Friday, September 12, 2008

Critical Mass: Tougher approach reflects tougher challenges

The fact that Critical Mass this fall will be organised on a weekday rather than weekend reflects a belief that the movement needs to get tougher in order to effect change, according to one of the ride's organisers. As I mentioned in my September 7 post, Critical Mass this fall (on European Car Free Day, September 22) will be different this year by being timed during the tail end of a work day rush hour. I had an email exchange about it with my friend Gabor Bihari, who edits the English-language page of the Critical Mass site for Budapest. This is what he told me, in part:
The basic concept is that we're trying to get bicycles recognized as 'real' vehicles, with rights equal to those of motor vehicles. So WE ARE TRAFFIC, and don't just want to be regarded as some weekend demonstration show, as it's been in the past couple of years. It's clear that the record breaking turnouts of the previous couple of years were partly because they happened to be on weekends, and the weather was nice too. But there's not much else we can achieve by trying to keep breaking our own records. We need to pressure the decision-makers more and more, since - for instance - the new Minister of Transport has recently eliminated the post of the Bicycle Ombudsman. Just like that. ( article on axing of ombudsman Bodor Ádám)

I told Gabor that while I unequivocally support Critical Mass's aims, I'm somewhat concerned about what might happen this time around. Besides being timed on a weekday, when there is more motor traffic, the ride will go forth without a route permit -- in fact with no set route, at all, only a starting place, Heroes' Square, and a destination, Moszkva ter. No roads will be closed to speed the procession. The riders will simply ride with normal traffic.

In this respect the ride will be more like other Critical Masses around the world, as Gabor correctly noted. However, from what I know, most other Critical Masses draw crowds of a few hundred, while CM Budapest routinely draws tens of thousands. These are exceptionally large numbers -- according to some observers, Budapest's is the biggest CM in the world. My worry is that if this fall's ride draws even a quarter as many riders as last spring's, there would be 20,000 cyclists on the streets without the organisation and safety precautions that everyone has grown accustomed to. Not that I'm against the new approach, but in this laissez faire atmosphere, there's more potential for conflict and hostility between cyclists and motorists -- as the experience of several cities demonstrate. I think everyone who takes part needs to take this into account and make a special effort to keep cool and ride in the spirt of peaceful protest.


Steven Graning said...

Although I respect the Critical Mass organizer's prerogative to push the envelope, i fear they are being too dismissive of what they've managed to build up over the years. Yes, Critical Mass in Budapest has become more of a parade than a protest. So what? I think they're crazy to adopt such a cavalier attitude towards an audience begging to be educated and led into constructive political action. The best Budapest Critical Mass event ever was when the parade visited the different party headquarters and demanded to be heard. The semi-annual Critical Mass events should be used to keep up the pressure on the current (and future) city officials to continue making Bpest a bicycle friendly city. An unofficial, twilight event smacks of an ego-boost for the radicaler-than-thou wing of the bicycle activists.

GABOR said...

Just one correction: Car Free Day Critical Mass rides in Budapest were always held on the day - September 22 - and were never moved to the weekend. Last year Sept 22 happened to be a Saturday, so it was held then, of course. But in fact the entire CM movement picked up really when - in 2004 - the Mayor's Office tried to pressure cyclists not to have their ride on the actual Car Free Day because it was a weekday and it might obstruct traffic. (

So the only way in which this ride will be different from previous Car Free Day rides is that there won’t be a reserved route. It will be a statement and we’re doing everything possible to do it safely and avoid confrontation with car drivers or anyone else, for that matter. The police will actually be present at some key intersections and about 100 Critical Mass volunteers will also be helping in guiding the main flow through high traffic areas.

Earth Day rides are a bit different though. They're more of a celebration, so the organizers are also more flexible when it comes to the timing of those, as it happened this past April, when the ride was held on the 20th (a Sunday) instead of the 22nd.

By the way: great blog Greg, I'm ashamed to admit that I just spotted it now, but I didn't remember you telling me that you started one.

GABOR said...

I obviously respect your opinion and I don't recommend that you bring either one of your daughters to the ride next Monday ... However, we should not forget that our decision makers are mostly politicians, and as such, they are opportunists. If we relieve the pressure and let them start bragging about what great events take place in their city (i.e. the record-breaking CM rides) even though they were once opposed to them, and meanwhile they backtrack on their promises right in front of our eyes, I'm afraid that we'd also be dismissive of what we've built up over the years.

I do agree with you that parades are needed though, and I'm happy to forecast that most likely the Earth Day 2009 ride will be on a closed route and will resemble the one we just had in April 2008.

So we're also trying to find a happy medium: apply some pressure, but also let everyone have a good time and enjoy each others company. Sort of like the carrot and the stick method...

Greg Spencer said...

Thanks Gábor for setting me straight on the history of Car Free Day Critical Mass rides.

I've ridden on one small-scale weekday bicycling demonstration, but never on a weekday Critical Mass. As I said, with last spring's ride hainv been so huge, I'm very keen to see how September 22's will go.

I was also wondering whether I should take Lance -- I see on the CM posters, they're advising parents to take children only if they take their kids by bike as a matter of routine ...

GABOR said...

Actually, what I meant earlier was that children under 12 should probably not be taken along on individual bikes. This has been publicized by the organizers too.

But I think that if you're used to taking your son on your bike, and if he's used to it too :), with a proper child carrying seat it should not be a problem.

I can still sort of foresee people sticking together in large groups, and in this case I think there will really be safety in numbers.