Critical Mess

Posted on March 29, 2005 by psu

Driving home from work on Friday night, we noticed a strange sight for Pittsburgh. A couple of dozen young people decked out in the Pierced Goth look that is prevalent among today’s “non-conformist” youth were riding down Fifth Avenue connected to bicycles via fancy clipless pedals and shoes which looked a bit out of place under their black jackets and rainbow colored leg warmers.

When they all ran the red light at Fifth and Bellefield, I realized what was going on. This was Critical Mass.

The Critical Mass propaganda is that they organize “events” to “raise awareness” about the relationship, or lack thereof, between cars and bicycles on the road. Mixed into this agenda is some mumbo jumbo about alternative transportation and a lot of self-important twaddle about how bike commuting will save the world. What they do to further their cause is ride in large clumps down the road, ignoring all the prevailing traffic laws and generally crippling whatever traffic corridor they happen to be occupying. Actually, the Pittsburgh crowd was too small to cripple anything, but I’ve seen larger groups in other cities pretty much bring rush hour to a dead stop. In Pittsburgh, they made do with running lights and doing donuts across Fifth Avenue. In other words, Critical Mass is a bunch of cyclists riding like complete morons in order to improve the relationship between bikes and cars on the road. Good luck with that.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love bikes. Over the last thirteen years in Pittsburgh, I have ridden my bicycles several thousand miles including a few century rides and light commuting. In my time I’ve had dozens of dogs yap at me through car windows and chase me down roads. I’ve been buzzed by teenagers on Meth. I’ve had fruit thrown at me from the pickup truck of some red-neck moron. I’ve drafted busses and choked on the fumes. In other words, if you are on a bike somewhere in the city, I know what your existence is like.

But, whenever I am in the presence of a Critical Mass event, the only thing that keeps me from rolling the windows down and screaming obscene epithets is young children in the area and my wife hitting me upside the head. I believe that I am as sympathetic a mainstream audience as Critical Mass could possibly hope for, and all I want to do is hurt them. Let me explain.

For decades, John Forester has been preaching the right way to mix cars and bikes in his excellent book, Effective Cycling. Anyone who has more than a passing interest in serious cycling should stop reading this page and go buy this book right now. It should be required reading for cyclists in the same way that the New Testament is required for Christians. Among other things, the book makes the strongest case that I have ever read that the right thing to do is to

  1. Treat bicycles as first class vehicular traffic (like motorcycles, say).

  2. Have cyclists obey the prevailing local traffic laws.

In the U.S., we seem to be constitutionally incapable of applying these simple principles. On the one hand we have drivers who are convinced that bikes belong only on soul-sucking recreational trails where we would be doomed to ride an endless expanse of crushed limestone at slow speeds, lest we run over the hordes of bladers, joggers and baby strollers who are sharing the space. On the other hand, we have cyclists who are completely ignorant about how to ride in traffic. What they should be doing is riding on the road, in the same direction as the traffic, as far to the right as practical, and following all relevant signs and lights. In other words, no weaving around on the road, no riding between the car lanes, no double pacelines, no jumping lights, no riding on the sidewalk. This doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, but the majority of cyclists that I observe don’t seem to be able to follow these simple rules. Even the cops on mountain bikes ride on the sidewalk.

You would think that members of a cycling advocacy group would try and do better in the hopes of showing the car driving world that they are mature adults that deserve equal standing on the road. Instead, they act just like the infantile assholes on Friday night, blowing through a red light at a busy intersection and then doing donuts across three lanes of traffic. My conclusion is that any hatred that drivers have for bikes is completely justified because the cycling community in general, and Critical Mass in particular, has done nothing to make drivers think that cyclists are anything more than a bunch of juvenile self-centered cry-babies. As long as this image persists, the sick moron who chucked fruit at me in Mars, PA will feel justified in his actions. Therefore, rather than helping me in any way, Critical Mass just makes my life, and the lives of decent cyclists everywhere, harder, and they must be stopped.

In his book, Forester suggests that the reason we discriminate against bicycles in our traffic laws is that we believe bicycles to be toys for children, and thus we don’t expect any more than child-like behavior from the people riding them. Critical Mass certainly lives up to these expectations.


Again, you must buy John Forester’s Effective Cycling. Do it now.

The original version of this page is here if you want to see the comments.