Critical Mass, or Bicicletada in Portuguese, is a monthly event in over 300 cities world-wide in which the bicycle community takes to the streets en masse in a show of…. The dot dot dot dot is where the same community is divided into islands of diverging opinions as to what this show of unity means and is meant to achieve. Some say down with cars. Other say up with bikes. In practice, the message communicated by a herd of cyclists that create chaos and noise and roadblocks is not at all clear. But it is a lot of fun.
Throughout this post are videos from the Critical Mass in which I recently participated. I’ve now rode events in Austin, Texas and Curitiba, Brazil. Though two different countries on two different continents, both events similarly re-energized cyclists and validated the bike as a practical mode of transportation.
Outside this monthly event though, cyclists constantly battle for their right to ride. As more cars enter the roads traffic will become more aggressive, congested, and dangerous. This is a fact. However, for most cyclists the real battle is psychological, a constant bombardment of influences telling them to sweat a little less, drive a little more. On several occasions, in both North and South America, I’ve heard stories from cyclists who were cast as misfits by strangers, co-workers, bosses, and fathers who thought a car would better their chances of success in this image is everything society. In other words, using a bicycle as transportation—as opposed to a revered recreational sport a la Tour de France—marginalizes the rider as a poor nobody, no matter their education, income level, or social class.
This down-casting of cyclists is silly, as ridiculous as Nike shoes being the difference between getting or not that cheerleader to date you in middle school, but this is the world in which we live. I don’t think we’ve matured as much as we’d like to believe. As with religion, politics, and other highly publicized ideas, a lie becomes truth if enough people believe it. Cars are necessary, cyclists are dirty—this is the gospel truth of today.
After the Curitiba Critical Mass a group discussed how to use the event to make the minority bike more accepted by the majority car. People were divided between blocking the roads completely or leaving an open lane for cars to pass. Instead of outlining all the different opinions, below I’ve paraphrased two of the more eloquent opposing views so that you, car driver, and you, bike rider, can find an ideological and physical middle ground in which to share the world’s roads.
VIEWPOINT ONE: THE CRITICAL MASS SHOCK TREATMENT
“All effective protests have a certain shock element. We must block the roads we ride in order to emphasize our point that bicycles too are vehicles and have a right to the road. If we leave a lane open, then our presence, no matter how many we are or how much noise we make, does not affect or even reach that person inside the car. Their day on the road is the same as any other day. Nothing changes. Only by creating discomfort during the few hours we ride as a group will we force the drivers to think about why we’re here and what we’re trying to achieve. Maybe then they’ll begin to analyze the whole car based system and realize that the bike is not only a valid option, but the more intelligent one.”
VIEWPOINT TWO: THE LOVE-ME-SLOWLY PROTEST
“Have you noticed how aggressive some cars become after only two minutes of having to wait for bikes to pass? It’s irrational. It’s absurd. We will never reach these people. They will continue to pass inches from our handlebars and honk and even throw things out the window at us. And I’m not even talking about on Critical Mass days. Forget them. We need to reach the other cars who are more open to sharing the road or even biking themselves. The only way to show them that bicycles are a valid alternative is to be kind and respectful, to be the kind of person they’d like to meet and join on a bike ride. By leaving a lane open for cars to pass we’re showing a respect that will be reciprocated. The roads were built for cars, that’s what the tax money was meant for. But since there are no bike lanes, then the roads are for us too. We must make peace by being law-abiding and respectful riders, only then will cars treat us the same way.”
To end, a bike song. Forgive the vertical filming—Youtube won’t allow me to correct my creativity.