Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Mass: With All Its Faults, Still Critical to Cyclists

Sergeant Mark Tonner of the Vancouver Police force asks a number of questions of his readers on the subject of the Critical Mass bike ride. I think all cyclists, whether they ride Critical Mass or not, have their own answers. I thought I would give mine. What I have to say pertains to Toronto and not other cities with a critical mass ride; as a cyclist who sometimes rides with Toronto Critical Mass, I can comment on the things I have seen. I only know about events around Critical Mass in other cities from news reports and comments.

Sergeant Tonner repeats two arguments against Critical Mass: that "corking" cross streets to keep the ride together violates the law, and cyclists on the ride engage in various forms of aggression against motorists. I don't accept the first argument; often when a large number of people take to the roads at once, private individuals or the authorities direct traffic to assure orderly and safe movement. Since cyclists have the right to use the roads in Ontario (under the highway traffic act) and the right to assemble (under the Canadian Charter of Rights), I believe we can, and should, direct traffic to make sure we can ride as safely as possible and with minimal disruption. However, on recent Critical Mass rides I have seen deliberate halts at major intersections, that do not make the ride safer or more comfortable. Those actions celebrate bicycle culture and the freedom to ride; they protest against automotive culture by disrupting it.

I have no objection to civil disobedience. I have engaged in a number of acts of civil and religious witness in which I risked arrest. And I believe a reasonable person can see in automotive culture, with its social isolation, environmental pollution, and careless carnage, something badly in need of protest. But I would not advise anyone to bring pre-teen children on a civil disobedience action, and I would strongly advise anyone at Critical Mass wishing to engage in civil disobedience to allow a clear separation between their challenge to the law and the families out for a ride and a celebration.

With all its faults, all the tension at the corks, all the push and pull about whether to turn Critical Mass into a full anti-automobile and anti-pollution demonstration, or into a celebration of cycling, the mass remains a critical celebration of the cycling community, and a reminder of its solidarity and strength. Because the cost of riding a bicycle on the streets of Toronto includes an endless round of daily, petty, and often dangerous harassment: the motorists who feel free to honk their horn and tell you what to do, the driver who tries to take your right of way at a four way stop and curses you out, the automobile passenger who thinks it a great joke to yell at you out of a window to see if you'll jump. We need reminding, and our tormentors need reminding too, that we belong to a community. We stand for something. They can make us angry, they can make us frightened, but they cannot make us give up. And as long as an ugly minority of motorists keep trying to push us off the roads, the celebration of Critical Mass will include an element of defiance; it will celebrate endurance and survival as well as all the things we gain for ourselves through that simplest of machines we choose to add to our lives.

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