Critical Mass -- More Harm Than Good?


Hundreds of cyclists take over Legerova, a main artery through the heart of Prague. Meanwhile, hundreds of motorists in the oncoming lane sit and seethe.


I participated in the Critical Mass bike rally last night in Prague. It was the first time I'd ever participated in such a social protest action.

I did it because I believe the city of Prague needs to do more in support of cyclists. I also wanted to make a statement, to let Czech drivers know that they need to pay more attention to the rights of cyclists on the road.

Like many cyclists in the city, I've had my share of nasty run-ins with drivers. As the Critical Mass slogan says, "We Are Traffic." And I truly believe that.

In hindsight, however, I count myself among that group of cyclists (a minority, perhaps) who believe these Critical Mass rides, which are held all over the world, probably do more harm than good. That they may be counterproductive to our cause.


The Critical Mass ride paused briefly in Wenceslaus Square.

I know this isn't going to make me many new friends, but I feel like I have to say it.

My friends and I estimated there were about 500 to 800 of us riding last night. We rode through the streets of Vinohrady, and then onto Wilsonova and Legerova, right through the heart of the city. It felt great to be riding my bike, unfettered, on these normally crowded highways. Traffic was backed up for many, many kilometers in both directions to give us the room to ride.

But that's part of the problem, in my view. Cyclists already have enough problems with Czech motorists. In my opinion, we don't need to piss off thousands more of them, give them another reason to target us.

Yes, cars normally have control of the road, and it felt kinda cool to "take over" the streets and highways for a change, but I don't see the point.

Why stage a protest that only angers those you are trying to sway to your side?

As we rode by, motorists yelled at us, honked their horns, raised their fists. Many drivers used their cars to intimidate the cyclists, or simply tried to swerve around us, threatening our safety. It's hard to understand the mind-set of a Czech driver who, even in the midst of a bike rally, resorts to such crazy behavior. If it's this bad while the cops are around, imagine what it's like for cyclists out on the country roads.

It's truly unconscionable behavior.

I personally saw three very unpleasant altercations at Critical Mass between drivers and cyclists (one of which is pictured above). Two of these cases I thought were going to devolve into violence. I know that in each of these instances, it was the drivers who were at fault.

But then there was the behavior of the cyclists themselves.

The overwhelming majority were there for the same reasons I was. To make a stand for cyclists' rights.

There were lots of families with kids (including my friend Stewart Moore and his two boys, Jules and Ronan, pictured here). Young people. Old people. Skateboarders and unicyclists. Tandem and recumbent bikers. James Gogarty from provakator.org. My friend Mark Baker. David Murphy, regional coordinator of Environmental Partnership for Sustainable Development, whom I met through Stewart and Mark.

We all rode peacefully and safely.

But I saw many cyclists during the event acting recklessly, cycling against traffic or riding fast on crowded sidewalks. They also taunted the motorists.

Earlier this month, at a Critical Mass rally in San Francisco, a family of seven, including small children, were driving in their minivan when they apparently found themselves trapped amidst a swarm of cyclists. As the stories goes, the driver, not knowing what was happening, tried to move out of the way, angering the cyclists, one of whom she may have bumped with her van. The cyclists began pounding on the vehicle. One of the cyclists threw his bike at the rear window of the van, shattering the glass and terrifying the kids inside. More than $5,000 in damage was done to the minivan.

I can now understand how something like this could happen.

Wouldn't it make more sense, instead of these rides, to get Prague's tens of thousands of cyclists to sign a petition that could be presented to national or local authorities for more bike lanes and education programs? To hold mass rallies where our numbers can be seen, but without inconveniencing a good chunk of the city?

It was supposed to be a "green" protest, but to be honest, it made me see red.

I'd like to know what you think.

Ride stats

Distance: 16.5 kilometers
Average speed: 10.1 kph
Maximum speed: 30.8 kph
Length of ride: 1.37.56
Total distance in 2007: 360 kilometers

Comments

Anonymous said…
first of all, your numbers are wrong, todays paper states that maybe 100 took place in the ride. Secondly, a bike activist ( I forgot his name) was KILLED while riding to such an event, a memorial marks the spot. Lastly, a petition has been signed and sent. A little Czech would be helpful, stop looking at that stupid expat.cz site and study the langauge please.
Grant said…
Thanks for this. I can tell you for certain that a lot more than 100 cyclists participated last night!

I, of course, know very well about Jan Bouchal, coordinator of the Auto*Mat project, who was tragically killed last year as he was riding home from work, near to where I live. I plan to write about him soon for those who don't know about him. A good friend of mine in Syracuse was also killed while cycling, so I know the tragedy all too well. I'm just not sure if his death justifies the Critical Mass concept, if that's your point.

If there's a petition going around, it certainly would have been helpful to have a booth or something there about it last night so that hundreds of cyclists could have signed it.

It would certainly be helpful if you could pass along any more information about where this petition is, how to sign it, etc.
Anonymous said…
todays 24 hodin, front page claimed 100. The petition was signed and submitted over a year ago...
Mark said…
I am not sure I understand what anonymous's point is. I was also on that ride and I can tell you that the number was far higher than 100 cyclists. I estimate the number at about 500 (perhaps as high as 800). About the death of a biking activist -- that's a tragic but irrelevant point concerning last night's Critical Mass ride. It simply underscores how dangerous Prague's roads are for cyclists. About Czech language, again what's the point here? There are hundreds of Czech-language biking sites on the Internet. This is one of only a handful of Prague biking sites in English. If someone doesn't like this site, he or she can simply hit their browser's "back" button and go read a Czech site. It's that simple.

Now, about Critical Mass. I too had mixed feelings about it, but I'm not sure that a petition -- no matter how many signatures -- is really a strong enough inducement for politicians to change the laws or for drivers to change their mindsets. There's clearly anger on both sides, and cyclists have ample reason to be upset about conditions here. I think more mass rides are needed, but that they need to be much better coordinated and managed. Better planning and supervision could have made a big difference last night.

NGOs like Greenways and others also have to become much more engaged. Prague (and the Czech Republic) need tougher laws to protect cyclists and many more kilometers of recognized bikeways. Only then will cycling start to expand beyond the universe of hard-core enthusiasts and appeal to the general population.

I was living in Vienna in the 1980s when the city transformed itself from a bike-unfriendly to a bike-friendly place (in the course of about five years). The first step was a recognition in law that cyclists have full rights to the roads (in fact, transportation there is prioritized along the following lines: 1, pedestrians 2. mass transportation 3. bikes 4. private automobiles). The second step was a major investment in cycling infrastructure. The result has been a much cleaner and greener city.
Booda said…
Anon you are wrong, far more than 100 cyclists took part, more like 1000 in my opinion. 24 Hodin is far off the mark. As for the reckless cyclists I was quite surprised by how many zipped in and around my children without sparing them a thought. Most people were positive and many drivers sat smiling and even waving as we rode.
Anonymous said…
Good for you for going on the ride. I have heard those ride sometimes become a bit "lawless" so I have avoided them, but then I have never been attracted to "in-your-face" sorts of political action. FYI, I enjoyed reading the Hamburger review.
Grant said…
Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for the post, and the kind words. I, too, had never been attracted to such protests, but as a cyclist who's sick and tired of dealing with aggressive Czech drivers, I thought it might be time to do something more proactive about it. But now I'm not so sure.
conrad said…
Yep, there were many many more people than 100, that number is laughable. While I accept all of the criticism of the previous posts, I still think the rides are necessary. For a start, motorists really need to think about how driving affects not only the global environment, but also the liveability of their own cities, not to metion their own lives. I think a few minutes of inconvenience to the Prague motorists is not too high a price to ask for the prvilege of their driving everyday. I personally know numerous people both here and back in the States who drive out of habit, even when it is quite clearly not the best option. This needs to change, and I think people need some waking up. Motorists effectively hold their own "critical mass" drives every day (think Prague rush hour), and most of us are simply desensitized to it and accept it as OK.

While I do think it's shameful that some riders at the ride misbehaved, I think the majority of us were in a positive mood and caused no harm. Having just returned from a ride on which two motorists beeped and swore at me simply for being on the road, I am even more convinced that people need to realize that cyclists and other pedestrians have a right to be on the road, and if that makes some people angry, well tough.

By the way, cool blog Grant, I've already picked up some good ideas for rides, so thanks.
Grant said…
Hi, Conrad,

Thanks for reading, and for your thoughtful post.

I agree with everything you say about motorists needing to change their thinking about cyclists and cycling. We cyclists most definitely have a right to the road, and motorists need to learn this and respect us. I've been on the receiving end of those beeps and yells, and it's very frustrating.

I'm just not so sure that those same drivers who honk and yell are going to be suddenly convinced of the rightness of our cause when they're stuck in a massive traffic jam because of one of the Critical Mass rallies.

It seems to me that those who already look down on us will only be angered further by the inconvenience and cost of the Critical Mass ride, while those who support us or are cyclists themselves don't need such a protest ride to convince them of the rightness of our cause.

Something about it just didn't seem right to me. I feel bad for saying that, though.
Anonymous said…
Hi Grant!

Thanks for your blogging about the Prague Critical Mass. Most expats would never bother.

I am going to address some of your statements one by one:

"...Meanwhile, hundreds of motorists in the oncoming lane sit and seethe.."

- The people are sitting, the cars are standing still, and the "Magistrala" is as you might know full of traffic every day of the month. It seems to happen in Critical Mass everywhere - you seem to be a keen cyclist, how come you participated for the first time last week? - that drivers blame cyclists rather than other drivers, or, themselves.

***

In hindsight, however, I count myself among that group of cyclists (a minority, perhaps) who believe these Critical Mass rides, which are held all over the world, probably do more harm than good. That they may be counter-productive to our cause.

GRANT, first of all, it is good to bring up this point. To clear up one important bit, all of the sidewalk (pavement) riding IS counter-productive, because the pedestrians are our friends - in fact they are the priority - and it is not their fault the streets in Prague are so (thankfully) narrow.

But the important thing is this:
I think for CM to be successful in improving conditions for cyclists it needs to be part of a Four-Part Solution, involving: 1 - Riding a bike as much as possible in the city, even if it is tough-going, just to be a living example; 2 - A big CM, to let citizens, policy makers and the media know that "We are here!", "We vote!",etc. These are people who for the most part just want to do something once a month for cycling aside from their personal efforts; 3 - A core group of volunteer/members of an organisation focused on city cycling or a programme of a organisation focused on city cycling. They help with activities in trade for beer or pizza, show up at key events without fail, and so on. Ideally, they get incentives for joining.; 4 - A small team of part- or full-time staffers of the organisation who do the nitty-gritty work, meet with planners and policymakers and so on, and do pro-active media outreach. They do not have to have an official role in CM.

So, Prague has and desperately needs bigger CMs. But what it is missing is a tool to direct that energy. A membership org. or something similar with the attributes I describe. Also, people need to Be the Change.

A good example, probably better than one from the West, is the CM in Budapest. The Earth Day ride, yesterday, reportedly had 50,000 participants. Even if some nasty behaviour occurred, it is completely overwhelmed by the positives in both the experience of participants and opinions of non-participants. See here http://criticalmass.hu/english

***

"... Cyclists already have enough problems with Czech motorists. In my opinion, we don't need to piss off thousands more of them, give them another reason to target us..."

THEY are their own worse enemy WAY more than we can be our own.

****

"...Why stage a protest that only angers those you are trying to sway to your side?..."

IT doesn't only anger them. Some get angry, some get angrier, some get resigned, some get inspired. These are people, varied people, and some of them mean well, even if they are trapped in the Hell of Automobilization for the time-being

*****

"...It's hard to understand the mind-set of a Czech driver who, even in the midst of a bike rally, resorts to such crazy behavior. If it's this bad while the cops are around, imagine what it's like for cyclists out on the country roads..."

CM is not a bike rally, and the reason why some drivers act like that is because they feel entitled to be Kings and Queens of the road.

On the spot de-escalation is always a good idea, but when people get to the point of user their car as a weapon INTENTIONALLY the only solution is to beat them down, ideally with words.

***
"...The overwhelming majority were there for the same reasons I was. To make a stand for cyclists' rights...David Murphy, regional coordinator of Environmental Partnership for Sustainable Development..."

DO you know who this organisation "partners" with? Their Czech member Nadace Partnerstvi (NP) collaborates with Skoda Auto, Toyota, Peugeot, and Citroen. They are suckered into making these companies look more green. Along with their collaboration with big development concerns, which among other things are involved in the creation of hundreds of parking spaces in Prague every month, this does way more harm then NP's noble efforts in traffic-calming and so on can mitigate. They also partner with a foundation attached to a defence contractor which provides components for planes used by US Navy fighter-bombers in Iraq. "More harm than good", indeed? I'll leave it for you to decide. See http://www.nadacepartnerstvi.cz

*****

"...Wouldn't it make more sense, instead of these rides, to get Prague's tens of thousands of cyclists to sign a petition that could be presented to national or local authorities for more bike lanes and education programs? To hold mass rallies where our numbers can be seen, but without inconveniencing a good chunk of the city?..."

!!! First of all, how do you get all the cyclists to sign such a petition? Invite them to a event in which they don't ride? Second, there WAS a petition with a broader agenda in 2002 after the floods but it was ignored. Third of all, It is people sitting in their moving or unmoving cars which are the big inconvenience -- compared to their self-inflicted effects cyclists are nothing.

THERE is simply no way to hold a big ride to promote city cycling without doing it on city streets, when others are present. You seem to suggest some kind of Sunday bike ride a bit outside of town, but this is nonsense and just perpetuates thinking that cycling is only about sport, rather than transport, too.

****

"It was supposed to be a "green" protest, but to be honest, it made me see red."

GRANT, I understand your frustration and hope my comments helped.

- Todd in Prague
Mark said…
Todd,

Nice post and some good ideas. So how to start or join or contribute to this organized group that Prague cyclists so desperately need?
Nigel Robinson said…
Dear Grant,

Nigel Robinson from the Environmental Law Service (EPS) here.

There are several organisations who directly or indirectly contribute to CM. I am sure all would be grateful for donations either in kind or cash to help them run the events.

Nigel
Anonymous said…
Mark, go to www.cyklojizdy.cz or www.automat.ecn.cz and look for email addresses and English links. Be patient.
Grant said…
Thanks, Anonymous, for your post. Definitely some things for me to think about in there. I never participated in the CM rally before because I'd never heard of it, frankly. Which must say something.

As for getting cyclists to sign a petition, what about online petitions? I've personally signed quite a few of those, so I know they work.

And what about a CM rally where the cyclists, rather than block the highways and streets for motorists, simply showed up en masse somewhere, like we did on April 19th, and then cycled following the rules of the road. We'd have a string of cyclists many kilometers long.

We'd still make our point, but wouldn't anger those we were trying to convince.

I appreciate everyone's points, but I just can't quite get past the negative feeling I had in the pit of my stomach while going on the CM ride last week. There was something about it that didn't sit right with me.

I LOVED being among all those cyclists, and making a statement, but to see the nasty screaming matches, the close calls between cars and cyclists on the ride, the bad behavior of a small minority of the participants, the traffic at a standstill for many kilometers on Wilsonova and Legerova (what happens if an amubulance needs to get through that mess??!!) ...

There's got to be a better way.
Hank Chapot said…
I will be in Prague in May or early June. Would like to ride a bike in Crirical Mass.

Could someone email me with the date, time and location?

Also, bike rentals nearby.

Thanks. hchapot@igc.org
RE: I know this isn't going to make me many new friends.

As 1 who has experienced a CM Ride that went bad, and spent 2 years on his blog exposing CM for what it is, and exposing the founders, and supporters of the movement for what they are, through actual correspondence with them...

You have a friend in me.

Keep on speaking out.

If you, and your readers, wish to know more, and you are looking for ways to continue your discussion on the subject in future blog posts, click on the link in my name, and you will find my entire CM Archive.

What I have to say, and share, will give you much food for thought.
Grant said…
Thanks, Kiril. CM certainly does divide folks more than any other topic I know. Thanks for writing. I haven't changed my mind since my original post. You won't see me on another CM ride.
Greg Spencer said…
Hi Grant,

An alternative approach to Critical Mass has worked quite well in Budapest. The first ride in 2004 attracted 4,000 riders and the numbers climbed every successive occasion until peaking last spring at 80,000. Ok, some say the numbers are exaggerated, but these crowds are astounding, and have to be witnessed to be believed.

The difference is that for MOST rides in Budapest, organizers get permission from City Hall, with police escort and a traffic-controlled route. The rides are held on Sunday afternoons to minimize disruptions to traffic.

The approach has been criticized as being too soft, for being more of a parade than a protest. However, as far as I know, there have never been any incidents of violence, and the good-natured approach has engendered mainly good will towards bicyclists. During the last mayoral elections, every candidate from right to center to left had a bike-themed poster. The huge numbers at CM made an inevitable impression on the body politic.

Everyday cycling levels have climbed dramatically over the last 4-5 years (this is observation -- no empirical data, unfortunately), and I think we can credit this mainly to the popularizing effect of CM.

At the same time, Critical Mass organizers also have held more traditional rides during weekday rush hour. During these, children and less experienced riders are advised not to participate. Also, organisers stress that participants obey road rules, stay to the right, stop at traffic lights, etc. Hundreds of volunteer escorts in distinctive, bright t-shirts supervise intersections and serve to keep a lid on tempers.

I think critical mass has done a load of good in Budapest and believe it could be a positive movement everywhere with more thoughtful execution.
Grant Podelco said…
Hi, Greg. Thanks for your comment. It sounds like Budapest's blueprint is the way to go. I wish they would adopt that plan for the Critical Mass rides in Prague. If so, I might participate again! Thanks for writing. I really appreciate it.

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