My first experience with Critical Mass, the pro-bicycle organization that takes to the streets monthly in droves, was about a decade ago when I was still living in New York City. I recall walking down Fifth Avenue on a Friday evening when a herd of bikers came careening down the avenue; there must have been a thousand of them. They hooted and hollered as they drove by, swerving past cabbies and town cars. It was quite a sight to see, and all the people on the sidewalk stopped what they were doing and reveled in the moment. I was awestruck.
Houston is no stranger to Critical Mass. The H-Town arm of the organization has been in existence since the early 2000s. The group meets up on the last Friday of each month starting at Market Square, and they proceed to take to the streets in an "organized/disorganized" fashion. Sometimes the route is planned, sometimes they wing it, but they always have a great time. It's a monthly party on bikes with a cause: bring awareness to car drivers that bikers are a part of the roads. For a long time, this didn't appear to be bothering anyone, but something has changed.
There is no denying that Houston's Critical Mass is growing in numbers. What used to be 100 to 150 riders can now be estimated at closer to 1,000 on certain monthly rides. This expansion can be attributed to several things -- greater awareness, heightened publicity, more people biking in general and the development of the city. Regardless of reason, Critical Mass has made some enemies, and they are trying to figure out the best course of action.
Are people really angry at Critical Mass, and what is setting this negativity off?
Hector Garcia, a longtime rider and volunteer with the group, is wondering the same thing. Garcia notes that there has been a recent increase in complaints about the rides, but he sees the current issues as manageable. He admits that the group's notoriety for breaking traffic laws and partying is not unfounded, but he attributes the rise in this behavior to newer riders who have yet to acclimate to the informal rules of the organization.
"Critical Mass has definitely grown," says Garcia, "and we see more and more people coming in to ride from outside the city who may not be aware of city riding. This is something we are working on."
Aside from those who don't know the ins-and-outs of riding in a developed city street, the sheer size of Critical Mass is an issue as well. Just as with any other organization, growth is a desire, but it comes with its challenges, and that is where the city comes in.
Recently, the city reached out to Critical Mass to try to work with the group to ensure safer roads for both riders and cars. Garcia can't say enough good things about how the city has been handling the problems. This past month, Critical Mass held its annual Halloween ride, "Critical Massacre," and the crowd swelled into the thousands. Being cognizant of this possibility, the city had Houston Police officers along the route making sure traffic moved along. But there were still kinks.
"There was definitely a lot more stopping and going than we are used to in this ride," mentions Garcia. "I am sure this was felt more by the drivers who got caught up in the traffic." However, Garcia does not feel this is the norm, but more of a product of the evolution of how to manage these rides. There is a learning curve.
But that learning curve might be too curvy for some Houstonians. A petition has been submitted through Change.org for the city to completely stop Critical Mass's monthly rides. The petition states:
Every month anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand bicycle riders participate in an event called "Critical Mass." They ride through downtown Houston in a large group ignoring traffic lights and, whenever possible, cars. Apparently, they consider it some kind of demonstration, but the only thing they demonstrate is selfish, childish, irresponsible, dangerous behavior on our city streets. It is not unusual to be stuck for more than half an hour waiting for these adult children to get out of the way.
(I reached out to the originator of the petition for comments, but he/she did not return my inquiries).
As of this posting time, the petition has 44 signers, which wouldn't be enough to catch much attention, but the reaction on social media has been explosive, and many people are very upset with the organization. Of those in favor of shutting down Critical Mass, many of the more negative comments say that the rides are just big parties with drunken bicyclists who disobey traffic laws and cause a hazard to those on the road or walking within the route. Others say that if the rides are supposed to be a type of activism, which some consider Critical Mass to be, the group is going about it all wrong and "blocking traffic" and "acting childish" is not a way to rally support for a cause. Throughout the 200-plus comments I stumbled upon, colorful language and four-letter words directed at the riders were commonplace. Of course, there are those against the petition, who say that Critical Mass is doing something positive for the cycling community and it's just a handful of rotten apples who are making the entire organization look bad. Others applaud Critical Mass for its efforts to bring more awareness to cycling and say that "traffic is traffic," which cannot be blamed on the cycling group.
Kyle Nielsen, another prominent rider with Critical Mass Houston, who has been a part of the group since 2007, understands some of the frustration but mentions that the group is actively working to improve the ride for everyone involved. Those improvements include driving through neighborhoods that are more "receptive" and changing stops from bars to grocery shops to encourage safer riding.
Nielsen adds that the road goes both ways, so to speak, and Critical Mass riders have been struck down by motorists in the past when managing the streets alone. Nielsen recalls one 2009 fatality, in particular, of a Critical Mass regular who was hit by a car. According to the Web site bicyclinginfo.org, 677 riders died due to run-ins with cars in 2011. Because there is safety in numbers, Critical Mass deems itself a haven for cyclists.
"Critical Mass is one of the safest places for a cyclist to ride on the road. Maybe someday we'll reach a point where infrastructure, public policy and public sentiment provide some significant protection for cyclists, but until then I will continue to participate in this event," says Nielsen.
For now, the group will actively work with the city and hope that this quells some of the recent criticism. And as far as those who are still very upset with the group, Garcia invites them to come ride.
"The best way to understand the Mass," Garcia says, "is to be a part of it."
If you want to take Garcia up on his offer, Critical Mass meets at 6:30 p.m. the last Friday of the month at Market Square. Additionally, participants who are interested in the cause (positively or negatively) can join the group's Facebook page and partake in the plethora of bike rides and events happening all over the city, including the upcoming 2nd Annual HTX Bike Fest, which will be held on November 16 at Market Square Park.
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