlicence." THanks, but no.


Avatar Posted by Bryn at Jul 31, 2009 06:27 PM
That's exactly what I'm talking about. Right now CM is rolling us as a cycling community directly in to the path of a giant speeding truck with POLICE written on the side of it.

Case and point: San Fransisco.

Critical Mass in San Fran has such fun things as cops riding around on dirt bikes with giant clubs mixed in with the rides. Cops tell you where you can and can't go, you don't DARE cork a street unless you want to get taken down. Cops set the route, Cops set the pace, Cops tell you where you can and can't go. Is this what we want for Vancouver?

Once that kind of thing becomes the "norm" what do you suppose happens to any random group of say, 30-40 people out for a ride? Suppose any cop that happens to be going by just ignores them, or do you think they now have in their head that this is a problem?

Sadly I don't really know how to deal with what Critical Mass has become. Maybe all us "don't do it like that" folks need to band together and actually try to see how many people we can get to follow us!

critical mass

Avatar Posted by Ron Reyes at Aug 04, 2009 11:44 PM
Hi guys

I’ve been into bikes and riding since I was a kid but it has only been in recent years I have begun to dip my toes in the extremely diverse and often polarized Vancouver bike culture pool. I’ve been on a few CM rides over the years and recently been on 2 rides with you guys. I’ve had fun and met some cool folks where ever there are bikes and people. And there are good points on all sides of this issue. One thing I doooo believe is that the CM message in it’s current state will fail. I believe that Civil Disobedience needs to be grounded in love and truth and backed by the people in mass. Chaos, anarchy and disrespect from a relatively small sample of the community at large is not a recipe for success. Not all the riders are die-hard stick it to the man no mater what types. Some like me just want to have fun. But now you guys got me thinking….

see you soon



Avatar Posted by e at Aug 23, 2009 09:51 AM
CM hasn't changed since I first rode it back 1o yrs ago, the numbers ie. crowd was generally similar in the summer. But the media has definiely increased the last time though. Don't be fooled. CM has never been a violent form of protest. In essence that is what it is, a protest, or an assertion that bikes are sometimes not even seen on the road by auto users- literally and statistically speaking there is a very high percentage of drivers, when asked what happened after an accident with a bike say they "just didn't see them." So stop worrying about the perception that the small inconvienience that CM poses to drivers for 20 min a month on avg. to make a statement- and make it. Don't be apathetic. Be media aware. Get involved in your city, have a voice. -Ed