As I rushed to catch up with the huge mob that is Critical Mass this past Friday night, I saw intersections completely backed up. “I must be close,” I thought. Because traffic wasn’t moving on the street, I hopped on to the sidewalk and rode there. One man deliberately did not step aside for me, staring straight at me as if playing chicken. I just stopped and let him walk by. He shook his head and mumbled something like “crazy cyclists.” I thought, “hey, I’m just on the sidewalk because these cars are blocking the street!” But then I remembered that the cars were blocking the street because the cyclists were blocking the cars. And now this man was inconvenienced by me, a crazy cyclist, riding on a semi-crowded sidewalk (which I think cyclists shouldn’t do) and I was upset by his bad attitude about it and I just couldn’t figure out who was right and who was wrong.
“This is kind of complicated,” I thought.
When I joined the mass, I was excited. I was a part of something–a large display of solidarity. I do identify strongly as a biker now, and I sometimes see myself as disadvantaged because of that. I felt like I was standing up for myself, or for something bigger than me, or something. Plus I was having a lot of fun joining this giant mobile party.
People were blocking cars on either ends of intersections that we rode through. I saw cars attempt to creep through and cyclists peel out of the mob to stop in front of them and block their path. Some people honked. Were they angry? If they were, they shouldn’t have honked, because the mass would always cheer in response. Some honkers were definitely supporters–they were good sports and gave passers-by high fives. They didn’t seem to mind being stopped in traffic.
But some people were definitely pissed. For a moment, I thought “see, now you know what it feels like!” And then I realized that being stuck in traffic is basically the opposite of what it feels like to be a biker (if anything, bikers win in traffic because they can just ride between lanes). I tried to think of other reasons why our demonstration was justified.
“Well, these streets are yours the rest of the month, for these few hours they’re ours” (borrowing from some feminist rhetoric I’ve heard to argue, for example, that women’s studies is a more legitimate academic field than men’s studies). Maybe that’s sort of true. I mean, we do have bike lanes. On some streets. Valencia’s traffic lights are timed for bikers. There’s a left-hand turn lane specifically for bikers at Howard and 11th. There are probably other ways in which streets have features for bikers. But there are lots of things about roads that suck for bikers. Like cable car/street car slots. And the fact that we can’t cross the Bay Bridge. And all the potholes on mission.
At the end of the day, I do feel like I’m a guest on the cars’ street every day I bike to work. For example, I know that I can’t reasonably expect that the average driver will check for oncoming bikes from behind when making a right hand turn over the bike lane. I’ve just seen too many near misses. And to be honest I don’t blame those drivers–before I started biking, I wouldn’t have known to look behind me before bearing right for a right-hand turn. If the street belonged to both of us, the car would feel like it were actually crossing a lane of traffic when passing over the bike lane. But that’s not what the bike lane is–it’s just an afterthought. You can even leave your car there if you want. It would be a little more invasive-feeling to put a bike in a normal traffic lane. At the same time, the relationship isn’t quite symmetrical. Cars can’t just pass in the bike lane on valencia when the main lane is blocked. But when the bike lane is blocked (as it is in ~3 places every time I ride to work), bikers can just pass in the main lane (and most cars don’t seem to mind, although some do).
I guess regardless of who has more “right” to the road or various parts of it, I feel like I need to always drive defensively on a bike (more so than in a car, although of course everyone should always drive defensively always). The reality is that cars are big huge death machines to bikers. It’d be cool if I could bike to work without worrying about being killed by a death machine.
Then again, I know the risks every time I get on my bike. I’ve deliberately thought about them and made the choice to keep biking. Do I have a “right” to a safe ride to work? Maybe. Anyway, it would definitely be cool. So maybe critical mass is a political statement about how I want my commute to be less dangerous?
I fell off my bike and hurt my wrist during the mass. It was because some other biker cut me off. It was at least half my fault also though–I was checking my phone and could have reacted in a more sane way if I had two free hands. Unfortunately, people who made fun of me for having only a front brake were vindicated–I flew right over my handlebars.
On the ride home, my wrist hurt and I was angry and for a while I was angry at cars. But then I remembered that cars had nothing to do with why my wrist hurt. At one point I stopped at a green light because a fire truck was coming through. Then it turned red and I had to wait. A car making a left turn onto my street came whizzing right by me–came within inches of hitting me. At first I thought I was in her lane or something. But then I realized I wasn’t. “That was weird, right?” I said to the biker behind me. “She’s probably pissed from being caught in traffic from the mass,” he said.
Between falling on my wrist because of a biker during the mass and getting (maybe) maliciously almost hit by a car after the mass, it looks like the mass didn’t do much for making my life as a biker less dangerous. And I’ll admit that I never really actually thought that was the point. But I actually don’t really know what was.
Did we just want to feel like a group that stood together? Did we just want to have a goofy time taking over the road and riding with a big huge enormous glowing tree with embedded speakers blasting The Knife? I think we did a good job of that.
I still would like to make my commute less dangerous, though. I’m pretty sure we made negative progress on that. I’m worried that participants will confuse their feeling of solidarity with political progress. I know I’ve made that mistake before many times.
There’s probably a name for the psychology behind creating and playing games that you hope to lose, as a demonstration of the unfairness of the other player. For example, I once emailed the Registrar’s office at Dartmouth offering to update their check-in system to email students who have forgotten to check in the day before the deadline, just so that I could get no response and complain about their deliberate avoidance of steps to make it easy for students to check in on time and avoid the fine (to my disappointment, they said “ok,” although they ended up pushing back our meetings until eventually I graduated).
I saw something similar in the spirit behind the cheering response to clearly-pissed, honking drivers at critical mass. We wanted to piss off drivers. On some level, we liked being publicly and openly hated because it was legitimizing–we had all felt hated as bikers before but it was more subtle and indirect. We wanted to draw the hate right up to the surface, so that it was clear. Now we know and the world knows that we are bikers and we have to deal with being hated.
So now we’re all on the same page. Drivers hate bikers. Probably even more so now than before the mass.
Was it worth it?