have some empathy


Have some empathy?

140 characters is not enough to respond to an offensive exchange I got roped into on Twitter. Normally, I ignore the peanut gallery on Twitter and other internet forums, etc. The internet allows people to spout off like idiots. I don’t care to get roped into arguments with “with white dudes on the internet“.

My pal Adam (pro cyclist, coach) re-tweeted this video (from Boston his home), some one else had originally posted to Twitter with the comment: “critical mass: like a guy beating his wife to get her respect. they’re not cyclists; they’re morons.

While offensive, I completely agree with the sentiment. Taking over a busy intersection and riding in a way that no cyclist would ever do regularly without being caught up in the mob mentality + breaking very basic rules of the road? What the fuck is the point of creating a traffic jam with bicycles?! To demonstrate that bicycles, just like cars, can create a traffic jam? That bicycles can frustrate and piss people off just like cars can?

There is a point to Critical Mass. I’m not claiming to be in a position to define it. When I regularly participated in Critical Mass in the late 90′s in San Francisco, it was an urgent, organic, action. 15 years ago, there was shitty bicycle infrastructure, minimal bike lanes and cyclists did not have a voice. We broke laws, ran lights, blocked intersections. Got our bikes run over, got in fights with drivers, got beat up by the police. I was part of a crew of riders that led Critical Mass up and onto the Bay Bridge (which ended up with a bunch of people getting arrested and pummeled by the cops). I participated in Critical Mass for years in the Bay Area, NYC, Los Angeles and finally in Portland, Oregon.

Critical Mass means a lot of things to a lot of different people. I don’t agree with all of them.

Now, someone on Twitter wants to press the issue, there are some exchanges between them, Adam and I. With Adam and I saying basically the same thing.

That we do not condone shitty, dangerous, illegal and inconsiderate behavior on the roads from cyclists and drivers alike. Both are bad, dangerous and not productive. Critical Mass, club rides, unsanctioned races, group rides, whatever. If you are breaking laws and riding dangerously, that sucks. It gives all cyclists a bad reputation and does nothing to help improve the perception of bicycles. Riding in circles blocking an intersection during Critical Mass is moronic, while fun and empowering (I’ve done it myself), not a single driver stuck in traffic behind that is thinking positive thoughts about bicyclists. It is just not productive. Sure, keep telling yourself it fosters cycling community, and ignore how many enemies your are making with the people you really need to foster community with: non-cyclists.

The final straw for me was the response: “bike/ped commuters die more than 10/day in US. Reaction manifests in crit mass & other ways. Have empathy.”

Have fucking empathy?

I’ve had people who were friends, lovers, co-workers, team-mates and countless acquaintances killed while cycling. By cars. Killed by cars hitting them. They are dead. I’ll never hear their voices, never hold their hands, never see them smile again.

When I was a bike messenger, I saw, with my own fucking eyes, a bike commuter crushed by a semi in downtown San Francisco making a wide right hand turn. I heard her scream before she died. (the driver was devastated, he was just doing his job, driving slow and safe, used his signals and was obeying the law %100, the cyclist was not paying attention and tried to pass on the right, I saw it with my own eyes)

I watched as a car hit and plowed over a commuter right in front of my bike shop here in Portland. Crushed.

Nothing I could do to save any of my friends, any of those people I’ve seen die.

What did I do after they died? Did I go to Critical Mass? No. I went to their memorials, I went to their fucking funerals. I consoled their partners and friends.

And you want to spout statistics at me? You want to assume that I do not have empathy? That I have no experience with Critical Mass, with protests, with activism and with being a bicycle commuter? That I am just some privileged PRO bike racer, without a clue and with no real connection to the average cyclist? That I am not run off the road, screamed at, threatened and have shit thrown at me everyday, sometimes several times a day when I am out on my bike?

Back to the original point: I still think Critical Mass riding in circles blocking an intersection is moronic. That is less actual activism and more like a parade/party. Try to explain the positive connection between that kind of riding, and people that are killed by cars; to the drivers sitting in that traffic jam just trying to get home or to work. That kind of activism is short-sighted, divisive and quickly creates enemies, not allies.

I still loathe inconsiderate, illegal and dangerous behavior by drivers and cyclists alike.

Critical Mass does not in itself create safer roads or foster improved riding conditions and safety. Get involved in your city’s Bicycle Association, government, infrastructure or urban planning. Do something tangible to improve road safety versus putting so much value on what has fundamentally become a parade.

Not that there is anything wrong with parades!

For Adam:


9 comments for “Have some empathy?”

  1. All so true Molly! I have witnessed a critical mass parade and have got to agree, more just a large body of johhny come latelys just wanting to stir shit up, it did have its place at a time, it comes down to stickig to the rules that we have been given, a vehicle will always pose more harm than a mass squad of bikers, earn respect dont demand it

    Posted by GUY | July 31, 2011, 2:01 pm

  2. Sadly this is hardly a new mentality. That is, any act is justified because it’s believed to be in response to a much greater crime/s. Secondly, as a “member” of this community you’re expected to toe the line. It’s the same type of rationale you’ll hear from terrorist organizations. People within the community who agree there is a problem but disagree with the approach are immediately charged with supporting the oppressor.

    These folks always end up on the wrong side of history but that doesn’t mean too much at the time.

    Posted by Justin Benson | July 31, 2011, 2:39 pm

  3. So let’s get this straight, you participated in CM, broke all the rules, got into fights because of shitty conditions on the streets…. and…. now that you are an older more “legit” cyclist and left all that madness behind you can no longer have empathy towards new riders that participate in Critical Mass?

    Maybe it’s not apparent to you anymore, but the conditions are still shitty. Really shitty. Really really really shitty. And if indeed as you imply, shitty conditions are what sets the stage for rowdy critical mass rides then I question how you can’t look at today’s rowdy flare-ups with a bit of empathy rather than dismissing the riders as “morons” and going even farther in your tweets to say that all group and club rides are irresponsible. It seems to me that you might’ve lost touch with your roots.

    I too do not condone everything that Critical Mass riders do. I too cringe when the circle of death happens and I too spoke out against them in LA when riders did them… but I’ve come to understand why group rides and critical mass exists and therefore when I see them behaving in let’s say “un-enlightened ways” I’m more likely to engage in constructive criticism where I have influence, and otherwise just shrug it off as part of the growing pains of a still new and growing movement. New… meaning, the concept of CM might be old to you, but the riders that participate are new and excited about getting out of their cars and onto bikes with a whole new community of people to meet.

    To me the most important thing as a bike activist is to make sure that the new excited people stay motivated and eventually find their way into more progressive channels. Calling them “idiots” or “morons” is only going to make YOU seem curmudgeon. To call anyone names is to give up on people and frankly it’s just as childish as a circle of death. The fact is that new riders are attracted to critical mass because they generally feel the safety in numbers that the streets in the USA do not otherwise provide. Yes, the reality is that people who first experience the power of a group ride will be tempted to abuse it. BUT the fact is that after a year or two the new riders calm down and move on to integrate cycling into their daily lives as they get more confident and realize that there are better ways to exercise their power. Their newly acquired street skills reduce their anger and increase their safety. My point was simply to have patience and see it in a pragmatic sense and recognize it cleans itself up as it gets bigger.

    In Los Angeles the group ride phenomenon is huge. The biggest on the planet. It didn’t start that way. 8 years ago our critical mass was 10-20 people at most. Not because cyclists weren’t pissed off or scared, but because hardly anyone rode bikes for commuting back then. Around that time myself and 7 friends started a fun evening ride called Midnight Ridazz. It was specifically not a protest, it was a ride to see downtown and end up at a bar for fun. We grew that group ride to 2000 people and eventually split it up into a calendar of 3-4 rides a night posted on MidnightRidazz.com along with many others on Facebook and other community boards. A side effect was that the “protest” ride called Critical Mass got bigger as a result of this excitement. By 2010 CM rides had reached about 500 or so and they were rowdy… people denounced the rowdiness. Last year during a particularly rowdy ride, the cops beat up a videographer (Manny a Wolfpack Hustle regular) who captured another cop kicking riders on film. This was a turning point in LAPD/City cyclist relations. It could have gone bad but instead the LAPD and the cycling community, myself included joined together on the LAPD bike task force and worked out the issues. Not only did the police engage us, but to their surprise, we engaged them. The LAPD didn’t realize it but people had been desperate for their attention. People have been dieing in the streets for years and no one seemed to care. The LAPD assigned us a laision to get on the Ridazz forum and answer questions and discuss how things were going to change for critical mass and all group rides. People were actually curious and excited about their involvement and it showed. Some 2000 people came out for that next critical mass. A cop hopped on someone’s tall bike and people started laughing and when the ride took off it felt like cyclists for the first time were protected on the streets. It felt like an institution backed by the city. It was amazing.

    Long story short, Critical Mass works.

    The police now escort and cork intersections for the ride as police do in many cities around the world including SF. And rather than a big rowdy mob scene, CM is pretty well mannered. No fights. No circles of death… lots of high fives and hand shakes and a better understanding of cyclists’ rights to the road on all sides…. This very same scenario will play out until cycling is accepted as a legitimate form of commuting and people feel safe enough not to need the safety of the groups.

    In my travels via bicycle across the Netherlands a few years back, I would speak excitedly to the locals wanting to recruit them to start a Midnight Ridazz chapter or to find out where the critical mass was meeting but was perplexed to find that the people I spoke to didn’t get it. “Why would we go out at night on a group ride, we ride everyday all day.” It clicked. They already have their safety in numbers on the streets with their 50% mode share… Cycling is normal over there.

    Ever since then I’ve been saying to our police and politicians here in LA: Make cycling a normal part of the traffic grid, a normal part of life and you will see the group rides melt away.

    These new and excited people on Critical Mass may be unruly at times, but they are not morons Molly… they are an indicator that there is still a LOT of work to do. Engage them in positive ways… or become that irrelevant old school punk mumbling about the days when punk was “real.”

    Posted by Roadblock | July 31, 2011, 4:00 pm

  4. Molly,

    You have articulated so well, the thoughts that I have been running through my mind.

    “I still loathe inconsiderate, illegal and dangerous behavior by drivers and cyclists alike.” Well said. Well said.

    Posted by Serena | July 31, 2011, 6:32 pm

  5. So when this dude was a critical masshole it was cool. Then he learned how to be considerate and no one else should ride critical mass?

    Posted by Alex | July 31, 2011, 11:10 pm

  6. Roadblock makes some very important and well articulated points and I agree with him/her.

    Posted by Former PDXer | July 31, 2011, 11:31 pm

  7. I am my own critical mass, every day, just by choosing to ride a bike as my primary transportation. If more people made this conscious choice the sheer number of bike riders would have just as powerful a result as a critical mass ride.

    We have the power to engage in a million tiny radical acts every day without ceremony. That makes the act no less radical, and in the end might mean more than a mass event.

    Posted by beth h | August 1, 2011, 6:57 am

  8. […] This post was Twitted by smithersmpls […]

    Posted by Twitted by smithersmpls | August 1, 2011, 10:34 am

  9. Never been a huge fan of CM either. I can’t really speak to Boston, but in PDX anyway it seems like the struggle these days is more for relevance and legitimacy than for visibility. CM kinda makes sense as a last resort when the broader community doesn’t know you exist, but once you reach that point it rapidly becomes counter-productive.

    Posted by Matt D | August 16, 2011, 6:22 pm

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