Pedaling Your Politics: The Variable Meanings of Critical Mass

Over the past two decades, the prevalence of biking in our nation’s cities has increased rapidly. Never mind unique creations like Portland, Oregon, today, places as diverse as New York, Chicago, San Diego, Seattle, and Austin have vibrant cycling cultures. In San Diego, a Saturday night without a fixie would be like Sunday morning without Mass (for those of us influenced by popery). The same could be said for Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Silver Lake, CA and elsewhere. This increase in bike culture stems from several forces. Environmental concerns, energy issues, aesthetics, and the appropriation of subcultures (after all it would be impossible to say that aspects of hipster aesthetics weren’t taken from the aggressive bike messenger lifestyle made famous in Kevin Bacon classics like Quicksilver –- feel free to insert sarcasm) are all part and parcel of these developments. However, the meaning of bike culture in each metropolis leans heavily on several factors, not least among them, the built environment and politics. To be clear, what we are discussing here is not mountain biking or the kind of suburban ET kids on dirt bikes (a more modern equivalent might be the Arcade Fire’s video for “The Suburbs” or this summer’s Super 8) flying around from planned community to planned community. Rather, a hard nosed urban cycling aesthetic that seems at once welcoming and forbidding.

But, how does one assess this variation? One means might be to examine the ways in which one of the largest expressions of this burgeoning bike culture expresses itself, Critical Mass. Undoubtedly, CM causes controversy in nearly every city in which it unfolds. An international phenomena begun in 1992 San Francisco, on the last Friday of every month bikers congregate and then take over thoroughfares in cities not only in America but internationally. What are the political statements made? How do they vary according to a city’s built environment? Does this same built environment temper or shape the ways in which residents criticize or support CM? Think about it this way, does a city like NYC, defined by its public transit see CM differently than the car-centric metropolis of San Diego? How does this shape CM actions/politics?

First, what is CM? According to many supporters, it appears to be a leaderless, act of metropolitan biker agency, as the final Friday of each month results in a sometime massive display of riders. In New York, the apparent headlessness of CM has frustrated one of its greatest critics Mayor Bloomberg who has on more than one occasion blasted Critical Mass. Its alleged lack of formal leadership means suing CM remains nearly impossible. Up until late summer of 2004, NY had enjoyed a friendly relationship with CM. Activists used to even inform the NYPD of the routes they intended to take each Friday. However, in the most liberal of cities, it was ironically the 2004 GOP Convention in which tensions between police and riders resulted in hundreds of arrests and charges of police brutality.

Since that fateful summer, the relationship between the two grew increasingly antagonistic. (James Barron, “Police and a Cyclists’ Group, and Four Years of Clashes,” August 4, 2008) Arrests, fines, and tickets served as tools for the city to depress turn out and discourage the once a month excursions. Riders admitted the rides had become less enjoyable but that they now felt compelled to participate. As technology consultant and long time rider Eric Goldhagen summarized the change in 2008, “Since the police decided to treat it as a criminal act, the entire tone of the rides has changed, Instead of being fun, it’s now something that I don’t enjoy, but feel I have to do.” The 2007 passage of the Parade Law was viewed by many as a direct attempt by the city to repress CM. Even City Council Speaker Christine Quinn supported the legislation. “Some critics will find fault no matter how reasonably the rules are drawn,” argued Quinn, who then suggested the Parade Law struck the “proper balance between protection of civil liberties with the need for public order.” Many riders resented accusations of anarchism and disruption. A 2009 lawsuit filed by several prominent New Yorkers including eminent urban historian Kenneth Jackson of Columbia attempted to get the law revoked.

Of course, for every Ken Jackson there appears to be a Louise Hainline. This past March contributor Matthew Shaer asked whether NY was too NY for cycling (“Not Quite Copenhagen: Is New York Too New York for Biking Lanes?”). The addition of a bike lane in Prospect Park sparked antipathy from some of Brooklyn’s most respected citizens. Hainline, a Dean at Brooklyn College, came across as an obsessed boomer intent on destroying the park’s bike lane, going so far as to set up cameras to monitor its usage, which she claims officials exaggerated. Hainline described the new bike lane as “monstrous” and “truly offensive.” The Brooklyn College administrator and several other prominent Brooklyn residents formed the Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes, which includes former deputy mayor and sanitation head Normal Steisal. Iris Weinshall, Bloomberg’s first transportation commish and wife of NY Senator Chuck Schumer, has also registered her support.

A couple of years earlier, New York magazine famously documented the conflict between Williamsburg’s Hasidic community and their hipster/bohemian counterparts. Needless to say, the antics of each side tended to discredit both groups. Framed as a “Clash of the Bearded Ones”, the image of Grizzly Adams hipsters and devout Hasids warring over neighborhood bike lanes proved both jarring and hilarious.

Even San Francisco has had its issues with Critical Mass. A 1997 San Jose Mercury News article described CM’s fifth year anniversary in the city by the Bay. Clearly, past Fridays had caused more than a little consternation. A July 1997 Friday ride resulted in marked gridlock and conflict when over 7000 riders “brought Market Street to a standstill, tied up intersections and ignited volatile confrontations with drivers and police.” (Rodney Foo, Jeordan Legon, and Renee Koury, San Jose Mercury News, “Repeating Critical Mass,” September 27, 1997) Though over 100 cyclists were arrested only 8 ever suffered prosecution. If one thinks incidents such as these were simply the acts of a headless mass spontaneously reacting, it might be useful to consider comments by participants themselves. The fifth year anniversary ride engendered far less conflict but riders seemed very aware of why. Thirty four year old artist Dean Gustafson remarked, “”We’re abiding by the laws now . . . Before, we were taking over the streets. You can make more of a point that way, but it would have resulted in the ending of the event.” Joe Carrol, San Francisco Bike Coalition member commented similarly, “”We’re here for fun. But by being a group, together, we’re saying we want safer streets for pedestrians and bikes.”

What about more car centered San Diego? How does a city defined by car culture react? Predictably, not well. Unlike SF or NYC, San Diego’s public transit remains anemic. People expect to get from place to place via the “iron horse.” Five lane highways don’t exist so that commuting takes longer. As Thom Bahde, a cycling advocate and member of the San Diego Bike Union noted in an interview, these expectations shape reactions by both drivers and bikers alike. Cyclists, Bahde points out, feel especially marginalized as the car-centric city features few bike lanes and a conservative culture that looks negatively on cycling generally but especially CM. In a way, Bahde commented, it’s as if bikers see it as their turn “to bully [drivers].” San Diego’s built environment also offers CM sites of protest unavailable to counterparts in NY or SF. For example, unlike many cities, San Diego’s airport is situated relatively close to its downtown. CM rides frequently block traffic attempting to reach the airport. On Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) CM has on several occasions ridden through the malls of Mission Valley. Moreover, because the city’s highways cut through various neighborhoods rather than proceeding around San Diego’s outskirts, they provide another space of protest. On one Friday, bikers took to HWY 163 backing up traffic and angering drivers. Bahde suggested this last example especially illustrates a fundamental problem with the SD CM. “It went from a neutral statement, ‘We have a right to [this space] to now it’s a right to be where we don’t have a right.” (Interview with author, June 23, 2011)

If the political message here seems diffuse, that’s because it is. As Todd Gitlin pointed out in The Whole World Is Watching, 1960s rights movements became little more than vehicles for the goals of individual leaders rather than rank and file members. The media then distorted the utterances of said leaders undercutting lower ranking participants and crystallizing the movement in the words of a few. Unfortunately, it would appear CM suffers from the opposite. Ostensibly, all CM Fridays are about increasing bike transportation, public safety, and environmentalism. However, in San Diego and elsewhere groups within the movement attempt to emphasize their own political movements. Again, as Bahde noted about San Diego CM, the message is at best a collection of somewhat coherent movements in the confines of a larger space or as Bahde described it “like raisins in oatmeal. They’re there and they add to it, but they don’t dominate.” (Interview w/author 6-23-2011) In this way, CM probably seems like a sphere of anarchist counterpublics jockeying for position.

Interestingly, police in San Diego seem to take a more measured view of CM. Despite rides that sometimes feature over 1000 riders, the SDPD officers seem to arrest and ticket far fewer participants. Speaking to the San Diego Union Tribune in 2008, police Capt. Chris Ball commented ” Critical Mass is an interesting and challenging phenomenon for law enforcement worldwide,” Ball said. “Is it some form of civil disobedience? Is it political speech? This isn’t just a bike ride.” (Pauline Repard, San Diego Union Tribune, “Once a month county cyclists claim the streets,” August 10, 2008) San Diego motorists certainly don’t appreciate CM. Though unscientific, the San Diego’s Yelp users pillory CM in harsher terms than nearly anywhere else, including New York, Chicago, and LA. As one 71 year old tourist described his encounter with a CM ride in 2008, “It was arrogant, more like anarchy, to take over the streets like that.”

In a city known for its conservatism and military discipline, one can see how a group of tattooed cyclists disobeying stop signs and red lights might engender hostility. In New York, hostility seems to flow more from police authorities and the mayor than individual citizens. Granted Louise Hainline and others are vocal critics, but in general, most people simply do not drive in the city. The subway, for all its negatives, remains unaffected by car traffic. If one does drive in the city, he or she rarely expects it to go smoothly or quick. However, in San Diego, messing with one’s car is akin to blasphemy.

Still, there is also the issue of diversity. While New York, LA, Chicago, and SF CM rides seem to exhibit higher levels of economic/racial/lifestyle/age diversity, SD’s appears particularly militant and narrower in terms of demographics. Take this 2008 description:

Young women in summer dresses and young men in cutoffs and T-shirts show up in flip-flops, on beach cruisers. Serious cyclists sport Spandex and aerodynamic helmets. Antlers or stuffed animals adorn ballcaps. Some riders sneak swigs of alcohol tucked into packs. Bikes range from multispeed and fixed speed, to BMXs, mountain bikes, tandems and giant-wheeled homemade ones.

Sounds like a “diverse” mix of hipsters and Tour De France hopefuls. Bongs and blood doping. Rides in Chicago and San Francisco frequently consist of families, older folk, and others, not just those looking to join the European cycling tour or those looking to show off their latest sleeve tattoo.

Even the normally sleepy Pacific Northwest has seen its share of rider conflict. In July of 2008, Seattle riders attacked one driver with chains in apparent retribution for a cyclist that had been struck by a car. Oregon recently passed a law that essentially bans fixies due to their lack of a “brake”. This lead to this recent awkward exchange in a Portland courtroom regarding arrest of bike messenger Ayla Holland:

Defendant Lawyer Ginsberg

“When you approached the rider did she stop?”

Officer Barnum:

“Yes.”

Ginsberg:

“How’d she stop the bike?”

Officer Barnum:

“I don’t know.”

Ginsberg:

“The gear itself stopped the bike.”

Officer Barnum:

“But the gear is not a brake.”

Ginsberg:

“What is a brake?”

Officer Barnum:

“A lever, a caliper or a coaster brake hub.”

Ginsberg:

“Can you show the court where in the vehicle code a brake is defined as such?”

Officer Barnum:

“No.”

Ginsberg:

“Did you at any time during the traffic stop ask my client if she could skid (thus meeting the performance requirement of the statute)?”

Officer Barnum:

“No.”

Truly, as the judge eventually ruled, the gear is not a brake. One might suggest a recent skit from the excellent Portlandia series encapsulates many of the issues above from the diffuse politics to the archetype of the overly aggressive (and gauge pierced cyclist).

Yet, the capital of the Midwest seems more bemused by Critical Mass than challenged by it. Chicago’s August 2007 ride featured the very diversity that San Diego’s seemed to lack, “”Massers” ranged from 20-something, tattooed, pierced bike messengers to middle-age parents pulling kids in trailers, from spandex-clad, hard-core gearheads to women riding in flip-flops.” In fact, while Sun Times writer Dave Newbart noted some ambivalence on the part of drivers, he also found support as the 2,000 strong group entered Chicago’s Little Village triumphantly. “As we rode in Little Village, families ran to the street to see us, holding out their hands for high-fives and repeating our greeting, ‘Happy Friday!'” This raises another example of how the built environment and culture affect how CM and cycling is seen more generally. Thom Bahde noted that many riders felt more comfortable in San Diego’s more ethnic and lower income City Heights area where a diverse group of cultures share space. Likewise, Chicago’s Little Village, today a predominantly Mexican/Mexican American neighborhood seemed open to CM. One might suggest expectations regarding public spaces in these communities, shaped by the cultures of varying immigrant groups creates a baseline understanding of cycling and CM. As Bahde commented, City Heights has more people on the street. Public spaces seem imbued with a sense of community, one that apparently allows for CM. Little Village illustrates a similar dynamic. (Dave Newbart, Chicago Sun Times, “Has ‘Mass’ ride run its course?, August 5, 2007)

Clearly, cycling as both a means of urban transportation and leisurely enjoyment will only grow in the coming years. The influence of environmentalism, the growing popularity of the activity itself, and municipal policies that seem to grow friendlier to biking communities (even when authorities find CM atrocious, many cities continue to add bike lanes; New York serves as prime example #1) all point in this direction. The DIY nature of cycling and the aesthetics/purity of fixies will draw more militant participants who unsurprisingly will bring with them corresponding political views.

However, it would be a mistake to think that this will manifest itself identically in urban areas across the nation. The built environment shapes not only the bikers’ perceptions but also those of motorists and the police. Irrespective of CM, if riding a bike in NYC is seen as eco-friendly and aligned with the city’s general anti-car ethos, doing the same in San Diego means something different. In Chicago, some riders worried less about the radical politics of some “massers” and more about CM’s lack of political vision. Little Village resident Howard Kaplan, an admittedly Anglo sounding name (it might be worthwhile to note that while City Heights and Little Village are predominantly immigrant/minority communities they also feature small pockets of the dreaded bohemian white), lamented that CM “is not as much an instrument of change as it used to be.” Instead, Kaplan suggested it had become little more than an “Indiana Fraternity Party.” (Editors note: from a Midwestern perspective it is critical Kaplan referred to Indiana and not Illinois or Wisconsin. If you don’t know why you aren’t from the Midwest. Which depending on your viewpoint might be good.) Ultimately, riders there seemed concerned about conditions. Thirty six year old Dan Korn pointed out that, “Things have gotten better, but we have got a long way to go.” Mayor Daley’s parks and beautification campaign and own cycling enthusiasm clearly resonated with cyclists. Critical Mass supporters had even asked Mayor Daley to serve as “Mass Marshall.” Hard to imagine the same for Hizzoner in NY.

Ryan Reft

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