By Daniel J. McGraw
Before we got on our bikes, I had asked just about everyone I could how long it would take to get where we were going, and what route we would take to get there. I asked the guys selling t-shirts and they didn’t know. I asked some riders who looked like they might know – folks with nice bikes and good gear and mirrors on their helmets—but no, they didn’t know either. One guy said “No one knows,” and laughed like I was some freshman in high school asking the seniors where the cafeteria was.
“No one knows.”This was the most recent Cleveland Critical Mass bicycle ride, held on the last Friday of every month, beginning at Public Square around 7 p.m., and ending a few hours later at a predetermined location. On this ride, the end point was Rivergate Park off Merwin Avenue down in the Flats, less than a mile from the starting point, as the crow flies. I mainly wanted to know how we were getting there because I had heard the ride might be two hours or so, and I don’t like riding my bike at night if I don’t need to, and live about a half hour west. I mostly wanted to figure out if I should peel off and head home at some point.
But that’s not how the Cleveland Critical Mass does things. So off we went at 7 p.m., heading east on Euclid, closing off that street with what police estimate was 500-800 riders. As we hit the busy E. Ninth Street intersection, a policeman on motorcycle blocked traffic, along with “corkers,” volunteers from the group that ride ahead and keep cars from moving through intersections so the bikes can. Then past Playhouse Square, under the new chandelier, and moving through theater-goers trying to cross the street and valet parkers trying to move cars. A few blocks away, the toothbrush lights were on and the Cleveland Indians game was beginning at Progressive Field.
A nice ride, with some disturbing, anarchic aspects.From there it was down to Cleveland State University, north to Superior Avenue, over the Detroit-Superior Bridge (both lanes westbound closed to car traffic as the bikes crossed), through Ohio City and Tremont before ending up in the Flats. A nice ride for the most part, a little less than two hours, with some people waving as we passed, others with arms folded at intersections looking frustrated by their wait. Got to ride and talk to some friends I haven’t seen in a few years.
But there were also some disturbing, anarchic aspects to this ride. Over the course of the ride, the bike line got strung out pretty far, and fits and starts made it difficult to keep things moving through intersections. Clogging streets and blocking intersections in a busy downtown at 7 p.m. on a Friday night seemed to almost be the point. Several times ambulances had to get by the mass of riders. As the group passed the fire station near E. 18th St. and Superior Ave., a fire truck was leaving on a call.
This is the conundrum of the Critical Mass movement.The organizers had no permit, had no pre-arranged route on file with the city, and blocked major intersections for what amounted to little more than a street party. Despite this, the Cleveland police were involved in two very odd ways. At the front of the pack, a squad car and a motorcycle cop were blocking intersections along with the corkers. But at the back of the line, another officer was writing tickets to riders for running red lights. The city says three tickets were written during the ride.
This is the conundrum of the Critical Mass movement, which now numbers about 300 rides across the country. Most started out as an act of civil disobedience, a demonstrative pavement power play for bicyclists to show their city that they had as much right to the roadways as cars. The hipster anarchists were the starting point, thinking that planning and permits and working with government officials was very much a part of the problem. It’s a spontaneous political act, I was told by several on the ride, and we can’t be spontaneous if we plan it out.
Hipster-anarcho-cool eventually evolves into “family friendly” these days.But hipster-anarcho-cool eventually evolves into “family friendly” these days, and that is what has happened to most of the Critical Mass rides over the years. In an interview with the SF Weekly last year, one of the San Francisco founders of their event, which was the first in 1992, lamented that the monthly counterculture gathering of bicyclists was now “more like an amusement park ride.” The crowd at the Cleveland event last week reiterated that notion, with many kids riding with parents and the millennials checking each other out.
But the key question I had before I went on the ride remains unanswered: If the purpose of this monthly ride is to increase awareness that bikes are equal to cars on the roadways, why block cars at intersections on a Friday night to make your point?
“We have a right to ride our bikes in the roads. We don’t have to earn it through good behavior.”The fact that bicyclists on the Critical Mass ride were ticketed by police drew fury from many riders and blew up on Facebook. When it was suggested by some that maybe the ride would work better with permits and pre-publicized route, there was a lot of disdain: “We have a right to ride our bikes in the roads,” said one. “We don’t have to earn it through good behavior.”
The city released a statement this week indicating they might be re-evaluating the rides, which have been going on for about eight years: “A portion of the May 30th event took riders through downtown Cleveland during early evening traffic, including vehicular and pedestrian traffic for citizens attending a Cleveland Indians home game. During the critical mass event there were 3 bicyclists ticketed by members of Division of Police Bureau of Traffic enforcement for a red light violation.”
“While participating in the event, these riders failed to obey traffic signals and created a hazardous situation for themselves, motor vehicle operators and pedestrians. While we welcome and encourage the participants of this event, we remind them that the traffic laws must be obeyed by all in order to ensure traffic safety for all.” (Emphasis theirs)
The CPD didn’t explain why they were escorting at the front and ticketing in the back, but have said they will meet with bike advocates this week to find out if perhaps more coordinated planning might be needed. Jacob VanSickle, executive director of Bike Cleveland, says that this type of reaction by police happens as the Critical Mass rides age in each city. “There needs to be a balance struck,” VanSickle said. “There obviously was some confusion in that you had police escorting the front of the riders through traffic lights, and police at the back end writing tickets.”
Is the ride is a mass political protest, or a family-friendly bike ride? Can it be both?“I think the Critical Mass ride is an important positive for the city, and they use videos of the ride in their tourism campaign,” he continued. “The ride is very good about getting the message out that more people riding bicycles is a positive for Cleveland, but maybe we need a conversation with the police on how cyclists should be treated while they are using the roads.”
VanSickle was riding with his 16-month son, Milo, during the Critical Mass last week. And therein lies part of the conundrum. Is the ride is a mass political protest, where the riders say eff you to the powers that be, and take over the roads for a few hours? Or is it a family-friendly bike ride where you hang with friends and ride for a few miles and then meet for a few drinks at the end point? The problem right now is that it is a little of both.
“We are just making people more aware that we have a right to the road when we do this ride.”Krissie Wells, who works for a social service non-profit agency in Cleveland, and was working as one of the corkers on last weeks’ ride, said she rides “because I want to make people aware that the system of transportation is working against me because I am riding a bicycle and not in a car,” she said. “And the group that rides is very diverse in terms of race and age and economics, and it is rare for that to happen in Cleveland. I don’t see any advantage to pre-planning. Cars have to get out of the way of fire trucks. Funeral processions go through lights. We are just making people more aware that we have a right to the road when we do this ride.”
But Amanda Harland, an accountant and a board member of Bike Lakewood, which advocates on bicycle policy in that city, shared a different perspective on Facebook.
While I understand the CCM rides are supposed to be a political statement in regards to sharing the road and recognizing cyclists there are a few things I do not understand. Why is not possible to work with the City on route plans? I realize the point is take the roads back, but is it necessary to add to already traffic jammed streets and delay travel to evening destinations for Concerts /Theaters/ or Sporting events where traffic and pedestrians are already backed up? It seems as though the message being relayed in those instances is that we are purposefully discourteous and I don’t think that is the message the cycling community is attempting to spread…
Is it time for some of Cleveland’s bike advocates to grow up?In essence, some of the bike advocates in Cleveland may need to grow up a bit. In the political world, you initially slap the hierarchy in the face to let them know you exist, but over time, you realize that you need to get beyond face-slapping and down to discussions and bargaining and horse-trading and all that. In effect, the hipster anarchists have to give up their “I’m not a part of anything” creed.
And maybe my take on these rides has to do with my age and history cycling. I started cycling in the mid-eighties, inspired by an American who won the Tour de France three times without performance enhancing drugs. I’ve ridden 65 mph on Interstate 40 in the Texas Panhandle drafting behind a truck, and I’ve had pickups try to swerve and hit me and throw trash at me. I’ve broken ribs in spills, and love city riding much more than the open spaces in the country. I still ride about 80-100 miles a week, and do lots of errands on my bike, like riding to the grocery store or going to meetings downtown by bike.
But through all these years, there has been one theme I have fought against. People who don’t like bikes on the roadway think bike riding is a “hobby” and that we shouldn’t spend any public money to make bike riding more accepted and safer and easier. Someone recently told me that if I want to ride my bike, I should just go use the park trails. I told them the grocery stores aren’t located on the park trails. She seemed confused.
“Oh you’re one of them.”Last year about this time, I was shopping at the West Side Market in Cleveland, and my bike was locked on Lorain Avenue. When I came out, a group ride was going by; the riders coming out of the Tremont neighborhood, dressed like 1890s folks with handlebar mustaches and knickers riding old bikes, some with little trailers on the back for kids to ride in. A guy standing on the sidewalk looked at me as I was moving toward my bike and said “these bicycle riders think they can take over the roads.” I nodded and moved over to my bike.
When the guy saw me unlocking my bike and putting my purchases in my bike bags, he said, “Oh you’re one of them.” I shook my head, and looked out on what seemed like an endless line of costume wearing hobbyists, and told him, “No, I’m just waiting for them to get through so I can get back home too.”
Maybe that’s my problem on all of this. I don’t ride for fun or to make a political statement or to socialize on Friday night. I ride to get from point A to point B, to run my errands and do my work, go to the park or to some family member’s house. Nothing more than that. My bicycle is transportation, not a lifestyle statement. And I always thought that should be the goal in policy and the way we look at bikes as part of the overall transportation network. I just don’t think blocking automobile traffic downtown on a busy night does much to do that.
Daniel J. McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt.
Photo by Daniel J. McGraw
Update: This article has been amended to reflect accurate versions of Amanda Harland and Krissie Wells’ comments on Critical Mass.