Sunday, September 7, 2008

Critical Mass Timed for Work Day -- Finally

For once, Budapest cyclists will join ranks with other Critical Mass demonstrators around Europe by holding their Car-Free Day procession on Car-Free Day. It's happening this September 22, a Monday, and will take place at the  tail end of evening rush hour. Starts at 6.30 p.m. at Hosok tere and ends at 8 at Moszkva ter. A description of the "new Critical Mass" (in Hungarian) is here.

This signals a tougher stance on the part of organisers, who in previous years have appeased objectors at City Hall by holding the ride on a near weekend in order to minimise disruption to traffic.

The debate on whether Critical Mass should proceed with the city's blessing on weekends or go forth against the burghurs' will during a weekday, when there's much more motor traffic, goes back to the first big ride in September 2004. Organisers had wanted to have Critical Mass on European Car Free Day, September 22, but as this was a weekday, Mayor Demszky strenuously objected and said he would only sanction the demonstration during the weekend. A few stalwarts, joined by then-Environment Minister Miklós Persányi, went ahead and rode on the proper day, but the big mass of riders went on the weekend with police escort and traffic control. For further history, see

This way of doing things became the norm, with all subsequent Critical Mass rides being organised during weekends with City Hall's blessing. This has made the organisation of the ride more cumbersome and accounts for why it happens only twice per year, once on Car Free Day (or around Car Free Day) and once on Earth Day in the spring. On the positive side, this sort of "civilised" mass has an orderliness that gives it broad appeal. In Budapest, the number of participants has nearly doubled each consecutive ride until hitting 60,000-80,000 last spring. Budapest's Critical Mass organisers credit these big numbers for a number of achievements in recent years, from the construction of bike paths to the appointing a couple of years ago of a Bicycle Affairs Officer at the Transport Ministry.

On the down side, some people wonder if this orderliness and complicity with City Hall takes away from Critical Mass's impact as protest. Perhaps more would have been achieved had the organisers taken a harder line. Critical Mass's essential message is "We aren't blocking traffic -- we are the traffic." But the way the ride is organised in Budapest, the riders don't mix with traffic -- it's as much a parade as it is a protest.

Over the past year, organisers have sought a new balance by putting together an alternative series of monthly rides held during rush hour on the last Friday of each month. The rides have been called Minimal Mass and are more in keeping with the original Critical Mass, held in San Francisco in the 1990s. The ride there wasn't sanctioned by the city. It was in the tradition of civil protest, with participants flaunting traffic rules by taking over streets and running traffic lights in order to maintain a cohesive procession.

Mind you, the rides in this mould also have their critics. Confrontations between motorists and cyclists have erupted in violence and police have made arrests and have overstepped the bounds of civility in some cases. A recent Critical Mass in Seattle resulted in a cyclist breaking his arm and a motorist having his tires slashed. One of the few blogs sympathetic to the cyclists was in the alternative weekly, the Stranger. In the aftermath, a few cyclists said the incident was undermining the cause of utility cycling, saying it aroused more resentment than sympathy for riders. In one blog post, Seattle Critical Mass Needs to End, the writer said it ought to become more civilised, with police escort, traffic cordons and the like -- in other words, something like Budapest's. So it's ironic that over here in Budapest, CM organisers want to evolve in the exact opposite direction and make their ride more like Seattle's.

Needless to say, I'm very keen to see what happens here on September 22.

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