Saturday, 31 October 2009

Cycling City - Critical Mess

Here's an amusing little quandary for Cllr Jon Rogers and Bristol's Cycling City leadership. They've just launched a new web site, called Better by Bike, as reported on on this blog back in September. Unlike previous Cycling City web sites this one is intended to allow a certain degree of public participation, at least in terms of posting details of forthcoming events and rides. No doubt this is in response to Jon Rogers' wish for the project to be more open and to embrace the wider cycling public.

But straightaway the principle of openness is put to the test. Someone has posted details of all the forthcoming Critical Mass bike rides on the Better by Bike events list. Now for those of you that don't know Critical Mass is pretty controversial since it involves a large group of cyclists completely taking over the section of roadway they are using, typically spreading out to occupy two or three traffic lanes to block any overtaking by motorists. To some extent this is a necessary tactic to keep the ride as one coherent body and not allow it to become fragmented.

Needless to say some of the motorists stuck behind a Critical Mass ride and reduced to a snail's pace for anything up to, what, a few minutes (shock, horror) don't appreciate this tactic and tend to express their frustration by illegal horn sounding and, given half a chance, aggressive overtaking. On occasion things can get nasty and violent confrontations have ensued, although that is certainly not the objective of Critical Mass. This facebook site gives more background to Bristol Critical Mass.

Like many cyclists I've always had mixed feelings about the event. It's good to get together with other cyclists once a month to enjoy that fabled 'safety in numbers' and to create a different kind of street culture for a couple of hours. But I've never been comfortable with the inevitable (?) confrontation with motorists. I know they bring the whole city to a standstill twice a day for 250 days of every year but even so I can't help wondering if aggravating them serves any useful purpose.

Anyway back to Jon Rogers and Cycling City. How are they going to react to discovering that they are using council resources to host details of such a controversial event as Critical Mass? Openness is all very well in theory but when it means advertising Critical Mass on a council web site even a liberal democrat like Jon Rogers might have second thoughts. My guess is that Critical Mass will be scrubbed from Better by Bike by noon on Monday.

Pics from Bristol Critical Mass summer 2009


Jon Rogers said...

I don't have a problem with information about any legitimate cycling event going up on the website. Good to see it being used!

Chris Hutt said...

But that leaves open the question of what constitutes a 'legitimate' cycling event. Can we presume from the context that you consider Critical Mass legitimate? Can we look forward to your presence at the next Critical Mass on 27th November?

Jon Rogers said...

Legitimate = "accordant with law"

I have been on one Critical Mass ride and found it rather confrontational. Not my style.

Actually, to be more accurate, I am trying to make it "not my style"!

Chris Hutt said...

Accordant with law? Would the term 'law' include the Highway Code? If it did then I think we could probably say that most mass cycling events (and most bike and car commutes for that matter) are 'illegitimate'.

The main difference between Critical Mass and mass bike rides like say Bristol's Biggest Bike Ride is that the latter are sanctioned by the authorities. Does this constitute 'legitimacy?

Jon Rogers said...

I went on a Critical Mass ride and did not knowingly break the law.

The Highway Code is a set of rules, many of which are legal requirements.

So, for example, "Help other road users to see you." is a sensible rule but not a legal requirement.

In contrast, "You MUST NOT cycle on a pavement" is a confusing but legal requirement.

Confusing, because in many places in Bristol you can "legitimately" cycle on the pavement. The Highway code acknowledges this, "Not all routes which are shared with cyclists are segregated."

If those attending the Critical Mass rides think the purpose is to "break the law" then the advert should be pulled, but that is not the stated aims as I understand them.


Bristol Dave said...

Critical Mass amply demonstrates the arrogance of Bristol's (and other cities) cyclists.

They're hardly making an attempt to ingratiate themselves with other road users.

WestfieldWanderer said...

@Bristoldave: Can you think of any "class" of road user that makes any attempt to "ingratiate" themselves to "other" road users?

I don't think such an animal exists.

Evidently "arrogance" is not exclusive to "cyclists" by a very long stretch.

Chris Hutt said...

As I see it Critical Mass intends to assert the right of cyclists to use the main roads of this city without being harassed or intimidated by motorists.

The problem is that the only way of achieving that under the present system of traffic management is to assert a new paradigm that does not accord with that supported by the Highway Code.

So as I see it Critical Mass is inevitably a challenge to the letetr of the Highway Code but not to the spirit of it in as far as that spirit suggests that we should all share the roads safely.

If we take the example Jon gives - "'Help other road users to see you' is a sensible rule" - this is a rule devised to shift the burden of responsibility from those who create the danger to those who are victims of it.

If 'other road users' have difficulty seeing pedestrians then they shouldn't be driving. It's as simplev as that. This 'rule' is simply pandering to the 'sorry mate I didn't see you' (SMIDSY) mentality.

This rule should go and you really can't expect the Highway Code to be respected as long as it includes such blatantly partisan rules.

Chris Hutt said...

Good point WW. It is testament to the arrogance of some motorists that they assume cyclists should 'ingratiate' themselves with motorists in the first place.

You certainly won't ever catch motorists talking about their duty to 'ingratiate' themselves with cyclists. As far as motorists are concerned it's always a one-way street leading to an acknowledgement of their hegemony but that's what Critical Mass challenges.

Quercus said...

I go to Critical Mass.

I was on that one, you might find me in those photos. I went to last week's, too. (September's was sketchy - only about 13 of us).

Regarding legitimacy, though, I'd argue that the main way in which Critical Mass is confrontational is when it becomes necessary to 'cork' a junction to allow the group to stay together. This often happens at traffic lights, of course, but motorists generally only miss one 'green light' as the cyclists pass through on the (usually one) red to keep the 'mass' together.

Of course the motorists get angry. They missed their green light. Which can lead to confrontation.

Just as when a SINGLE motorist stops on a yellow box in the rush-hour, effectively 'corking' the traffic. Or when a delivery van or car double parks, turning the road into a single file lane. Or when a car parked on double yellows forces cyclists into the middle of the road, thereby slowing other road users down.

On balance I reckon Critical Mass is no less in accordance with the law than getting into a car and driving.

My father spent some time as a Policeman. He told me, in about 1970, that the general public would never, normally, ever interface with the Police... until they drove a car. His point was that it is almost impossible for a driver not to break the law every time he/she drives.

I think this is still the case. Probably more so (when I look out of my house at all the cars parked on the pavement I know it is).

MJ Ray said...

Maybe Bristol Critical Mass will pay more attention to the law when Avon and Somerset Police do? I've tried and failed to get the local police to do something about the parking in bike lanes, but apparently they won't act unless there are also double-yellow lines! Of course, wet yellow paint is the last thing needed in bike lanes. So, the repeat offenders appearing on are no suprise and should be a great concern to Cycling City.

Anonymous said...

So, yet another cyclist who takes part in Critical Mass stating they will only abide to the law once motorists do. Pathetic. Grow up.

WestfieldWanderer said...

@anonymous: I think that what he's trying to say is that the laws are there but they just need enforcing. It's human nature to misbehave when you think you can get away with it.
We need to encourage the authorities to reverse the decline in traffic police manning (19% fall in traffic police numbers in the last 10 years, 77% decline in prosecutions for bad driving, according to the CTC). The very real risk of getting caught should concentrate the minds of most, methinks. That risk, currently, is minimal.
My own feeling is that it's sad that something like "Critical Mass" is even considered necessary. Indicates a failure somewhere along the line.

htuttle said...

Critical Mass Bike rides are in accordance with the law. The House of Lords ruled on it last year.

So no problem with BCC promoting these events.

Paul said...

Hi Htuttle,

I don't think anyone has argued that the idea of Critical Mass is illegal in anyway, there is after all nothing to stop a group of cyclists getting together. What I think some people are trying saying is that the behaviour, once the event is underway, is sometimes less than desirable.

(I know the initial reaction to the above statement will be "motorists behaviour is undesirable 24/7, so why does one day a month mean anything?" but we are talking about Critical Mass)

Ben said...

What points of the Highway Code are in question to determine whether Critical Mass is legal?

I did my driving theory test last year and passed well first time, I think I remember it fairly well, I can't think of anything in the Highway Code which Critical Mass necessarily breaks.

I cycle every day, lots, and I see car drivers breaking the Highway Code and being inconsiderate, dangerous and often deliberately aggressive towards cyclists almost every time I go out.

Taxi drivers are well known to be exceedingly aggressive and lawless. Imo there is sufficient evidence to require taxi drivers to re-take their driving test to get their licence renewed, because so many of them have acquired the reputation of being dangerous drivers. On Sunday night walking back from Temple Meads I had two taxi drivers nearly ran me down at pedestrian crossings, both times in definite violation of the law- one sped through close behind me as I was halfway across a zebra crossing, the second time I was crossing at one of those pedestrian lights that takes such a long time to change that you know it's a sign the Council subscribes to the hierarchical, slightly fascist notion of most car drivers that 'Might is Right' and pedestrians should only cross at the convenience of car drivers- and I hadn't waited for it to change, but the taxi carried on accelerating towards me so that I had to run -Highway Code says pedestrians have right of way at all times, even when they're being stupid/ in the wrong place at the wrong time, you still always have to slow down for them.

The real problem is that car drivers have a hierarchical idea of their right to use their road, 'Might is Right' basically, and consider cyclists less powerful therefore inferior and to have less right to use the road.

The point of Critical Mass as I see it is to exercise our legal rights according to the Highway Code to use the road and to take up a whole lane and move at a reasonable speed but not necessarily as fast as the car behind would like.

If legal rights are not exercised they become ineffective through desuetude. That's actually what's nearly happened in the UK, and Critical Mass is just trying to re-assert and exercise our
legal rights.

In Denmark, they've invested hugely in protected cycle lanes with curbs to keep the bloody cars out, and they now have a proportional rate of deaths of cyclist from being hit by cars of 1/3rd compared to the UK. In pro-bike countries like Denmark, the hierarchy of the road according to the law is very clearly pedestrians first in all things, second bicyclists, third public buses/trams, fourth private cars, and fifth big lorries.

As usual, the UK is a hopeless case, and the only solution is to emigrate to Scandinavia asap.