Bicycle Diaries: Talk fast, ride slow

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Talk fast, ride slow

This summer I worked with James Ewert at O'Hare Airport for Youth For Understanding. He's a Columbia College Chicago student who shares my love of Critical Mass. He also writes for a student publication, The Columbia Chronicle. A few weeks ago he interviewed me and other bikers about drinking and rolling during the mass. There's a small minority of massers who drink during the ride then get out of hand.

What do you do when massers drink and roll? Especially if the Chicago Critical Mass has good relations with the Chicago Police Department? How do you reign in the massholes without upsetting the balance between anarchy and rules? Or between order and chaos? This is a growing concern for many, myself included, who don't want to jeopardize these good relations with the Mayor and the city.

His article appeared on 25 September 2006 as the final installment of a series on Chicago bicycling issues. Of course I'm posting it because of the ego boost that comes with seeing your name in print. My contributions are highlighted. But it's also well-written, based on the kind of in-depth field research I believe is lacking in most articles about Critical Mass.
To some cyclists it’s a sacred tradition. To others, a slow-moving cocktail party and to some motorists, a bane of their driving existence.

Regardless of the perspective, on the last Friday of every month riders from all over the world gather in their respective cities to participate in Critical Mass, a monthly unorganized ride without any form of leadership or hierarchy.

The meaning behind the ride is consistently debated, but one thing remains constant—cyclists take over the streets once a month to present themselves as traffic— not an obstruction to it.

In Chicago, it begins at Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington St., at around 5:30 p.m., rain, shine, summer or winter. Right as the evening rush hour is reaching its peak, hundreds of bikes begin descending upon the plaza; street bikes with fixed gears, freak bikes six feet tall, bikes with stereos, bikes with barbecue grills on the front, bikes with wagons, bikes carrying children.

At the plaza people pass out flyers of bike literature that debate the purpose of public space and maps detailing different routes for the ride to take. The maps will be voted on later by those at the plaza who are participating.

The atmosphere seems like a low-grade bohemian carnival bordering on the hysteria of a circus-like parade. When the maps are voted on, Critical Mass is ready to ride.

“We’re confounding the expectations of the ruling class by goofing around in the middle of the street and that’s always been a big part of why Critical Mass is so appealing,” said Andy Thornley, program director for the San Francisco Bike Coalition

What was once a survival technique for cyclists in Beijing trying to cross impenetrable walls of automobile traffic, and a form of advocacy for cyclists, Critical Mass has now become a major social event not just in Chicago, but across the whole country and world. But along with an increased awareness of the ride and its growing popularity in Chicago’s bike culture, a new share of problems have cropped up.

“Police officers told me there was too much booze,” wrote Travis Duffey on the group’s e-mail listserv. Duffey has been participating in Chicago’s Mass since about the time it began in the mid-’90s.

Duffey said that on last month’s ride along the city’s north side, alcohol was a problem and at Foster Beach, where the ride ended, it appeared that people had stolen promotional signs for a marathon that was taking place the following morning.

“Anytime you have a group of people together at some kind of social event like a concert or something, there are going to be a few people drunk and maybe one or two who … do something the crowd would prefer they had not done,” Duffey said. “I see it as a function of a large group. You get some drunken ones, you get some crazy ones and you get some that you probably want the cops to arrest.”

Duffey said he has definitely seen a rise in the number of people riding in the Mass and as the number of riders participating each month has risen to over a thousand, Critical Mass has become a different beast with new difficulties.

Since the ride’s early United States beginnings in San Francisco, it has seen its share of problems. In New York, where Critical Mass has attained a notorious reputation with the police for riders’ aggressive behavior, cyclists are arrested almost routinely every month. This past summer in Seattle a number of riders were arrested for interfering with undercover police officers, who allegedly failed to identify themselves while following the Mass.

Thornley said the San Francisco Mass had problems early on when it met resistance from then-Mayor Willie Brown who tried to stop it, but over the past few years has settled down because of a very cooperative relationship with the police.

Thornley said that when he goes on the rides he likes to drift around, mingling from one rider to another. He said that because of the relationship they have with the police, who Thornley said pretty much mark it on their calendar, it has become a staple characteristic of the city with movies and television shows filmed in the city often placing it in the background as sort of a texture.

“By now everyone in San Francisco pretty much knows that if it’s the end of the month and it’s Friday, there’s going to be this appearance of bicycles,” Thornley said. “It’s become a legitimate excuse to ask your boss to get off early.”

The acceptance of the ride even has caused one of the city’s daily newspapers, the San Francisco Examiner, to print traffic advisories informing drivers of the ride, Thornley said.

Motorists may be the only ones not happy with the ride in Chicago, a city known for its bike-riding mayor who has taken great strides to better accommodate bicycles.

While caught in last month’s Critical Mass having to wait for the nearly 1,500 cyclists to pass, Jessica Hammond said there has to be another way for bikers to “show off their presence.” Hammond, who was idling in her car on Washington Street just west of Daley Plaza as the Mass was beginning, said she has no problem sharing the road with cyclists, but the cyclists have to share the road as well, something that doesn’t always happen during Critical Mass.

Aside from complaints and honking horns from motorists, the rides have usually gone smoothly, with few arrests.

Officer Marcel Bright, spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, said there haven’t been many problems since the event is relatively low-key and there haven’t been any intentional attempts by the riders to simply block traffic.

“They’re just being part of traffic and there are a thousand of them just trying prove a point, because of that, and because of the mayor’s commitment to cycling … it’s never caused any severe problems,” Bright said. “When we know its coming we put out additional officers available for traffic control. It’s an extra half hour and traffic slows down.”

Bright did say, however, that although the police don’t feel that drinking has become a problem, if someone is observed riding their bike while intoxicated, they will be cited for it.

Garth Katner, a frequent Mass rider since 2000, said he doesn’t see a problem with drinking as long as those doing it accept the responsibility that a cop will catch them. According to Katner, the increase in popularity of the Mass has brought out many non-bikers to the event who may not understand the reason for it.

He said that at the monthly Chicago Critical Mass happy hour, where riders usually discuss the upcoming Mass, there has been rising concern about the intentions of many of the new participants.

“These are a clear minority who don’t get the potential for advocacy or celebration. Instead they seem to come out just to rattle cage[r]s as much as possible,” Katner said.

Cathy Rigod, a Columbia College broadcast journalism major who took part in the August ride for the first time, doesn’t represent the type of “masshole” that Katner and many other regular riders are noticing, but rather the kind that are discovering Critical Mass to be a social launching pad for friends and networking.

Rigod, who just recently moved to Chicago from San Francisco, said although she never participated in San Francisco’s ride, Chicago’s was much different than her perception of the ride in her hometown. She said she had seen a documentary about Critical Mass in New York and was skeptical about getting involved in Chicago, but when she did, Rigod said she suddenly understood why so many people were doing it.

“At one point I had to step out of the mass to meet someone, and to see the amount of people going by me was just amazing,” Rigod said. “I think that when I was doing it I was more focused on what was in front of me, but when I got a chance to take a step back, it was kind of awe-inspiring to me and it wasn’t so much a social thing so much as it was the unity.”

Before moving to Chicago a few months ago, Rigod had not ridden a bike very much, but when she moved someone gave her one. Still, Rigod was hesitant about getting involved in Chicago’s bike scene— that’s where Critical Mass came in.

“I guess I had the impression that bike culture can be a little closed off and a little hard to break into,” Rigod said. “I showed up by myself and there was another girl standing there by herself and she’s just like, ‘My friends bailed out.’ I made a couple of friends, and me being here only a couple of months, I was really happy about that.”

Stories like Rigod’s, along with the story behind Critical Mass and bike culture and counterculture in general inspired Zack Furness to write his graduate thesis on biking for the University of Pittsburgh in 2001, something he is now expanding into a book to be published by Temple University Press.

Tentatively named One Less Car: Bike Culture and the Politics of Cycling, the book dedicates a chapter solely to Critical Mass and the effect it has on society as well as its social and political impacts.

“By Critical Mass being really political in certain places, I think it really turns off a lot of folks from coming out to rides,” Furness said. “It’s something that is enjoyable and something that is fun. It creates a lot less tension on the street and I think people get something out of that.”

Furness said the politics and networking of the ride reside more in the fact that many of the riders have lives outside the two hours they are participating. Furness said many cyclists are becoming more active, whether it is though traditional forms of bike advocacy or by trying to do more do-it-yourself strategies. Either way, Furness said, because of the popularity of biking and Critical Mass, people are initiating a dialogue that is making transportation an issue.

Despite the Mass’s growing social popularity, many on the Critical Mass e-mail listserv continue to cite concerns over the direction the Mass is headed. While many like Duffey believe the ride to be a sort of low-impact protest, the increased social awareness of the ride has helped people like Rigod connect and break into Chicago’s bike scene a little easier.

Furness said the atmosphere of the ride tends to vary from city to city with some being more social than others, but the issue of redistributing space as the underlying theme of Critical Mass will always remain present.

“It’s this idea of mutual self-responsibility and people being able to negotiate and take care of things on their own terms rather than having the police do it,” Furness said. “There is a great quote from Dan Rather where he says Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block traffic.”
Copyright © 2006 The Columbia Chronicle. All rights reserved. Article photos by Michael Jarecki, The Chronicle.

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