Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Critical Mass

Pure joy! That’s what I feel when I am zipping down Grove Street to Orange on my Raleigh Super Course (vintage 1972) on a perfect Saturday morning. The wide street is devoid of traffic, so unlike the scene at the same time on a usual workday.

I may not bike as often as I did years ago, but I still love to ride. I no longer commute to work, and with e-mail and pdfs, rarely go to meetings. As for pleasure, I just don’t feel as safe riding as I once did. Where I live, the increase in traffic and the decrease in patience and common courtesy among the drivers are my biggest fears. Yes, there are some bike lanes, but not downtown.  I am glad the New Haven section of the Farmington Canal Trail now connects with Hamden’s, but stretches of this newest link can be a little sketchy depending on the day and time. As a recreational cyclist, the easiest way for me to guarantee a pleasant ride is to wait for the quiet of the weekend or a Spring or Summer evening. I wish I could just hop on my bike anytime and ride without worry.

And what about those cyclists who NEED to get places during the week — those whose bike is their sole means of transport? Cyclists are not allowed to ride on the sidewalk. On the street they are held to the same rules as drivers of motor vehicles, and are entitled to the same rights of safety and access. But many drivers don’t afford cyclists this respect and courtesy; the street can be a scary place for those on two wheels.

In support of bicycle riders everywhere I am a year-round supporter and sometimes participant in the monthly world-wide phenomenon known as Critical Mass.

What is Critical Mass? It is a monthly bike ride, happening in roughly 300 cities worldwide. The first ride was in San Francisco in 1992 with 48 people; San Francisco Critical Mass riders today can number in the thousands. The ride’s original purpose was to to make cyclists visible, and to make the street less threatening by providing safety in numbers for people riding home from work.

In some cities the rides can be confrontational. There have been altercations and arrests in San Francisco and New York City. But New Haven’s ride is billed as a “kinder, gentler Crit Mass” by  Matt Feiner, owner of the Devil’s Gear Bike Shop. As in most of the cities with Critical Mass, the New Haven riders gather at 5:30 pm on the last Friday of the month for an around 6 departure, in our city near the flagpole on the Green. Notice that I say around 6. Like Quaker Meetings, Critical Mass does not have a leader. No one purports to know the route of any given ride. But sometime around 6 pm, cyclists begin to honk their horns and ring their bells, and someone will shout out something like: “You wanna go for a ride?”

There is a carnival-like atmosphere to the gathering. Each city has a different flavor. The bike pictured above was heading to Critical Mass in Chicago several years ago. San Francisco had a number of naked cyclists on Friday. I think it is safe to say that will never happen here. But you might see Matt and his friends on their high wheelers, or people in costumes on Halloween. And there was a memorable ride during which some newlyweds were pedaled around town in a pedicab. Expect the unexpected, that's all I can say.

As far as I know, there have been no arrests at New Haven’s Crit Mass. Although there is no “leader,” there are those riders who keep the group in line, urging everyone to move into one lane, on the right. And others to step up to “cork,” or hold up traffic after the light turns so the group can keep together. Our group is never so big that drivers are inconvenienced for too long, and I have never witnessed any trouble.

Last Friday was a perfect day for a ride. After making the usual big downtown loop, slowing the traffic and interacting with onlookers, we headed off to Fair Haven. Near the playing fields by the wind turbine at Phoenix Press we picked up a couple of new riders with boom boxes and tricked-up bikes who accompanied us on our tour of the riverfront.

I am a planner. Most everything about this ride is so unlike the usual me. Start time is unpredictable; the one time I was late Critical Mass left without me. I’m not a big fan of mystery tours. And Critical Mass challenges my comfort zone.

But it gets me talking to people I might not otherwise meet, and lets me ride places I would not ride alone. Most importantly I feel part of the movement to make motorists bicycle-aware.

Charles Higgins of San Francisco wrote these words in 2000: “The event is at once a rebellion and a celebration. It is a manifestation of deep consternation over transportation, the environment, materialism and free market-driven urban planning. And it brings people together in the open air for a festive rolling adventure. It is at once a loud scream and a soft whisper. Though it raises the blood pressure of some rush-hour commuters, Critical Mass offers a change, if only for a few moments, in the domination of the streets. In place of tons of steel and glass is a rolling community of people who can talk to each other and experience safety in numbers.”

Now that the days are long and the snow is gone, “You wanna go for a ride?” There should be plenty of interesting companions gathering at the flagpole on the New Haven Green, at approximately 5:30 pm on the last Friday of May. Just be ready to roll with the flow and to ring your bell.

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