Monday, August 20, 2007

The LA Times on Critical Mass

For those of you who may not know what it is, Critical Mass is a monthly (or other intervals) bike ride by bike advocates. I took part in one back in Athens on my old BMX bike. Bike riders bike en masse, flaunting traffic regulations, blocking traffic, and doing everything possible to draw attention to themselves and the need for better bike facilities and conditions on our roads. Now, to be fair, not all Critical Mass rides across the country are as rude as the ones portrayed in this story from the LA Times, but many of them are.

As a biker, and one who is concerned about safety and accesibility of bikers in The District and beyond, I can't say I've ever thought these rides were a good idea. I know some would argue that when the pendulum has swung far to one side of the spectrum (designing for cars at all costs), overcompensation is required to swing the pendulum far back the other direction so it recenters.

While I was reading this story this morning, I thought of this analogy:

There once was (or is) a popular perception that all the major news and media outlets, especially network and cable television news, had a leftist or liberal slant. So along came Fox News. They came up with a nifty slogan—"Fair and Balanced". Which would be great, except they want to have it both ways.

They want to be known as the unbiased, fair, accurate answer to the perceived leftist slant, which they say has no business in journalism and isn't fair to viewers. But rather than actually living up to "We Report, You Decide", they clearly skew to the Right instead. So which is it? Fair and balanced, or "recentering the discussion by tilting the other direction? You can't be both. I wouldn't mind FN so much if they just came out and said, "hey, the playing field is unlevel, so we're just going to a news organization with a slant that serves as a mouthpiece for the Right, cus, y'know, they don't really have one out there."

I feel like Critical Mass does a similar thing. Yes it raises awareness about the car-centric view of roads, possibly like the initial discussion about Fox News got people talking about the bias of networks. (It sure did when I was in journalism school.) But at the end of the day, I think Critical Mass does more harm than good by escalating the issue (roads made for all users) into an open hostile polemicized "battle." And then they become exactly what they're protesting: One small user group dominating the roadway at the expense of the other.

A quote from the story illustrates this well: "For 29 days a month, cars call the shots. It's Auto Mass," said Kate McCarthy, a member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. "But for a few hours of one day, we turn the tables. We take the streets back."

And in doing so in such a fashion where traffic rules don't apply, rudeness rules the day, and the needs of others fall by the wayside, they take what should be a reasoned discussion and devolve it into an oversimplified "Us vs. Them" battle that does no one any good.

I'd imagine that if I was a regular motorist in DC, and was on the fence about the need for more money for sharrows, bike lanes, or other bike facilities, this sort of action could certainly sway me against the bikers. It's self-serving and completely un-productive. More bikers organizing (like with WABA here) and positively reinforcing their message through events like Bike to Work Day and targeted lobbying of officials and business leaders will lead to much more of a productive outcome than pissing everyone off with blatant disrespect.

In the story, several of the riders complain about the perception that motorists have of them: that they're riding a child's toy and that they should grow up. And the biker respond with a monthly childish hissy fit, flaunting the rules that they say the drivers should have to obey. That'll teach em that you're not children!

If you're not willing to follow the rules on one day out of 30, why would you follow them on the other 29? And why shouldn't the cars box you in and smash their car into your bike for no reason if you do the same?

Thumbs down, Critical Mass.