Vancouver Critical Mass

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How about a "Positive" Mass Bike Ride?

Well, the headline had me worried, but it's actually a really thoughtful article, and a nice public part of the ongoing open CM discussion. [~rusl]
By Devon Bates
Changes are going to come to the mass bike ride tradition either from the inside or the outside with security on the way with the Police and Fire games in 2009

I cycle past Union Market in Strathcona and the creeping growth of condos to downtown five days a week. I keep my eyes peeled for the bleary eyed, the aggressive, the late, or those who are all of the above. I signal my intentions with my left arm, though many drivers of cars neglect to return the courtesy. On the Adanac/Union bike route alone, I've seen many drivers looking over only one shoulder as they barely slow down for the stop signs. It’s frustrating, it’s frightening, it’s maddening and I can fully understand where the anger and righteousness of some cyclists comes from.

And some car drivers are getting pretty angry and righteousness too. People are dividing themselves along lines where no lines need to be. Kevin Potvin wrote an article in The Republic, issue 192, where he compared riders in Critical Mass with the hosts of CKNW and the many pro-car callers to its shows. He noted that both groups seemed to demonize "the other" in similar ways particularly when it comes to the Critical Mass Bike Ride that starts at the Art Gallery the last Friday of each month at 5 PM. Although I believe that most who attend are there for socializing as opposed to confrontation, I see what Potvin was getting at: both pro-Critical Mass and pro-car people “encourage the further withering of empathy increasingly rampant throughout an alarming range of policy debates."

I've been thinking about the rides and what the next step should be. It's obvious that there are problems associated with Critical Mass and to ignore these problems is foolish. It's like continuously putting off a serious discussion with a spouse as things deteriorate but the situation has not yet led to shouting matches. These feelings can be left to fester—until there is nothing but fighting and then no happy resolution. Or things can be proactively discussed before they deteriorate.

Critical Massers could try to live in denial about this problem and continue on as before because the Critical Mass Bike Ride cannot simply be "called off" for any one month as there is no one group or individual directing the movement. The rides will continue as they have, at least for a little while, because Critical Mass cannot simply be stopped. Critical Mass has become a tradition. As I witnessed with last month's "renegade" Illuminares, a community's popular traditions need no central organization for gatherings to continue to take place.

Critical Massers may believe rides can continue as they have, but given that the 2010 Olympics is on its way, as well as the rapidly approaching 2009 World Police & Fire Games that will likely have Vancouver witness the real beginning of increased security measures, I consider it very unlikely that the ride will be allowed to continue as it has. There are powerful people who have a lot to lose if this area doesn't look like "The Best Place on Earth" when the time comes, and they will stop at nothing to make it appear so. We the cyclists on the inside who get it can try to transform the vibe and direction of the ride, or outsiders will change it for us, or even shut it down. That’s the real choice.

Increasing restriction of social freedoms receives less disapproval from the general public if "valid reasons" can be provided (like public safety), and a little bit of half-truth and omission goes farther than outright lies. If images of drunken jerks starting fights with motorists, or frustrated drivers "just trying to get home" get stuck in a street full of cyclists, are played up by those opposed to the ride, it won't matter that most of the cyclists were well behaved, smiling, and considerate. Jerky behaviour and the general inconvenience of others plays into the hands of those who wish to discredit the ride who could point to those examples as an excuse to shut down the ride for the sake of "public order." Critical Mass has been fun and it has brought people together, but if things stay as they are the future is not bright. But by conducting the ride in a more respectful way, the likelihood of its continuation is increased.

Simple tit for tat solves nothing. Although there are white people who are racist towards non-white people, all non-white people do not have the right to be racist to all white people. I believe that although there are motorists who are disrespectful towards cyclists, all cyclists do not have the right to be disrespectful to all motorists.

I have seen cliquey behaviour from some people during the rides (like openly making fun of American Appareled teens who thought the ride was "cool" and tried jogging along), which made we wonder: Is Critical Mass to become an exclusive club, two wheels good, four wheels bad? Or do we want the "sheeple" to actually consider commuting by bicycle as a viable option? The end result of the bicycle movement should be a reduction in personal fossil fuel usage whenever and wherever possible, not a feeling of moral superiority because we "get it" while others don't.

It's important that we maintain the monthly tradition of a big group of strangers coming together to show a mass bike ride is a lot of fun. The monthly Critical Mass ride offers very important elements for building and maintaining a healthy community. It is potentially a message to younger generations that exercise can be enjoyable instead of a chore, and it is an experience not limited by age group or economic status. It is important to preserve these aspects of the ride, but how?

As a sociodynamic term, "critical mass" refers to sufficient momentum for a social system to become self-sustaining. It is a tipping point. But if there is no thoughtful pro-activity, I worry Critical Mass may become a tipping point for new restrictive by-laws and enforcement crackdowns (like the rush-hour bike helmet crackdown this June, for example), instead of a paradigm shifting event.

A major part of the problem may be our criticism. Can’t we be less critical, and more positive? Why not start something like the Positive Mass Bike Ride?

As a scientific term, "positive mass" is mass that attracts more mass, i.e. the opposite of negative mass or anti-matter. Why not try to attract the masses to the mass instead of alienating them?

I don't know how Positive Mass would manifest but it would need a strong educational component. Too often inquisitive drivers receive only answers like "It's Critical Maaassssss!" as a cyclist passes. It will also be difficult (but vital) to maintain a general inclusiveness while avoiding the head-trips of jerks who'll use any group setting as a place to be jerks. I'm not sure how to combine the messages of avoiding motor vehicle dependence, sticking together as a group, and maintaining the joyous feeling of spontaneity, while not blocking others just doing their thing (albeit doing so with a petroleum-fuelled motor). But I think it's worth trying.


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  • At 10:39 pm, September 12, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Has Critical Mass ever tried following basic traffic rules like stopping at stop lights? In spite of the idiotic and dangerous behaviour of many motorists, seeing other people who are not following the rules is typically the thing that annoys most motorists the most. This is in no small part because that kind of thing is scary to motorists due to the dangers involved.

    I do understand that there is safety in numbers, and unity is life on Critical Mass rides, but to most motorists, we're just blocking the road when the light is green. If we want to promote the ideas that commuting by bike is a viable option, and that we're not blocking traffic, we *are* traffic, then perhaps we should as a group, act like commuters, only in sufficient numbers to make our point heard.

    It shouldn't be difficult to flock together in large enough groups to take up the entire street (or even just the right lane), while still maintaining cohesiveness. This may even expose more drivers to our message, and if we do it right, do so without making them all want to kill us.

  • At 1:59 am, September 15, 2008, Blogger Jason said…


    I like how you discuss the different kinds of rides that different kinds of people can participate in; when individuals share a common passion they should gather together, and in this case, ride with rules or a specific purpose or perhaps to experiment with ideas or hats. If you organize a ride where people ride through the city and stop at all the lights in a huge group I will attend.

    I think the author of this article should enact a positive mass -I'm sure it would be delightful and I know many people who'd go.

    What I find important and the reason why I still go and love mass more than I can express is because it isn't a set of rules and does so many things on so many levels. So many angry driver comments seem to stem from a conception that all massers want you to go green and that saving the environment or the planet is the responsibility of the human race.

    I'm sorry, I don't.
    I want their to be questions:
    "why am I angry"
    "what do I do everyday"
    "what is this mass about"
    "what could that person mean"
    "do I love my wife"
    "what is criminal"
    "should being naked in public be illegal"
    "where does military/police power begin and where does it end"
    "I wonder where he is now"

    And if we are in pain as we ask these (but not just these) questions and the world is in pain and shit is staining the fence then the saving hardly matters anymore; what good is saving the planet if we can't save ourselves?

    I haven't decided what I'm going to do if this so-called crack-down happens; I think I'll probably just keep going. Refuse to stop and refuse to compromise.

    At the level closest to my heart Critical Mass is about freedom.

    At another level, a level in my mind, the mass is about the fact that those hunks of metal should be operated by absolute professionals and robots only (auto); man has outstripped it's operational ability and has left herself with the circuit-flesh of his neighbours and family torn out and bleeding iron into her lungs.

  • At 9:59 pm, September 20, 2008, Blogger VanCM Blogger said…

    Well Apparently San Fran did do a "legal mass" at one point which was "more disruptive (according to Chris Carlson) and caused the city of SF to back down on some of the police crack down they had been doing. I'm not sure if this was before or after it got big or during the infamous 1997 season so that would play a big role - the context.

    I don't think we should do a legal mass just to be obnoxious. But it is an intriguing idea.

    One point to mention however is that - despite the conventional wisdom - it would be difficult to coordinate and probably more dangerous. Traffic laws are for cars after all.

    Case in point: 7 of us a long long time ago were riding together to Tsawassen Ferry one winter evening. We decided to "mass" the tunnel becase we basically had no other choice. On the ride there we took the bridge (Oak St) and decided to stay on the deck rather than the crappy narrow sidewalk. We took a single lane (of 2) and it was awful. Every 2nd car that drove by honked and we had things thrown at us !!! Later on, for the tunnel, we decided to take both lanes (with only 7 people) partly due to our experience on the bridge. What a differance! It was supremely peaceful. Not a single honk. Totally enjoyable and worth it. The lesson, basically we had only to rely on the 2 cars exactly behind us. If they weren't aggro then it was smooth sailing since to the rest of the cars behind them it is normal - follow the taillights ahead of you - traffic. Whereas, a single lane for cars is the classic construction site conundrum that drivers hate. They have to file into one lane which is always stressful. And they have to drive slowly pass the happy bikers - basically draws the whole thing out more. This is despite the fact that those angry drivers who pass get to overtake us. It isn't really much differance in time and in both cases they are irratated by inconvenience but in one it is more orderly.

    Also on CM when the rides were typically a lot smaller we have sometimes taken fewer than all the lanes in one direction. Sometimes it is OK to take one lane say on a 6 lane bridge. But NEVER, I repeat NEVER take 2 of the 3 lanes (say if you have a lot of people but think all 3 lanes isn't needed) In that case you get tons of agro drivers and the really stupid ones (who don't understand they are piloting a weapon) cut in on the group dangerously close as a way of displaying their anger. Not a safe bet. Either take one lane or all - that is based on a lot of experience!

    Personally I would also love to see a Mass ride on the Bikeways - esp the ones busy with cars that are terrible to bike on - like Heather and 7th. It would be really nice if more people noticed they were driving on a bike route and would show a little bit of repect for that.

    Keep talking!

  • At 10:34 pm, September 21, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I enjoy riding my bike to work when it isn't pouring bloody rain, but I don't ride on busy arterial streets, especially when there is usually a bike route 2 or 3 blocks away.

    This is because enraging the public doesn't get me off. Though I wish it did, as the act of bothering strangers is much less costly than traditional western vices. I also thoroughly enjoy the baffled and bewildered faces of drivers when they see me come to a legitimate full stop at stop signs. It's the same look one would get if one were to make love to a family of racoons at Tim Horton's during the lunch hour rush.

    The most important issue here is this; DO NOT BLOCK TRAFFIC WITH YOUR YOUNG CHILDREN. It's your choice to put yourself in harms way, but when I saw a toddler being used as a prop/blockade in front of a pack of raging drivers at Denman and Georgia I just about lost it. This is not an arguable issue, do not bring your children into confrontational and possibly violent situations as a human shield. I was run down by a car back when I was in elementary school, and let me tell you, it sucks. "Getting your message across" is not worth risking your kid's life or limb..

  • At 10:01 am, September 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Quote vancm blogger:"Traffic laws are for cars after all".
    A little inaccurate.
    Traffic laws were originally designed for cars; but they apply to all vehicles that are legally on public roads.
    And if the we want to gain more respect from the fume-spewing mass: We should be displaying awareness/respect for traffic laws when on "shared" routes: This will win more hearts over to the side of Good ;+).
    Quote anonymous: "I also thoroughly enjoy the baffled and bewildered faces of drivers when they see me come to a legitimate full stop at stop signs. It's the same look one would get if one were to make love to a family of racoons at Tim Horton's during the lunch hour rush".
    This racoon love-making intrigues me...

  • At 11:57 pm, September 28, 2008, Blogger VanCM Blogger said…

    Yes, traffic laws - as you point out - are imposed onto public roads that once carried all forms. Then as an afterthought pedestrians and cyclists and farmers were included. So, that history doesn't exactly scream well-thought-out-for-everyone.

    This is our public space. You don't buy it for $10,000 when you buy a private car. The fact that many have cars maybe hides the obvious - you are stealing from the commons. The mandatory insurance is because driving is just stupid dangerous and everyone knows you will eventually get into a (not-accidental when you see it coming) car crash.

    Also, people who like to tell others to follow the laws should read them (especially police) I have (unlike many police)!

    The laws as they apply to bicycles do not actually make sense and one cannot follow them to the letter. I agree that being courteous and respectful is a great idea and I encourage others and myself to do the same. That is why I go to Critical Mass. It allows the breathingspace for such a stern display of self-restraint to be possible.

    This brings me to the next point. I get absolutely furious about people who think they know better than me about what to do with my child and what is safe in public. I wouldn't mind if it were friendly advice but people who violently threaten me and my child and then say it is my fault for being there... I don't have words to describe my anger, hurt and fury.

    I want to take my U-Lock through his windshield and threaten his life in return. I want to make you understand what it is to have your life flash before your eyes because some REAL asshole (who gets away with it and is subsidised at every turn) can't put down the cell phone or just has to make it to the stop sign 40 feet ahead before you even though you will overtake him and it is a designated bicycle route.

    But I never do that. Of course, it is unacceptable to stand up for yourself when you are going against the flow of traffic.

    Critical Mass allows me to take the high road and smile and wave and talk to those assholes who think they are better than the rest of us because they are in a car. When I am on my own I do get mad and because it is me-versus-the-world it is a lot less productive. Critical Mass civilises me. And it civilises you. You can't drive as fast which exponentially increases everyone's safety. The road moves more traffic (people) than it would if it was clogged with cars. The anger and injustice is spread around a bit so sometimes you in your sheltered idiot box get a little whiff of what is happening around you.

    And no, the solution doesn't come overnight and occasionally we don't make more friends than enemies (rarely) but it can't be everyone who comes to the same stupid conclusion than the bikes which are making the streets safer and cleaner are the problem.

    Critical Mass isn't The solution. It's a bike ride that is inclusive. We don't stop you from doing what you and I need to do to make changes happen. We help you to do that. We stop cars.

  • At 10:41 am, September 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Seriously, why do cyclist have to share the road with cars? They are definitely a lot closer to pedestrian in terms of size and weight.

    And let me ask you cyclist a question, if you have to ride on the sidewalk with walking pedestrian, and the people in front of you are walking at 3 km/h, so slow you can't even balance you bike and you know you could have gone at 10-20km/h if they weren't infront. How do you feel? Would you want to pass them?

    That's exactly what drivers feel behind the wheel.

    The only thing different here is the pedestrian would probably have the courtesy to move aside and let you pass first. That or the cyclist would try to pass the pedestrian the very first chance they got.

  • At 11:52 pm, September 30, 2008, Blogger VanCM Blogger said…

    Well put anonymous. You sum up exactly the hypocrisy and insanity of our current law and culture of driving.

    Of course cars actually average a slower pace in the city (but they accelerate faster that is for damn sure)

    Put all the bikes away on the side of the road. Sidewalks are a great example of why bike lanes will never work. We have sidewalks almost everywhere but the quality of sidewalk rarely impacts the pedestrian traffic. We have a city unfriendly to walking around (just like all car cities) and yes we have special facilities for walkers on every street.

    The truth is that sidewalks are NOT for pedestrians. They are there to get them out of the way of the cars. To make it seem safer to be driving a car in the city. To maintain the strict road user hierarchy for our economy with the big spenders in the centre position of privledge.

    Well put.

    And you completely deny any kind of public right to using public space. Exactly the kind of individualist thinking that makes our insane cities full of useless cars that drive in circles hurting people and the environment possible.

    John Forrester goes to great lengths to try to say what you have summed up just perfectly.

    Our system is so broken and in crisis that kids can't walk safely... But it also is beholden the the whim of the impatient who think that having to wait for others who don't accelerate like you do is unreasonable.


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