Critical Mass rides are protests for respect

Three weeks ago, the third Tucson Critical Mass Bike Ride took place, and more than 100 bicyclists took to the streets and rode. As usual, there was equal parts jubilation and outrage, and the event was often misinterpreted by the press and those caught in traffic.

The Critical Mass ride is not an attempt to see how many traffic snarls bicyclists can create, it's a political action designed to increase public (and especially driver) awareness about bicycle commuters. In this city, as in most, riders are treated like dirt I've been cursed at, cut off, forced off the road and just plain ignored by cars, and most of that took place while I was within a bike lane.

Critical Mass is a way for bicyclists to demonstrate their numbers, their solidarity, and their power (when we choose to exercise it) to control the streets. Mass rides take place in cities all over the world, and in every case they positively affect local traffic policy and commuter attitudes, making streets safer for bikes and the air cleaner for everyone.

The ride is not just a bunch of hippie-activist types on mountain bikes, it's a true cross-section of the Tucson community. People who gave Abel Duffy the finger while he was on the clock tower and people who put him up there ride side-by-side, shouting "Clean air!" and "Ride a bike!" and "We're not blocking traffic, we ARE traffic!"

Every ride so far has had bike geeks in jerseys, goatee wearers on their beach cruisers, senior citizens, parents with kids, and students from all majors and walks of life riding together in the mass. People from diverse ethnic, economic and political backgrounds come out for Critical Mass, because it's not a political party thing, it's a bike thing.

The ride takes up the entire street as a safety measure, not as a way to annoy motorists. If cyclists only took up one or two lanes, that would leave a lane open for cars to go past, probably in excess of the 35 m.p.h. speed limit. In that situation one errant twitch of a steering wheel or a set of handlebars would result in a horrible disaster. There has never been an accident or death as a result of a Critical Mass ride, because riders control the speed, making it safe for both motorists and bicycles. Emergency vehicles and police are let through, because the group has absolutely no intention of endangering anyone's life. The maximum speed of a Mass ride is only 10 m.p.h., to keep the pack together and achieve a dense Mass.

Routes and procedures are decided bare minutes before the ride, to allow us an element of surprise, and riders themselves take full responsibility for their own actions. This doesn't mean it's an action without a brain. Critical Mass rides are political actions designed to push a definite agenda: we want more bike lanes. Cyclists want our rights as commuters recognized. Riders want the bicycle to be considered a safe, healthy alternative to polluting, petroleum-dependent cars.

Other demands are more relevant to the local traffic situation: Bicyclists want a car-free zone or a "bikes only" lane stretching from the East side to campus and downtown to make commuting safer and more practical. We would like to see more buses with bike racks, and more racks in front of businesses and city buildings. Critical Mass is a way to push our agenda forward, a way for us to be visible, impossible to ignore, and, ultimately, to affect change.

Many people say we're missing the point, and the rides actually damage bicyclists' reputations, rather than build them. I'll just say that for every middle finger, we get a dozen thumbs up, and more people honk to cheer us on than to frighten us off. We may annoy a few 100 people in a relatively harmless way, but that's a small price paid for the benefits we will all reap: cleaner air, safer commuting, and a heathier, happier Tucson.

So if you get stuck behind a Critical Mass ride you'll probably still foam at the mouth and scream obscenities. That's okay. I've seen people who coo at babies and cry during AT&T commercials turn into raging, maniacal basket cases behind the wheel cars do that, I don't know why. My advice is to turn up the radio and enjoy the slow, quiet ride. Ask yourself: is 20 minutes really such a huge part of my day? Is this really worth getting hoarse and possibly spraining my middle finger? Is the sky always this blue? Maybe you'll ask yourself the ultimate question: why am I sitting in this petroleum-sucking pollution box, when I could be out there on a bike?

See you April 6, and the first Thursday of every month afterwards.

Michael Eilers is a creative writing graduate student.

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