Some perspectives of Critical Mass in Hobart

Some perspectives of Critical Mass in Hobart

Introduction

Critical Mass is basically bike riders getting together on the last Friday of every month, and riding en mass (for a variety of reasons) around the city (whichever city they happen to be in). I will not give a large introduction into the history of the idea, or the rides, as bigger and better ones have been written previously (see, for example, the suggested readings section at the end). as such, this piece does assume some certain level of familiarity with the idea, and at least some of the reasons people gather each month.

What prompted this piece was riding on the last Friday of October 2009 with nearly 100 other people (two independent counters, at two independent spots (near the start and finish) each counted about 100 people). It was the first Critical Mass ride in Hobart since 2006 that I had ridden on, and there was a big difference. When I was riding before, normally the most that ever came was 20, 15 was a good ride, but about 10 was the normal number. When mentioning 'the ride', I am specifically referring to the October 2009 ride.

Before the ride, I had looked up Critical Mass in Hobart to see whether it was still going, and the sort of turnout I might expect. Wow! was the response. Apparently since February 2008, as many as 300 people had turned up, including various politicians (e.g. the Lord Major, and the leaders of the three main political parties) and the police.

So, during and after the ride, I talked to various people about their opinions of the ride, why it exists, and why they turn up. I also wanted to know what people thought about breaking road rules (specifically to keep the mass together), and antagonising car drivers.

Most people seem to agree that the ride was for fun, to promote alternative methods of transport (as opposed to the usual car culture mentality), and for environmental reasons.

Areas of disagreement

The people who have been promoting the mass since the resurgence in 2008 have been keen to promote the idea of a 'courteous mass', mass which obeys traffic laws, is respectful of cars and similar ideas.

When it comes to breaking the law at a Critical Mass, in my experience there has only been one case where people have suggested doing so. That is what is known as "corking" (holding up traffic at traffic lights, or on other roads, to let the entire mass pass through, even against a red light or give way sign). Some people I spoke to suggested that not keeping the mass together defeated the purpose of the mass! (at one point of the ride, the group had been split into five parts due to traffic lights.) Yes, there was support for breaking laws, related to that aspect of the ride at least. Previous rides in Hobart (2005-2006) that I had taken part in, this was never an issue. The mass was a mass, and was to stay together.

Another aspect of corking is safety. By keeping the mass together at all times, you remove the need to stop along the side of the road for the slower riders, and those who had been cut off. This happened at least twice, once on a busy street! The safety issue leads neatly into another area of disagreement. That of taking up lanes, and how many lanes the mass should take up. Again, the organisers wished to be 'courteous' to car drivers, and suggest taking up only one lane, even on a four lane one way road (such as Macquarie and Davey Streets) when there are 100 people! This stretches the mass into a long thin line. In cases (such as Sandy Bay Road) where there are two lanes in each direction, with cars parked on either side, this even more a safety issue. By having the riders ride along the outermost lane (where cars are parked) it forces people to ride in single file passed parked cars. All riders know the safety issues with car doors suddenly opening. Yes, by taking over the one and a half lanes available, the bike riders would be preventing cars from passing easily. However, it would also keep the mass together easier, prevent cars from side swiping bikes, and mean that the riders would not have to worry about car doors opening. (I would always take the whole lane when riding down Sandy Bay Road, even when riding by myself. It is just safer.)

Maybe the reason I'm more worried about keeping the mass together, and taking the whole lane and similar is because of past experiences. During a previous Critical Mass ride I was hit once (by a mirror), and almost hit another time. Frustrated drivers are not caused by the Mass, but by their own insecurities, and worries.

Differences between the masses

Maybe I should not really be worrying about the differences in style between the masses. After all, previously, as I've said it was rare to get more than about 20 people to a ride, now five times that number turn up. Of course, I would suggest that this had more to do with the fact that, in the past, there was very little publicity, and most of that was word of mouth, and between friends.

Something else that was commented on, to me, was the lack of noise put out by the mass. One veteran thought it disappointing that ten people used to put out more noise than 100. It was suggested that maybe this is a good thing, because people are socialising more, rather than ringing bells, and singing. Perhaps.

A big issue for certain people is the standing invitation to the police to provide a presence. In most Critical Masses around the world, and how it used to be in Hobart, was that the police were no more welcome than normal. They do not follow cars around, even if they are all going in the same direction, so why would they single out bike riders? Especially when bike riders have just as much legal (and more ethical) right to be on the road.

Perceptions of riders

One of the big ideas (as I understand it) behind the 'Courteous Mass' is to challenge a perceived negative stereotype of bike riders. Bike riders don't obey traffic laws, don't look, don't give way, get in the way, etc. I would suggest that this is irrelevant. Push bike riders cannot kill someone simply by running into them. They haven't got a thick shell of metal around them to protect them. The difference between a bike rider and a pedestrian, safety-wise, is a helmet, and a better ability to go faster.

More to the point though, I have been riding to and from work everyday for the last few weeks, and I have seen more cars cross against red and orange lights than I have ever seen bike riders do the same. Obviously cars break more road rules than bikes, simply because there are more of them, and yet, it does not raise the ire of those negative individuals anywhere near as much. The numbers are the reason, I suggest, that bike riders are singled out. Any out of the ordinary behaviour by a bike gets noticed and remembered. But a car, well, that is normal is it not?

Conclusion

Critical Mass in Hobart has changed. Whether that change is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your perspective. The fact that 100 people turn up every month, compared to the 10 previously, certainly suggests that something good has happened. I would say that this is due to propagandising, and promotion (even to politicians and the media, something that had never been seriously suggested before), rather than the 'Courteous' aspect. However, I would argue that with 100 people the mass should have more of a presence than what it has. It should take two (or even three) lanes on Macquarie Street, it should be about providing safety in numbers, it should block traffic lights so that the mass stays together. It should be making more noise; we are here, fear our roar!

How would I suggest changing things? Well, due to the inherent non-hierarchical nature of Critical Mass (it is hard to order people about), it only takes a few individuals to start doing things their way. (Incidentally, on that last ride, corking did happen, on a couple of minor roads in Battery Point. It was a single rider in each case.) I suggest that those individuals who are interested in changing things, take it upon themselves to start photocopying their ideas, and get them out there.

Unfortunately, I will be unable to contribute further to the mass as I am, once again, leaving Hobart. However, I hope that this text will provoke some discussion, and perhaps inspire people to be more radical than they have been. Remember folks, changing the world requires more than just supporting the status quo, it requires action.

Suggested Reading

As well as the following four links, check out the quotes in the Appendix, and where they came from.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_Mass> The Wikipedia article is liable to change at any moment, however, it should provide a good overview and history of the rides.
<http://critical-mass.info/> website dedicated to Critical Mass, providing lots of information and links.
<http://criticalmass.wikia.com/wiki/> Wiki dedicated to Critical Mass around the world, and provides a focal point for finding out more about various aspects of the ride.
<http://www.criticalmass.org.au/> Provides some times and places and links for Masses around Australia.

Appendix

CM has no leaders. It's an event, not an organization. There is no national group that licenses local rides. In every city that has a CM, one or more cyclists just picked a day and time and started handing out fliers. If your city doesn't have a CM, that's what you'll do. You don't need anyone to authorize your ride. You just do it. <http://www.critical-mass.info/howto/>

Critical Mass is an organised coincidence where large numbers of cyclists and roller bladers happen to ride in the same direction, at the same time, through city traffic.<http://www.bikesarefun.org/faq.html>

Direct action is politically motivated activity undertaken by individuals, groups, or governments to achieve political goals outside of normal social/political channels. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_action>

Critical Mass is a form of direct action, enforcing our rights to be on the road. We don't need permission, we don't need permits, we don't need politicians and we don't need police. Remember folks, if voting changed anything they would make it illegal.

This article was written over the month of November 2009, by Michael Harris. It is intended to encourage people to think about what Critical Mass is really about. You can find it on the web at <http://next-nexus.info/harrismw/writing/politics/critical%20mass.php

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