Tomorrow, a group of bicyclists in Vancouver BC will meet at David Lam Park in Yaletown and ride for an hour and a half through the city, ending at Vanier Park. As the press release for the event states, “Members of the general public will likely not notice the Critical Manners cyclists as they will be staying in bike lanes or on the far right side of the road, obeying all traffic signals and otherwise doing their best to share the road effectively with all other vehicles and pedestrians”
Yes, that’s Critical Manners, the just-launched, well-behaved alternative to Critical Mass, the monthly bicycle event where cyclists ride together on city streets in a mixture of party and protest.
Of all the cities where I’ve participated in Critical Mass, the ones in Vancouver have been the most fun. They’re the biggest, have the best weather, and there is a sense that everyone is going to be there: all your friends, the cute mechanics at the bike shop, kids and grown-ups.
Of course, not everyone shares in this joy. Though Critical Mass riders often shout “We’re not blocking traffic, we ARE traffic!” the huge numbers of cyclists do disrupt the regular flow of cars and pedestrians and buses. In order to keep the mass together, participants take turns “corking” or blocking intersections during red lights so that the pack can go through them. This is where a large amount of face-to-face animosity brews, as drivers stopped at greens shout at the corkers, and the people doing the corking shout back.
And it seems that lately things are getting worse. A recent article in the Vancouver Sun reported that at the end of July, police “took the unusual step of warning motorists away from the city’s downtown core in an effort to ease tensions generated by a planned “Critical Mass” bike ride” because a month prior, a driver had been arrested for assault of a cyclist.
Friends of mine who were die-hard critical mass enthusiasts have stopped going, saying that it no longer feels like a celebration and citing incidents where riders have gone out of their way to yell at motorists, break laws, and ride the wrong way on one-way-streets. It has become too aggressive and disorderly, and not enough fun.
For some, the anger seems particularly out of place given that Vancouver has been increasing the infrastructure available to cyclists. Most recently, they’ve given over an entire lane of traffic to cyclists on the Burrard Street Bridge–one of the major bridges going into downtown.
Fortunately, the well-established last-friday-of-the-month Critical Mass rides will no longer be the only option for non-spandex group cycling. Tomorrow’s Critical Manner’s ride–the group’s first–will cycle peacefully, legally, and inconspicuously along city streets.
People are beginning to get excited about the ride, as my friend Kalin tells me,
“I don’t know if everyone else feels the same way, but personally I think that the nerdiness of having a large group ride where everyone assiduously follows the rules of the road is actually going to be really fun, and pretty hilarious. It’s actually political performance art to have hundreds of cyclists put their arm down to indicate that they’re stopping. I’ve almost never even seen anyone doing that.”
Critical Manners, along with things such as Transportation Alternatives’ new Biking Rules Street Code For Cyclists, are campaigns for better bicycling behavior that comes from cyclists themselves. If what cyclists want is the recognition that they are allowed to be on the road, the follow-the-rules movement is a very different approach than what Critical Mass is aiming for.
There’s no real reason why you can’t believe in both, though. Just because you spend the last Friday of the month taking over city streets, doesn’t mean that the other 353 days a year you blaze through stop signs, listen to headphones, ride on the sidewalks, and go the wrong way down one way streets. Cyclists deserve respect, even if Critical Masses sometimes do get out of hand.
Tomorrow, though, on the Critical Manners ride, you can follow the rules as a group, which is certainly more fun than following the rules alone.