Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why I’m quitting the critical mass bike rides

For me, the fundamental goal of the critical mass rides is pretty straight forward, and can be summed up with a frequent chant from the rides here:
More bikes; less cars!
We’ve been coming together as a bunch of cyclists in Calgary every month since the late 1990’s to try to show that bikes belong on the road, to encourage people to get out of their cars and onto bikes, and to encourage cyclists to feel confident about riding streets suitable for commuting.

Critical Mass: Nice ShadowWhat has become clear to me is that some of the people who show up to the critical mass rides don’t share that goal. Their goal is to express their anger at cars. This results in some riders trying to block traffic by spreading out to take up all lanes (even when there’s just a few of us in the ride), riding aggravatingly slow specifically to annoy the drivers behind them, and even shouting obscenities at drivers.

Last month, my tolerance for this abusive behaviour and willingness to expend effort to try to mitigate it — after almost a decade participating in the Calgary rides — finally ended.

Hostility isn’t helpful

Being abusive toward drivers may be a “release” for the individuals who do it, but it harms the cause. Drivers who are angered by the harassment are not going to be inspired to drive more safely around bikes, they are not going to see cycling as a positive mode of transportation, they are not going to be inclined to ride a bike instead. Rather, they will dig in their heals and become more aggressive in their driving.

I have seen very direct and immediate results of this with the few occasions where angered drivers have hit critical mass riders from behind (thankfully, these attacks have so far been not enough to knock the bike over or cause injury, but that can be put down to luck that is sure to eventually run out). There was even at least one case where an angered driver threw a non-empty plastic water bottle at a rider.

Even if folks don’t care about angering the drivers and pushing them away from cycling, the harassment of drivers that some individuals take it upon themselves to do during the critical mass rides puts their fellow riders in immediate danger.

My activism centres around reducing (ideally, eliminating) harm in the world. Anyone who is adding harm is not an ally.

I believe the first priority of anyone in the rides needs to be the safety of the other riders. Anything that compromises that is not appropriate.

Another cost: Fewer participants

Another big area of impact from the hostility of some individual riders is that it keeps a lot of potential riders away. In the countless discussions I’ve had with people at and away from the rides, it’s clear that the hostility is probably the biggest factor in keeping the participant numbers down (Calgary has among the smallest critical mass rides of any of the cities participating — quite possibly the smallest per-capita).

Being in a hostile situation is not most people’s idea of a good time.

Critical mass can’t be “fixed”

All that said, critical mass is a “happening,” not an organization. No one has any authority, there is no decision making body or way to set down rules. That’s all well and good when all the riders share a constructive intention but, when some individuals who don’t care about others’ well-being infiltrate the ride, it can end up doing more damage than good.

I and no one else is in any position to exclude the damaging behaviours from the critical mass ride. I’ve tried for years now to use “moral persuasion” and leading by example, but that has proven to be unable to stop the un-compassionate individualistic mindset.

So, I decided part-way through last months ride, when I again saw a few individuals take it upon themselves to endanger their fellow riders, that that was my very last critical mass ride.

After almost a decade in the rides, you could say I’m more than a little disappointed.

An alternative?

Calgary Critical Mass — June 2009At the same time I decided to quit critical mass, I also decided to pursue an alternative for advancing cycling. I want some other form of mass ride that overcomes the harms associated with critical mass.

Here are the things I want to see in a ride:
  • Safety as the clear top priority for everyone.
  • Showing that cycling is fun.
  • Taking the old slogan to heart in our practice: “We’re not blocking traffic; we are traffic!”

I want a ride where parents look forward to bringing their kids, where seniors feel welcome and embraced, where the types of cyclists who are nowhere to be seen at critical mass show up in droves because they know to expect a safe, fun and constructive event.

I want a ride where cyclists we pass, pedestrians and people in cars will end up thinking “that looks like fun — I wish I was riding a bike.”

Interestingly enough, within a week of my decision to quit critical mass, I came across the similarly motivated Critical Manners movement. There are some ideas from those rides that might apply to a new ride here.

Dealing with disruptions

One of the key differences from critical mass would be in the approach to anyone engaging in hostility during a ride. I think we need to have a clear set of rules, and a clear set of responses to violations.

For example, if an individual or a few decide to try to block traffic by taking all the lanes (or the like), the group of riders could first ask them to stop that. Failing that, the ride could pull over to the side, stop, and wait for the hostile riders to leave. Not so much fun, but the hostiles would hopefully soon learn that they don’t have the right to impose their individual will on the rest of the riders.

Where to from here?

My intention now is to try to get a first ride happening in September — not on critical mass night. I am also actively discouraging people from participating in the critical mass rides. I’m hoping, sadly, that it will die out here so that it won’t continue to create more harm for cyclists.

I encourage folks to chat me up on this in person. You can also post comments here or on the Calgary Critical Mass discussion board.

What are your ideas for making a successful ride that will engage a wide range of cyclists and promote cycling in our city?

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Introducing Calgary MediaCamp

With all the video production I’ve been doing lately, my recent experiences at CivicCamp and TransitCamp, and with the reminder that Media Democracy Day is coming up in October, I’ve been thinking about what we could do in Calgary to advance local media.

Over the past week, I’ve talked with a number of folks who work on their own projects or with local organizations producing media. The idea of holding a “MediaCamp” unconference is starting to come together.

MediaCamp would be an opportunity for people to share existing and new media projects, build new collaborations, and advance the state of media democracy in our city. It would bring together people in the city who are working on — or wanting to work on — media, especially (but not exclusively) independent and non-commercial.

This is to have a pretty broad scope, welcoming people with all manner of media involvement: Advocates, arts, bloggers, books, commentators, documentaries, editors, hosts, journalists, podcasts, print, publishers, radio, reporters, television, videographers, web, etc.

I’m starting to pull together planning meetings this month. If you have ideas for this and want to get involved, please check out the Calgary MediaCamp group I’ve set up for the organizing.

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