Bike Michiana

resources, news, observations and ideas about bicycling in the Michiana area

Courteous Mass

Posted by Adam Bee on August 25, 2008

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?

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9 Responses to “Courteous Mass”

  1. Paul Taylor said

    What do you think? I think it’s a god idea.

    Is it something that could work in Michiana? I don’t think so, but who, 5 years ago, would have thought Bike-To-Work-Week would be such a huge success?

    Would you be interested in a monthly ride like that? Yes.

    What are some problems you foresee? Lack of biker interest.

    What are some solutions you propose? I don’t know – maybe ask an expert like Adam Bee.

  2. Chris Patrick said

    I think its a good idea, my only thought is that practically speaking it may be easier to break the “two abreast” law and go ahead an make that mass taking up a full lane of traffic. We could still obey the other rules of traffic. I just feel that a super long and thin train will lose the shock and awe value that makes critical mass so effective.

  3. Adam Bee said

    Yeah, that’s a good point. Taking up a full lane would help with the red light problem too. The only thing is that it opens the door to police action, so it’d probably have to be cleared with The Man beforehand.

  4. Paul Taylor said

    I would take up the full lane, or perhaps 3/4 of the lane, while keeping two abreast.

  5. If critical mass in SF did this it would be a string of cyclists from one side of the city to the other side. This would cause much more chaos than the current one does.

    Anyways, your argument is full of holes. For some reason you don’t think bikes are traffic and you’re implying that all these problems are caused by cyclists. However, CM is a response to these problems being cause by motorists. It is an act of civil disobedience advocating for change. Many people don’t like and while fight for the status quo no matter how damaging it is to themselves and to everyone else. Just because someone thinks your rude or you disrupt their life doesn’t mean you should change what you are doing.

  6. Adam Bee said

    You couldn’t be more wrong. If you’d look around this site, you’d see I spend a large part of my time working for bikes as traffic. I wholly support the goals of Critical Mass.

    The problem is that Critical Mass works against its own aims. It’s counter-productive. Why is that? Because it’s flagrantly rude and disrespectful. If you want respect, you need to give respect, and most Critical Mass rides I’ve been on have failed in that.

    Critical Massers are sending a message that they are too privileged to stop at stop lights or follow the rules of traffic. I’m completely in favor of civil disobedience when the laws are unjust and when it changes the status quo, but are telling me that Massers really believe stopping at a red light is a travesty of justice? Do you really believe that you’re winning over the hearts and minds of drivers?

    I wouldn’t be too surprised if Critical Mass was an invention of anti-bike groups like the AAA, designed specifically to discredit the utility cycling movement. All it does is generate negative publicity and turn public opinion against cyclists.

    In Selma they turned attack dogs on normal folks wearing their Sunday best, not upper-middle-class poseurs playing out their egotistical hoodlum fantasies. If CM were the centerpiece of the Civil Rights movement, we’d have had George Wallace as president.

    I call on all honest and thoughtful members of this movement to reject the selfish, self-righteous, entitled parody of serious protest that is Critical Mass.

    That pretentious hipster crap may fly in SF, but around here we’re a bit more pragmatic than that.

  7. Henry Scott said

    It seems to me that by obeying traffic laws, the ride would be a much better demonstration that bikes are indeed traffic. Nothing in Adam’s post suggests otherwise. As he clearly asked, “Is there a way to keep the good parts of Critical Mass without the bad parts?” What’s controversial about trying to foster mutual respect between motorists and cyclists?

  8. Millair said

    Good thinking mate! Far away in a tiny city called Hobart south of Melbourne Australia, we’ve been struggling to get good numbers! So pushed the courteous idea and it worked a treat with the police on our side and no confrontations. A few purist critical mass types have been slamming the idea saying its less fun and more dangerous! The police didnt mind that the two side by side in the lane rule was broken, and they even corked a couple of major intersections to enable quick flow!

    But I agree with you that as cyclists, acting as self righteous and ignorant activist types doesnt seem to achieve anything more than personal gratification at the expense of motorists well being, after all, being delayed by cyclists standing in the middle of the road when the light is green wouldnt be such a novelty if in a rush, or tired at the end of the day!

    Heres some footage of the ride!

    and the newspaper report!

    http://www.news.com.au/mercury/story/0,22884,24273936-3462,00.html

  9. reflector girl said

    I agree- taking the courteously critical road has worked very well in Hobart. Without a large population of fundamentalist greenies and activist hungry youth, making the ride rule-abiding has attracted mainstream members of the community who wouldn’t be seen dead blocking traffic. Aren’t they the type bike campaigns need to attract anyway? Those who get off on critical mass (and I am certainly one of those, so I’m not talking about an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality) will ride anyway- it’s better to be in a positive, more controlled environment I think (no regrets!)! Courteous mass is still awesome fun anyway- less anger, more smiles and still cold beer at the end!

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