Learn more about BikingToronto and Singer Kwinter

Critical Mass and Red Lights

I posted photos from July’s Critical Mass earlier today, and got a couple thought-provoking comments regarding the ride and red lights.

Everything about Critical Mass is legal (as far as I can tell) except for the going through red lights thing. At “first blush”, it actually seems pretty sensible for two reasons:

1) it’s safer for the cyclists to stay in one group, as if cars got caught up in the middle of it, it would inevitably cause chaos and perhaps an accident.

2) it is less of an inconvenience to automobile traffic having all the cyclists stick together. One group of 300 cyclists, while large, moves through the streets in one “entity”, only causing a localized disturbance on a city’s streetgrid. Contrast this to two groups of 150 cyclists (which may result from a group being split up by red lights), or 3 groups of 100, or 6 groups of 50 each… instead of one localized group of many cyclists, you would have many groups of many cyclists.

Many people suggest that Critical Mass should get parade permits, and this happens is some cities, like Portland, OR… but for the most part, a Critical Mass route is not planned beforehand, attendees aren’t registered, and is simply a bunch of cyclists riding together.

If a bunch of cars travel together down a city street and clog it up, even trying to go through intersections at bad times and block traffic until they can exit the intersection, why can’t bikes?

However, for arguments sake, let’s say that Critical Mass (which has been pretty successful all over the world since starting in San Francisco (Google Video) in 1993), changes, and we start stopping and dividing the group at red lights.

The Misanthrope Cyclist has already explored this possibility, and it’s actually a really good idea:

Stop for the red lights. If either of the separated groups are “too small”, the people that made it through the light should pull to the side of the road and wait; that’s not illegal, right? When the light changes, they rejoin as one mass – preferably with much fanfare – and proceed. However, if the two groups aren’t “too small” they can proceed as two Masses.

As the group splinters, the Mass’ ubiquitousness will increase. A single five hundred-person Mass could become ten fifty-person Masses and each would still be larger than many smaller cities’ rides. Imagine ten simultaneous Critical Masses meandering through the city!

  • darren

    Some correction. The first contemproary CM ride was on September 25, 1992 in San Francisco. There were rides named Critical Mass in England in the early ’70’s, they lasted only a couple of years. There were also CM like rides in the late 1800’s but they were somewhat more aimed at improving roads for cyclists, the roads were fine for horse and buggy but not cyclists.

    Contemproary CM has been more of a social space rather than some call for improved roads. Yes, we hear a lot of “We are not blocking traffic, we are traffic”, which has probably done a lot more harm than good. It draws too many people who simply want to annoy drivers as opposed to those who want to come and meet new friends and share ideas. CM owes its beginnings to Xerocracy, not a hate on for cars.

    Ted White in his video points out why CM is called CM. Places like China and Mexico have poor to non-existent traffic controls. In order for cyclists to cross a street they would have to wait until there were enough of them, a CM, to push there way through the cars together. We can argue whether we are just following that example and practicing it here.

    There is also an arguement to be made that we are challenging the social space created/regulated by government. You simply cannot challenge it by following its rules and no I am suggesting we take up an armed struggle. CM as it is passing by, however briefly, gives us a look of what Toronto would look like if we put people first instead of putting commerce first. There are no red lights when you put people first. Realistically, CM has to interact with red lights and traffic controls of different sorts and that is why we must cork intersections.

    Over and over there are simplistic criticisms made against CM because the participants have chosen to interact in a new way which sometimes means going through red lights, etc. These same simplistic criticisms could also be made then to challenge other non violent movements led by Ghandi and MLK in the same manner.

  • scruss

    There are no red lights when you put people first.
    People in cross-traffic are people too …

  • darren

    People in cross-traffic are people too …

    That is a rather cold assessment. Motor vehicle traffic is uses passive control to separate itself from collision and it does a rather poor job at it. Planes, boats, and pedestrian use active control, they communicate with one another to seperate themselves to prevent collision. Cyclist do much better under an active scheme compared to something passive.

    Then again, maybe we need stop lights and road stripes inside Union Station to prevent everyone from crashing into one another.

  • Joe (BikingToronto)

    Wow, thanks for all that info, Darren. I was thinking of the “do or do not” of going through red lights, specifically, but all that info gives one a lot to think about.

  • scruss

    Darren, I didnt say that the cross traffic was necessarily motor traffic.