Two-wheeled protest, demonstration, or parade?

I did join the Critical Mass monthly bike ride last Friday in Boston. Got myself to Copley Square by 5:30, on the way noticing a number of 20-something bicyclists headed in the same direction. Wearing street clothes. I didn’t know what to expect. This was my first demonstration, though I’m not quite sure how to classify these monthly bike rides. Protests, of a sort. The Boston Critical Mass website claims that:

Critical Mass is a vision of a happy, bike-friendly world replacing our polluted, congested roads, a protest for better cycling facilities and against car culture, a mobile paean to bicycling’s joys, a merry ride downtown and through the neighborhoods with friends, and more – all rolled into one convenient monthly ride right after work!

And according to Chris Carlsson, early participant in San Francisco Critical Mass rides, “We conceived Critical Mass to be a new kind of political space, not about PROTESTING, but about CELEBRATING our vision of preferable alternatives, most obviously in this case bicycling over car culture.”

Why was I there? Just curious, I guess. I remember a while back driving in downtown Boston near the end of the work day on a Friday and finding myself moving very slowly behind this huge group of bicyclists. Had no idea what it was, but thought it was fabulous. The forgot about it and then thought about it recently as I’ve gotten myself back into biking more regularly.

And what of the event itself? Because it was the first one I’d been to, I didn’t know what was going on. At Copley Square a few dozen bicyclists were hanging around at 5:30. Skateboarders were practicing tricks. A couple of hackey-sackers were kicking their little leather ball around. I asked people what was going to happen and a young bearded guy wearing a bike helmet told me that at some point bicyclists would begin circling around the plaza and then as more and more joined the moving circle (achieving critical mass, I think), someone would then lead the way down a street. No prescribed route. No prescribed leaders.

Clearly a number of people knew each other. And then there lots of single people hanging around the periphery, waiting for biking to begin. Overhead one young woman saying that “on December 31st there were only two of us here!” Apparently the ride happens all year round. But this March Friday being the first warm one of the year clearly had brought out all the fair weather protesters like myself. Would I do this in January and February? I kinda think not, but not sure.

Then bikes started circling, including a couple of funny bikes, one of which was three or bike frames welded on top of each other so the rider was sitting on his seat about ten feet in the air. Quite funny, but tricky to maneuver that baby around in traffic. Someone broke toward Boylston Street and we were off toward the public garden, taking up half the street. It was exhilarating. All sorts of bikes. No particular worry about cars. And a mass of people headed in one direction.

We go through red lights while cars on the side streets wait, horns blaring. A bicyclist near me yells out, “Honk if you love bikes!” We keep going. Drivers are pissed. It’s Friday evening and they want to get home. Then find themselves waiting while a couple hundred (my estimate) of bicyclists roll by. Are we just making people mad, or does this actually heighten “bicycle awareness”? I don’t know, but admit to myself that it is fun. And so we keep going, up Washington Street and back down Tremont Avenue, back to Boylston and around the Public Garden and back to Newbury Street, which seems like a mistake. Newbury is crowded with cars at the best of times, and so all those cars mixed with the bicyclists leads to a major parade disruption. Now bikes are spread out the length of Newbury, losing the power of the mass.

I find myself nearly alone moving up the street, but see a lot of bikes ahead of me and then in that weird way of people yo-yo-ing back and forth when on a bike ride, the group came back together and headed up Commonwealth Ave. toward Kenmore Square. It was now dark. At this point I was halfway home and so rather than heading back into town with the crowd I kept going up Beacon Street. Thinking that that was great fun and I’d do it the following month.

The following Sunday morning I was playing tennis with a friend of mine and he told me about this group of bicyclists that had come up Mass. Ave in Cambridge that Friday evening, blocking off traffic and pissing off drivers, to the point where folks were yelling at each other. I told him I’d been part of the group earlier in the ride but had dropped out before that point. He seemed to be on the side of the drivers who are inconvenienced. Which is true, but what’s the reality? Maybe they miss one or two cycles of a traffic light, meaning they get where they’re going 2 or 3 minutes later than they would have? More on this next time. Link to the worldwide Critical Mass site.

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