Critical Mass: For London, it’s time to move on

Like many hundreds of London cyclists I went along to critical mass last Friday night. I’d heard about the possible crackdown by the Metropolitan Police under the Government’s new public order legislation and I wanted to express my right to ride. I’ve been riding in Critical Mass rides in London, Oxford and San Francisco for more than a decade and I’ve usually enjoyed the fun and friendship and the amazing feeling of riding along the city streets in large numbers, safely, showing how a bicycle can solve the problems of congestion.

Last Friday’s ride attracted more than 1000 people. It was an impressive show of solidarity, and to give them their due, the Police acted in an overwhelmingly friendly and cooperative way. But by the time the ride had reached Parliament Square and a group of people decided to brandish their bikes aloft and bring the ride to a complete standstill, I had decided enough was enough.

I’m glad I didn’t stay with the ride as it went back towards the West End but I’ve heard from others that people blocked Oxford Street for almost an hour, held up buses and generally caused disruption to everyone. Spare a though for all those shopworkers on minimum wage trying to get home on a dark Friday night. What kind of a message does that send out to people about cycling and cyclists?

Friday’s ride marked a turning point for me. London’s Critical Mass has always quietly tolerated those people who tried to hijack it for their own causes, whether they’re against Shell, McDonalds or the Iraq War. But now it seems that Critical Mass has inverted its own founding creed of being a bike ride not a protest. It is abundantly clear that it is now a protest, not a bike ride. And in doing so, it has become a convenient vehicle for the angry mob who like to be anti-everything.

Over the years Critical Mass has undoubtedly raised the profile of cycling and contributed in its own way to the massive growth of cycling in the capital. Riding a bike is now a perfectly ordinary way of getting around town, and Governments are broadly supportive, although it is always possible for them to do better. I ride my bike in London and see so many other riders around me that it feels like a Critical Mass every day.

A conversation I overheard on Friday sums it up perfectly. It was a bike messenger complaining, in very good humour, that he rode 100 miles a day, every day, and hadn’t had a mechanical failure for months. But he’d come on Critical Mass for the first time in years and been rear-ended by another rider, buckling his back wheel.

Cycling in London has moved on and Critical Mass now does more harm than good. But this doesn’t mean giving up on group riding, far from it. Any day of the month is a good day to get together with bunch of friends or join up with a local group like Southwark Cyclists for one of their regular Thursday night rides. 6.30pm on the South Side of London Bridge. I’ll see you there.

  • alex bkbk

    biggups for this post Jack. You expressed this opinion when we met for the PATH interview, and so its a shame to have your growing suspicions confirmed by last friday’s event.

    I’m glad that you are speaking out against immature anti-everything kids who live to throw anarchist slogans around and crash the party.

    Miranda and I will definetly make it down to one of the South London rides, just as soon as our work clears up a bit.

    -Alex

  • http://bikeportland.org Jonathan Maus

    Jack,
    Interesting to hear your perspective. Here in Portland, OR, USA many folks are starting to feel the same way. I think Critical Mass has run its course in our city as well.

  • Oliver

    Hi Jack,

    I don’t think it’s true that Critical Mass is now a protest. I agree it’s crap now but that doesn’t mean it’s a protest–it just means it’s not Critical Mass any more.

    Oliver.

  • simon

    i’m surprised anyone really has a definition of what Critical Mass is or isn’t.In the mid-nineties surely it was more of a protest ride on a regular basis.The last ride was not an organised protest.
    It was not a ride with a political or protest objective,but yes spontaneous occasions of what could be termed protest occurred such as staying still in Parliament Square.
    We have just heard that emissions from transport have gone up by 47% in this country since 1990 so its hardly as though great progress has been made.
    Personally i think there is a place for Critical Mass either as Celebration of cycling or as Protest.But its hard to say its ever wholly one or the other and it does go through different phases over the years.

  • jon

    Hi Jack,

    There has been some concern here in San Francisco about young “lifestyle anarchists” screwing up the ride and I have heard sentiments like yours over the last year. It was a big topic of conversation after the post Mass screening of “Still we Ride” a couple of months ago.

    Personally, I don’t much care for blocking traffic for its own sake and I feel that beating up on drivers is not really productive.

    Where I diverge from your opinion is when you say it is time to move on from Critical Mass. The ride goes through change over the years, either as a result of inertia and chance or because people decide to make it change.

    Your employer put a copier in your office for a reason: so you can make take part in Xerocracy on the last Friday of the month! Let’s educate the new riders and remind the older ones about the joy of reclaiming space for other types of traffic. When you see something you don’t like at Critical Mass, make your feelings known. (Respectfully, of course)

    While the common wisdom is that there are no leaders in Critcal Mass, the truth is that we are all leaders and as such we must all take responsibility.

  • Anonymous

    We were amongst those stranded in central London that Friday night by the selfish actions of those who think that because they have a point of view that the entire population becomes disposable.

    Well we aren’t and it is becoming unfortunately more and more true that antics of these “free speechers” are actually going to end up achieving the exact opposite. The general public and authorites are growing less and less tolerant of their lives being disrupted by these never had anything never will carpetbaggers.

    Enjoy your cycling by all means, but leave roadspace available for the other legally entitled users who pay for those roads – the ones ones with lights, audible means of warning, and third party insurance!

  • rakan

    After sharing my views with Jack in October about that ride (my views were pretty similair to his), I went on my first london CM on Monday morning for Mayday. I only stayed about 45 mins, but it was good fun and a lot different from that terrible october night :(

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  • Leah

    Well it sure is the right
    time to do so. I have always wanted to make it a bit memorable for them since
    tough times call for it. Thanks for Olympics for giving them affirmation as
    well.

    Leah Hilburn