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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Pink Robe said...

Grant, have you thought about joining up with We could use someone with your enthusiasm...

Anonymous said...

It's interesting you posted this, as today I read this article from Momentum Magazine:

Tommy said...

Great post and valid reasons for a different/better first ride of sorts!

I think the critical manners ride is a great model for a ride that increases the presence of bicyclists. Key point is that it is a "peaceful, purposeful and above-all respectful bike event"

Good things:
- preplanned route (city-approved??)
- lessons in hand signals and general bike/traffic safety
- can have staggered starts

I also envision that this ride can be just as joyous and fun. As apart of the preplanned route, checkpoints can planned as well. Ideally public spaces where participants can dismount and engage in an activity. Whether it's as simple as a photo op, or any other public space use activity of your imagination. A pedal pedestrian parade? Or maybe even road-chalking (or stenciling) pseudo bicycle symbols and lanes on the sides of the street that don't have but need (road/bike art). I participated in the Good Life's Amazing Bicycle Race this summer and determining the city's culturally related checkpoints was half the fun.

Also, to deal with the separation from the group issue. I would organize the riders to find a bike buddy. Pairs of twos or threes that stick together would maintain safety in hopefully preventing any people getting isolated and stranded.

I don't agree with the assertion that the author of that manners ride article made. (via sinderellah). "If the world you want to see is one in which cyclists continue to be relegated to the margins, ride in Critical Manners."

I argue that what is important is critical presence... not necessarily a critical mass *blob* that sticks together no matter what (especially where harmful individuals are encouraged). In copenhagen, amsterdam, berlin, they ride single-file. And the bicycling presence is still felt. And the safety in numbers in this case still applies. Critical rides should be riding where bicycle lanes are or should be (not blocking traffic in the middle of the road).

Anyways, this critical manners ride reminds me of the singing revolution.

People ride their bikes and look good doing it :)

BikeBike said...

hey grant

i beleive calgary needs some kind of advocacy ride too, but what that ride would look like still escapes me. good luck with your plans - and like pinkrobe said - have you thought about joining us at

BikeBike said...

there is a conversation going on over here -

check out the different links and let us know what you think.

Greg said...

I haven't done critical mass for several years, but I share some of your concerns, Grant.

The biggest flaw I saw was that there wasn't enough positive interaction with drivers and that nobody encountering the ride could actually know what it was about!

Banners, shirts, backpack covers - riders need these to clearly communicate the objectives: more cyclists and fewer drivers for environmental and direct health benefits.

I can't fathom how anyone would think that dangerous, adversarial interaction with drivers would convince them to get out of their cars. If anything, it would reinforce the fears that contribute to them behind a wheel - and away from social interaction - in the first place.

Blossoming Beyond said...

I am about to embark on my very first Critical mass ride today. Although part of me wants to refrain from participating after reading your comments, another part of me has faith that this ride might be different. do you know about the Tour de Nuit society? I did the Ride the Road event last weekend and it was very much like the peaceful, family oriented ride you envision.

Chelsea Klukas said...

Great entry.

I'm sorry to hear that something that you've put so much energy into building and promoting has taken a negative turn.

Best of luck in future projects!!

Unknown said...

The 'Ride the Road' Tour held on Sunday, August 23rd, saw a little over 200 cyclists come out to experience what safe cycling on city streets can feel like. A rolling closure technique was employed to maintain the momentum of the peloton and the police escort kept the speed as low as practicable to allow families with children to participate. Bringing up the rear was a sweep team led by an experienced TransRockies staff.
Three distinct groups could be identified among the participants: commuters, Calgarians who want to commute (but are worried about their safety) and sport cyclists. (The latter who train on unsafe roads.)
The 'Ride the Road' Tour was sanctioned by the Alberta Bicycle Association and supported by almost every bicycle store and manufacturer in Calgary.
The staging ground was another Calgary first, the Calgary Bicycle Festival. The premier display at the Festival was Fugro-Roadware's technology for analyzing road surface quality which is crucial for smooth cycling and more people cycling more often.
The Calgary tour de nuit Society will be bringing back both events next year bigger and better than ever.

Stephanie said...

Totally agree. I live in Vancouver and luckily the Critical Mass nights here haven't escalated to that, but it completely defeats the purpose when people are behaving that way.

Indigo Violet said...

Sadly, it doesn't matter WHAT kind of ride you organize. People, fuelled by the media, love to hate cyclists for the mere fact that they are cyclists. There is no valid reason. They will continue to discriminate against and harass us, and every time someone like you gives in to them, they've won. As a cyclist, I get harassed the most when I follow the rules to a tee. 'Damned if you do and damned if you don't' quit trying to appease drivers by turning against your fellow cyclists. Stand up for yourself. If driver's can't handle that, that's THEIR problem, not ours.

nrchtct said...

As the commenters above, i share your rejection of hostility during critical mass, but i think we can change critical mass. You are suggesting that it cannot be 'fixed', because there is no authority, decision making, or rule set. I fundamentally disagree and i think i am not alone. I think we should not capitulate to those that think of it as bikes-against-cars. Because critical mass is an open forum, it can be transformed by all of us to reflect what bike culture in Calgary should be: fun, safe, and inspirational.

Last month's ride was a positive and engaging ride and we all agreed that Calgary needs an open and positive monthly bike ride. As I posted on the Meetup and Facebook pages, I think we need to revive critical mass in Calgary. We should actively frame it as a peaceful event for Calgarians that is not against cars/drivers, but for diversity and human mobility.

I have asked you to pass on admin privileges so that we transform critical mass and also Calgary. Next week's critical mass ride is on and it will be awesome!

Unknown said...

I could not agree more with the position you're taking. A few years ago, I was very excited to learn more about the critical mass movement. After being hit by a car outside the Drum and Monkey in the middle of the day, I lost a lot of my confidence as a cyclist. I hoped that critical mass would help me gain that confidence back, and I supported the movement in theory.

I then found CM was very different in practice. After disagreements with other riders for a few months in a row, I finally confronted another participant about his rude and counterproductive behaviour (he was a bike messenger, who generally don't seem to be safe cyclists in this city). The man then became quite mad and proceeded to harrass me for the rest of the ride. I haven't returned since.

Having lost two young, healthy friends in seperate bike accidents this autumn, I continue to worry about the state of cycling safety. I hope CM participants can learn to treat motor vehicles and each other as they'd want to be treated. And to ALWAYS, ALWAYS wear a helmet!

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