The Chainlink

Critical Mass Pedals Awareness, but Bikers Need to Pump the Brakes, Critics Say

From Medill Reports with several Chainlinkers quoted.
Critical Mass Map

John Greenfield / www.gridchicago.com

Critical Mass route proposals, like this one, are voted on by participants the day of the event, and can often change mid-ride.

Critical Mass pedals awareness, but bikers need to pump the brakes, critics say

BY ALEX E. WEAVER
JAN 26, 2012

Critical Mass Corking

"Corking" is a technique used to block drivers from driving through the cyclists. It's intended as a safety precaution, but it's illegal.

Is it possible that a monthly cycling event, by way of its success, has become a hypocritical mass? 

Hundreds of bicyclists will swarm downtown streets during peak rush hour Friday, all in the name of pedal-pusher awareness. But some experts say this traffic-snarling “party parade on wheels” does more to hurt its cause the bigger it gets. 

“Illinois requires cars and bikes to share the road. Motorists often don’t get that,” said Brendan H. Kevenides, a Chicago attorney who focuses on bike-related accidents. “But Critical Mass is not sharing either. It is bikes taking over the streets in a sort of ‘in your face’ way.” 

Critical Mass, in Chicago and worldwide, is intended to be a demonstration, a visual representation of how many bikers actually exist in any one place, tangible proof that bikes are traffic, too. 

Though there is no formal hierarchy, no appointed leaders or official organizers, safety in numbers seems to be the favored vehicle of change for month after month of Critical Mass rides. 

“It was definitely one of my first introductions to biking in the city and with a group of people where I felt safe,” said Julie Hochstadter, owner and director of Thechainlink.org, an online community for regional cyclists. “If anything, it is showing cars that there are a lot of cyclists in the city.” 

Critical Mass pedals safer bike conditions by becoming a force of traffic itself, comprising a range of participants month to month, from as few as 100 in the cold winter months to well into the thousands when the weather warms. 

Steven Lane has been involved with the ride as a participant and volunteer for the past 12 years. The September ride of 2007 – the event’s 10th anniversary in Chicago – saw more than 5,000 riders, according to Lane. This September will mark its 15th anniversary. 

No matter how many riders turn out, the atmosphere is one of spontaneity and free will. The route isn’t decided until just before the first kickstand goes up and can often change mid-ride. 

“That's the beauty of it,” Hochstadter said. “If you can convince people, anything can happen. There are no rules.” 

According to some experts, this may also be its greatest undoing. 

Illinois state law requires cyclists to adhere to the same traffic laws as cars, meaning stop signs and red lights hold the same weight whether you’re steering a Trek or a Toyota. 

Promoting such awareness is one of the main charges for the Active Transportation Alliance, a Chicago nonprofit cycling advocacy organization. But the approach Critical Mass takes isn’t one they fully support. 

“While we support the goals and spirit of Critical Mass, we can’t overlook breaking traffic laws that are designed to keep everyone on the streets safe,” said Ethan Spotts, marketing and communications director with the Active Transportation Alliance. 

It’s a contradiction that has nipped at the wheels of Critical Mass for years. How can cyclists advocating safer streets and bicycle awareness choose to compromise the very rights they’ve worked so hard to earn? 

“If they’re not obeying traffic laws, it is an issue,” said Steve Schlickman, executive director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Urban Transportation Center. “It can be counterproductive to other people’s attitudes towards bikers.” 

The riders’ defense is that keeping the mass together requires running red lights, and a fractured group is less impactful than a consolidated one. But when the group grows too large, the effect on commuting traffic is palpable. 

“Corking” refers to the technique of select riders blocking opposing traffic while the rest of the riders navigate an intersection. It’s a safety measure, but it can be confusing and annoying for motorists. It’s also illegal. 

“It is an unlawful activity and the riders who position themselves in front of vehicles place themselves in a dangerous position,” said Lt. Maureen Biggane, commanding officer of Chicago Police News Affairs. “Our officers are directed when they observe this to instruct the rider to cease this activity and continue riding.” 

Gin Kilgore, a local bicycle advocate said, “I like to compare it to a Cubs’ game or Bears’ game traffic … it’s part of the city culture. If we can deal with that, we can deal with Critical Mass.” 

Instead of simply dealing with it, is there a way that non-cyclists can get the Critical Mass message without also being inconvenienced? 

“[Cars] create rush hour every day,” Lane said. “We do this once a month.”

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Absolutely right Gin Kilgore and Stephen Lane!  It was Critical Mass - Chicago that first showed me what our city could be like...if we could persuade more people to leave their cars at home and BICYCLE!  It is that one shining hour each month!  I want my neighborhood to be Critical Mass 24/7! 

Recently I spent a week in the Netherlands -- they ALREADY have a critical mass of bicycles that have taken over many streets.  Many towns close their central districts to cars (but not bikes) for several hours each day.  And if you're a pedestrian, you stray into cyclists' path at your own peril!  In Holland, cyclists already rule -- let's not rest until it is the same way in Chicago!

Word.  I like Gin's comparison of looking at the mass like local sporting event, at least in terms of traffic congestion. 

Also, if the cops are allowing massers to run red lights in order to stay together and safer, why would they not allow 'corking' which only serves the same purpose?  I've ridden a few masses and I've also never witnessed a cop call out a rider for corking either, for what its worth. 

Just more whining from entitled motorists who need to wake up sooner rather than later and deal with it.

clp said:

Absolutely right Gin Kilgore and Stephen Lane!  It was Critical Mass - Chicago that first showed me what our city could be like...

I am inconvenienced (oh, the horror! loss of convenience!) by masses of cars on most days; I think people cars can handle being inconvenienced by masses of bicycles once a month.

I think I just decided to make this the last year I am a member of Active Trans.

I guess marathons, parades, Presidential visits or any other whim (ever watch how the TMA directs traffic? cars have waited longer for Metra trains) then the streets are ok to be shut down or blocked but god forbid drivers have to wait 5 minutes once a month for a bike ride.

These articles suck and they need to not be written. stfu.

Thanks for letting us know, James, I'm sorry to hear that.

Also in the interest of full-disclosure, here is the full quote we submitted:

"Critical Mass has inspired and empowered more people to bike regularly around the Chicago area. One of the goals of Critical Mass is creating safer and more inviting streets for cyclists. Active Trans also wants safer streets and better biking, walking and transit. But as an organization, we don’t support Critical Mass. Critical Mass will likely continue until we all work together to make our streets safer and more welcoming to cyclists."


"While we support the goals and spirit of Critical Mass, we can’t overlook breaking traffic laws that are designed to keep everyone on the streets safe."

Critical Mass certainly is contentious and inspiring at the same time.

Gin is on it, as always, it's a celebration similar to a sporting event. I'd imagine for most festival, game, etc. traffic congestion people are resigned to it being a below average experience and police and city assistance do their best to manage it.

Thanks much,

Ethan Spotts, Active Trans

I cork at least once each Mass ride.  I've noticed the last few rides the police have told me to move on.  I didn't know it was an official CPD policy.

See you guys tonight!  HAPPY FRIDAY!!

It would be interesting to have a 'ride to rule'. Hundreds of bikes in The Loop, or whatever neighborhood is chosen, all going in different directions, all totally obeying the rules of the road, while doing lots of left turns. Bike gridlock!

Yes! Happy Friday! I love that spirit.

OT: in the spirit of riding, I've been rocking the "thumbs up" on my commutes recently, it's a total feel good. Give people the finger, thumbs up, for safety, respect and connection.

This recently created some spirit and crazy ideas in our office (thanks, Shafaq C.):

I wish all the Massers a Happy Friday!

Ethan Spotts, Active Trans

The only thing the cops EVER say is, "move along -don't block traffic."

I am sure this is a policy somewhere told to them by superiors.  

"Move along and don't block traffic -so they can run over everyone when they pull out through the mass" is what they are really saying but as long as the bicycles are following the traffic laws then I guess that will be OK to put "They were following the traffic laws" on their gravestones. 

We can't just overlook traffic laws.  That would be BAD!  

Well the police actually block traffic for us, don't help with "corking" but allow it so why is someone supposedly in favor of promoting biking in the city wagging a finger at his target audience?

Let's not be counterproductive here.

The problems arise later in the ride when the mass is more like 3-4 groups with large spaces in betweewn the the corking looks to drivers to be a hold up of traffic.

It's hard to stay massed with cowboys in front, newbies, kids and a variety of different bikes with different speed and riding styles mixed in.

Worried about bike safety? educate the drivers not the bikers, don't waste my time and yours being redundant and telling me things I already know.

The bike ambassadors along with police this past summer were brow beating bikes as they rode through a 3 way stop!? no traffic coming from the right but yet a stop sign for cars is also relevant for bikes. Brilliant.

Critical mass isn't some soft spoken veagn condescendingly telling me about the law IT IS an in your face ride since the majority of drivers would just as soon run you over as not. That's the point.

As for the Cowboys up Front I will again have to point to the cops as the main source of the problem.

If one actualy were to ride up front it becomes obvious that they use the same "Keep moving, don't block traffic" line every time the leaders attempt to stop and mass up.

It has gotten ridiculous a few times in the past year where the front just rode away and some of us back a few dozen or so bikes just slowed/stopped and/or turned the mass down a slow side-street which effectively cut the cops and cowboys off to play lancey racer pants by themselves on their own, while preserving the integrity of The Mass.   Otherwise we skinny-up too much.

This strategy is really the only thing to counter the fact that the cops push along the head of the mass at such a rate that it gets all spread out and becomes more dangerous because cars feel more comfortable cutting through when we are skinny like that.

But by all means, we can't overlook traffic laws in our rolling demonstration.  The establishment doesn't like that!

I'm sick of the establishment suborning our own bicycle infrastructure and turning them against us.  When THAT happens we need to cut them off at the head.  No more money and no more memberships for people who just spout establishment anti-bike crap like "we can't overlook traffic laws" in our civil disobedience.  Our car-driving masters don't like that!

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