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July 27, 2008

A Very Disturbing Critical Mass Story out of Seattle

As regular readers know from March of 2003 to November of 2005 I extensively wrote about the movement called Critical Mass, my own troubling experience of it, and my debates with those who founded the movement, and support it.

I am not a fan, and my coverage constitutes a comprehensive Exhitbit A for why I , and many others, believe it is the wrong approach to Cycling Activism, and is most defintely NOT a spontaneous, un-organized event, as its more radical desciples feed the public, and the naive cyclists who think it cool to "join the fun", often with kids in tow.

Now comes an extremely disturbing story out of Seattle, reported by 1st time participant Ryan McElroy, a Motorist, and Cyclist:

Today, I participated in my first ever Critical Mass, a large, loosely organized bike ride that starts at the Westlake Center in downtown Seattle around 6:00 pm and meanders around the town, directed by the whims of whoever is in front. The ride is somewhat controversial in that the riders manage to stay in one cohesive group with a tactic known as “corking” where cyclists place themselves strategically to block traffic, allowing the group of cyclists to continue, even through red lights. Nevertheless, the whole procession isn’t that big of a deal — at most, drivers are inconveniences for about 5 minutes as the group rides by.

As a cyclist, I learned today, it is a ton of fun. We just ride around Seattle hooting, hollering, and ringing bells, putting on a show for downtown drivers and having a good time. In fact, as you ride, you enter into a bit of a mob mentality: you’re having fun, surrounded by bicycles, exploring the city, not really worrying about where you or anyone else is headed.

As a frequent driver myself, I can understand how another driver could become frustrated by the cyclists’ apparent lack of concern about the temporary traffic jams we create (”we’re not blocking traffic, we are traffic,” goes the mantra), but I can’t understand very well what happened today.


I hadn't thought to ever write about CM again, but this is a story I could not pass up.

What happened is disturbing on several levels, and lends so much ammunition to Cyclists who hate Motorists, Motorists who hate Cyclists, and everyone who has issues with the Police, and the Mainstream Media that it is impossible to comprehensively list everything even remotely applicable to the situation that pertains to what would fill up each Ammunition Holder.

The best thing one can say about the event is that no one died, or was very seriously injured.

The comments are many, mixed, and still coming, and I encourage you to read them (As well as follow the links to news coverage, and the reports and opinions of others on the situation on otehr websites, and blogs.) but 2 stand out as essays in rationality, and common sense, and I include them here so that they do not get lost in all the hubbub...

From a Motorcyclist named Jonathan McKay:

I am not usually a biker, but I feel that critical mass hurts one of the primary goals of bicyclists. When I am on a bike, I hope that cars will respect my right to be there, and follow the laws of the road that I know and understand.

I often read the bumper stickers ‘Same roads, same rules, same rights’ and I completely agree.

But, this pact is destroyed when bicyclists do not obey the law.

Small violations abound- no helmets, lane splitting, running red lights, switching between riding on sidewalks or off. Critical mass is even worse because it is a community wide flagrant disregard of traffic law, with the expectation that everyone else will obey the rules.

If bicycles are traffic (a proposition which I agree with) drivers like myself wonder why bikes are allowed to break the rules, while vehicles can’t.

I cannot imagine a similar event existing if it were a group of motorcycles doing the same thing.

Every time a bicyclist breaks traffic laws- even if it has no real impact on traffic or safety it undermines the community’s perceived right to be on the road....

By disregarding the law, bikers (and drivers) open up a brave new world roads where they are no longer protected, where nobody has rights.

Clearly, he was in the wrong to cause property damage and risk lives, but in his mind, if you are not going to respect the law why should he? Every step that bicyclists take against drivers is brinksmanship that the craziest drivers will call.

In the end, what is he going to think for the rest of his life about the bicycling community?

What will his friends think?

What will all those who watch K5 think?

In the end, does critical mass make bikers safer?

Avid Cyclist Scott Houck writes:

As an avid road cyclist I have big problems with things like “Critical Mass”.

What they do is extremely unsafe and gives responsible cyclists a bad name.

They do many things that, while might be legal, are terrible.

For example, riding in a big pack is not what is supposed to be done on busy streets.

You are always supposed to stay to the right and ride single file when possible. Not doing this only aggravates drivers, and rightfully so. I could go on and on about how they break general road etiquette, and sometimes the law. While drivers need to be respectful of cyclist, cyclists need to be respectful of drivers.

“Critical Mass” on bust city streets is not showing drivers much respect.

I will always put a large amount of blame on a person who gets hit by a car while participating in something dangerous like this. It’s so unsafe and only makes drivers hate all cyclists and thus makes the road more dangerous for me.

Just my opinion (a similar opinion to many cyclists I have encountered). I know a lot of people disagree and they are entitled to.

This driver is a total asshole and deserves to be punished severely.

I am very glad to hear that nobody got hurt or killed.

That’s what’s most important.

Ryan did himself much credit by posting these views, and here is his reply:

To Jonathan and Scott: Thanks for sharing your views — I definitely understand where you are coming from. Honestly, I have to agree that critical mass probably makes cyclists a little less safe and a lot less respected among a good number of people.

I am a pretty bad example on a bicycle.

I usually don’t wear a helmet (I understand that it is a stupid decision, I understand the risks I am taking, but I still don’t like them), I break laws pretty frequently when I consider it safe to do so, and I often don’t ride in the bike lane even when there is one (in my opinion its much more dangerous to be on the side of the road than in the middle — case in point is 2nd Avenue downtown, where the bike lane is next to parked cars that are constantly pulling in and out; it’s also in the left lane where lots of people are turning left. On this road, I ride in the middle lane where I feel an order of magnitude safer because of the higher visibility I have and the lack of laterally moving, stop-and-go traffic.)

The point is, critical mass isn’t that far off from what I do anyway, its just in a larger group.

I appreciate that there are some laws against what I do; I just don’t care very much.

Why must cyclists form a single file line to the right? Why not cars have to stop when a cyclist is nearby for safety? Its just that today, cars rule the road, but during critical mass, that changes.

In my opinion, that is pretty cool, but as you can see opinions definitely vary.

All that being said, I hope the driver’s life isn’t destroyed.

He messed up big time, and he should definitely (in my opinion) pay for the bike he destroyed, all medical expenses of the guy he ran over, and get the opportunity to deal with his car on his own, but I don’t think jail time would do anybody any good in this situation.

The cyclists who were arrested is a murkier situation;

They were responding to a fellow cyclist getting bowled over by a car; defense of fellow cyclists can certainly be claimed, but their actions clearly went above what was necessary.

Still, without them, the driver of the car was showing every intention that he would have driven off and left the scene.

So were their actions justified? I can’t say yes for sure, but neither so I want to say no. It’s just a crappy situation that I wish hadn’t happened.

The fun was before the incident, not after.

A final point: there is a law against driving faster than the speed limit, but I do that all the time. There is a law that I have to wear a seat belt, but I sometimes drive without it (mostly to spite the law). There is a law against texting or talking on a non-hands-free cell phone while driving, but I do both of those activities as well.

The point is, most people, especially me, break laws every day in ways that we consider safe, ethical, and moral.

Critical Mass, in my opinion, isn’t much different.

Its just done as a group event.

Jonathan Responds:

You are right when you say that safety is often at odds with the law.

On my motorcycle I encounter this often, and I the bike lane issue makes sense.

Everything that you have done on a bike I’ve done or seen done on a motorcycle.

I suppose I don’t have the same feeling of being downtrodden in traffic, as the speed of a car combined with the maneuverability of a bike means that we pretty much always can feel like we ‘rule the road’. In a perverse way, the venting of anger at critical mass does bring attention to the issues and may put bikers’ complaints on the map.

However safe, ethical, and moral the initial law breaking was, it exacerbates the immediate problems while offering little progress for achieving a real solution.

Yet the media response has shown that such a hope is still a long way off, or perhaps entirely misplaced.

As another commenter says...Ugh, what a PR disaster for bicyclists, and the backlash has already started (If you have high blood pressure you might want to pedal clear of this as it is quite intense.)

Ryan has been amazingly open, and patient, in responding to many of the comments, and I again commend him.

From long personal experience I can vouch for how defending your views, related to cycling, can be a lesson in maintaining constructive dialogue.

The debate on his blog has so far been a civil one.

To give one Seattle paper credit its Assistant Metro Editor contacted Ryan, and expressed interest in publicizing his side of the story, and Ryan links, this morning, to that story, and one by the other local paper as well, and reports that he was interviewd by the local TV station (A short, but balanced, Video.).

July 27, 2008 in Critical Mass | Permalink


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The critical mass I go to in Costa Mesa doesn't do hardly any of that. No corking, no stopping traffic. Instead, half way through we stop and wait for everyone to catch up. It's much easier that way. At the worst, we've ridden side by side. Everyone is mindful of traffic and tries to be courteous whenever possible to drivers. In the 4 times I've gone, I've never seen anyone break a law.

I think CM can still be enjoyed. Everyone just needs to obey the rules of the road, and treat others with respect.

Posted by: Erick | Jul 27, 2008 9:57:41 PM

Funny but on my bike I encounter critical mass every day. Cars downtown blocking the road and not moving for a long time, at about 9am and 5pm. A traffic jam... This is a real pain for a cyclist to navigate, and smells pretty bad too. Tailgated cars not moving really do block the road. How is this acceptable somehow and five minutes of corking not ?
Double standards ?
On my last "critical mass" in Perpignan France we were hundreds and we all stopped at traffic lights etc (Very unFrench !)
Can't wait for the 20 dollar gallon... then priorities might change... oh well we can all dream...

Posted by: James | Aug 21, 2008 11:57:42 AM

Fuck cars.

Critical Mass fo' life.

Posted by: paul r. | Mar 14, 2009 12:48:58 AM

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