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Critical Backlash & How To Deal With Peddlya Haters

Sep 13 2021

July’s Critical Mass got a bit nasty in a couple cities last month. In Seattle, a driver who was “corked in” (ie, blocked) by bikers as the Critical Mass streamed past, got frustrated and drove forward plowing into several cyclists. One cyclist got his leg run over and another ended up on the hood of the car as the driver attempted to drive off. Thankfully, no serious injuries seem to have occurred. The news reports up there seem to be getting the facts wrong which isn’t a surprise.

During the NY Critical Mass a rookie cop charged a biker on foot, slamming the cyclist off the bike and onto the sidewalk — this incident was caught on video. It is unclear if there was any previous provocation for the action, but it certainly seemed in the very least to be excessive use of force, if not downright assault. There is a bit of justice in this instance: as of this writing, the cop has been stripped of his badge and gun and is doing desk work while the action undergoes investigation.

Peddlya Haters

The blogging of both of these incidents on Checksum Arcanius, Gothamist, and Boing Boing has brought out the Critical Mass and cyclist haters:

  • “Like many (most?) urban pedestrians, I have little sympathy for Critical Mass thugs.”
  • “this mob is out of control”
  • “I say it again (as ignorant as it sounds), the cop should get a medal. Good for him.”
  • “As an avid road cyclist I have big problems with things like ‘Critical Mass.’ What they do is extremely unsafe and gives responsible cyclist a bad name.”

The last quote makes me recall the June Critical Mass here in SF, where there was one corked in car with two fancy carbon road bikes on the roof rack. The passenger of said vehicle, who obviously was driving somewhere outside the city to ride their bike, proceeded to furiously yell insults out the window at all the Critical Mass cyclists — massive cyclist culture difference.

Of course, some of these commenters are just semi-professional trolls, and there was also a decent share of people who support the rides. I see these supporters on the comment threads and out during the Critical Mass events themselves, happily waving at us as they remain stuck in their cars. However there are also a good number of people who hate the rides and hate any cyclist who “breaks the law.”

Who’s Breaking the Law Now?

Car drivers break the law all the time, as do pedestrians, but they do it in different ways: drivers speed, drive recklessly, roll through stop signs and more; pedestrians jay walk. Everyone breaks the rules here and there when they feel that the risk is lower than the reward; and for cyclists going through red lights and stop signs is less of a risk than it is for cars. The WashCycle blog wrote an excellent article called The Myth of the Scofflaw Cyclist, which does an excellent job discussing this very topic, so I won’t be going into it more myself.

Reclaiming Streets For Fun

Culturally, Critical Mass is an interesting issue. As much as many Critical Mass riders claim it’s a pro-city-cyclist political act, it is also frankly just a way for a whole lot of cyclists to get together and have fun once a month. In many ways, it shares a relationship to the Running of the Bulls, Carnival, New Orleans Running of the Roller Girls, Songkran, and any other traditional or nontraditional roaming street festival. Like Critical Mass, all these events are all reclaiming the city streets for fun and enjoyment rather than the hoo hum of business and the daily grind.

I’m sure that many of the same people who bash Critical Mass in the Boing Boing comment thread would call other moving street festivals “AWESOME!” It’s all a matter of perspective: for them, as long as your fun doesn’t get in their way it’s great. In reality, most of these drivers stuck corked in have lost maybe 10-15 minutes of their day.

For all of the above reasons, whenever I am talking to a frustrated stuck driver in the middle of the CriticalMass, I don’t tell them “we are traffic” or get abrasive. I just tell them to think of it as a parade; a bicycle parade that happens on the last Friday of every month. Frankly, I think it’s a better way for Critical Mass riders to frame it for themselves as well. When your out there, don’t think of yourselves as political rabble-rousers, but as a leaderless parade celebrating the joy that these city streets can bring.

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