07 August 2010

Santa Monica Critical Mass

After much consideration, followed by six months of poor timing, I finally attended my first Critical Mass ride last night!
photo by Nicholas Freeman
Critical Mass is a group ride intended to draw the attention of motorists to the growing number of cyclists on the streets. Individually, we are easy to bully, cut off, and run over (as not one but TWO motorists came close to doing yesterday during my commute!), but when we gather together we own the road. The tactics are admittedly controversial—taking up multiple lanes of streets, jamming intersections, and running red lights aren't things I would normally do. And yes, sometimes the entire group is ticketed for doing such things. And sometimes they are ticketed, buzzed, or otherwise harassed for doing nothing but riding peacefully. When I lived in Seattle, there was an incident in which the Seattle Critical Mass got into a physical altercation with a motorist, seriously damaging the relationship between motorists and all cyclists (whether they were involved or not). For these reasons I wasn't completely sure about joining up with a group with that reputation. Apart from anything else, I can't really afford to accrue any moving violations, which for the record (since I get asked about this frequently) can be issued to cyclists for any of the same reasons that they are issued to motorists, like running a stop light, failing to signal, not having proper lights, or being drunk. After what I had read online, I had fully expected that at least some members of the group would be ticketed, and would not have been surprised if we either started with or acquired a police escort.




My fears were unfounded, however, when I finally had the guts and the time to join up with Santa Monica Critical Mass. Apparently the incidents with the SMPD had effectively dissolved the group who experienced such heavy-handed controls... so this was an entirely new group, one which the police did not seem particularly concerned about. Meeting at the cannon near the entrance to the Santa Monica Pier, we rolled out 30 strong a little before 7pm, escort-free, and raucously happy. While the riding style would admittedly be intimidating to many drivers on the road, we each used our judgement of what was safe and only did things like surrounding a car when that car was moving at the speed of a snail. We did not run red lights wholesale: if a light was yellow or red when the leaders approached it, the entire group stopped, but if it was green as the leaders passed through, some people towards the rear may have ended up rolling a red to keep together. Nothing a car trying desperately to make a left-hand turn doesn't do at every single red light in the city.

And speaking of left turns, they've never been so easy! The safety that riding with a large group confers is incredibly comforting. And the energy was fantastic—it was great to shed the attitude of a road warrior for once and remember that biking is FUN. It really was a party on wheels. And as for the group's stated goals, since the newly remodeled Santa Monica Place opened that day, it provided great visibility for the group. When other bicyclists passed, they were encouraged to turn round and join up; when pedestrians passed they often yelled words of encouragement, or asked who we were. The route took us up to the traffic circle, down to Abbot Kinney, and back up to a party—as though our party on wheels wasn't enough.

Overall, I'm very glad I went, and encourage any of you who are on the westside to try it as well. The first friday of every month, meet around 6:30 (the group leaves by 7pm) around the cannon at the pier. I'll see you there.



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