2006-03-01 Editorial - NY Press

New York Press
Tony Dokoupil
March 1, 2006

Cyclists—even anarchist ones—need leadership. They need official spokespeople and negotiators to accomplish their goals. Put another way, Critical Mass, the supposedly “leaderless,” “spontaneous” and “unorganized coincidence,” that is a monthly celebration of bike culture expressed as a ride through Manhattan and hundreds of other city streets worldwide, needs to agree upon a local leadership structure and use that structure to open a dialogue with the city about cyclist’s rights.

This, at least, was the sentiment just beneath the surface of this past Friday’s Critical Mass ride. It was a triumphal march for the intrepid cyclists—the first such ride since a state judge called it “unconstitutional” for NYPD to continue its habit of arresting participants for “parading without a permit” and “disorderly conduct.” In effect, the judge slapped the Bloomberg Administration’s collective wrist and told it to make nice with the group.

At a glance, the positive decision seemed to galvanize the crowd of nearly 300, joined by a shoal of inline skaters and a few protest groupies. They gathered at their traditional spot, the north end of Union Square (no one can say why everyone started amassing here; maybe it’s the park’s venerable reputation as the locus of protest in our city).

Christopher Jon, 27, was among the celebrants planning, in effect, a victory lap. Bouncing in place to keep warm, he was ecstatic. “Yeah, this is totally a social event for me, but it’s also a chance for safe cycling in a city that is otherwise dangerous and unsupportive of riders,” he said, adding after a pause, “and this case victory is huge—an affirmation, you know, a step in the right direction.”

Victory—or Misguided Optimism?

Looking deeper, however, two Columbia University students at their first Critical Mass shook their heads at such optimism. “I’ve never come to these rides before, not because I haven’t known about them, but because I’m not entirely convinced they’re productive,” said Joe Lazar, 21.

“Already I’ve been given cell phone numbers to use if I get lost or see cops,” interrupted his friend Derrick Strick, 20. “No way is this thing unorganized. It’s like a game, except cyclists always lose because they always take the role of resistors, instead of assuming the offensive. They fight to fight, instead of fighting to advance their position.”

A native of San Francisco, the first city to have Critical Mass and arguably the nation’s bicycle capital, Strick is accustomed to bigger victories, such as car-free commuting days, new bike routes, bike lanes and abundant bike racks around the city.

“Few people notice that every legal victory in New York is only a victory for Constitutional rights to assembly and free speech—a big deal, yes, but not for safer, more convenient bike use around town,” he sighed. “Bike lanes remain clogged with parked cars. Bike racks remain few and far between. To engage with these facts is unpopular, but to ignore them is to forget why we’re here.”

Across town, Harris Silver, 40, was even more disparaging of the recent court victories and Critical Mass’ much-vaunted lack of organizational structure. “Unfortunately, the latest decision, while a loss for the city, isn’t a win for cyclists,” Silver said. “If anything, it’s fuel for the larger public relations loss that occurs every time Critical Mass riders behave recklessly on what used to be a peaceful ride.”

Silver, who works weekends pro-bono for Citystreets, a pedestrian-rights group he founded shortly after quitting Critical Mass in 2002, can’t pinpoint when or why the group, in his opinion, went astray. But he added, “The most disingenuous thing is saying no one is responsible.”

Like a growing number of New Yorkers, Silver believes Critical Mass in New York is under the control of Time’s Up, an environmental action group that finds it unproblematic to list a “spontaneous” ride on their calendar of events, schedule after-ride parties, and make their people available to field questions from the press. Yes, Time’s Up just won a decision to publicize Critical Mass without being Critical Mass, said Silver. “Nobody wins with semantics, and no one likes winning at semantics.”

Silver may have a point about responsibility: Time’s Up credits itself with bringing Critical Mass to New York and goes so far as to list Critical Mass on their Web site under their “Ongoing Demonstrations” and “Campaigns.”

Bill DiPaola, executive director of Time’s Up, begs to differ. He said that, “while it might seem confusing from the outside, Time’s Up supports Critical Mass, defends Critical Mass’ right to exist, and organizes after-parties and themes for fun. We don’t run Critical Mass.”

After the Ride, the Party

Strictly speaking this may be so, but it was sure hard to tell where Critical Mass ended and Time’s Up began at Friday’s after-ride “Victory Party,” with a “Victory Bar” and “Victory Spread” at the offices of Time’s Up. There was no “unorganized coincidence” behind Jim Dwyer of the New York Times and Lou Young of CBS marching up to Brandon Neubauer of Time’s Up for a report on “how things went tonight.” And when Neubauer said “Hey Jim,” it wasn’t a case of “collective expression,” another phrase sometimes used to describe Critical Mass.

With the exception of a Daily News editorial, media coverage of recent rides has been as upbeat as an Olympic floor routine, but also as airy. No one has mentioned that, at the very least, Critical Mass is a tactic of Time’s Up, something cultivated by Bill DiPaola to further an organizational agenda.

Silver maintains that, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with Time’s Up cultivation of Critical Mass, there is a problem with management—or, rather, lack of management. He warns that public support for Critical Mass will thin unless cyclists are willing to move beyond anarchist joyrides and toward an open and organized dialogue with the City, something Time’s Up has failed to develop.

“It’s simple,” he says. “A revolution in transportation requires a revolution in infrastructure, and that requires a traditional debate, with established representatives for the biking community. The sooner this is acknowledged, the sooner official leadership, whether it comes from Time’s Up or a newly formed organization, can transform Critical Mass from a source of resistance to a negotiating body for biking rights and city design changes such as new Greenways and more bike lanes,” says Silver

As of press time, there were reports of approximately 25 ticketed riders for various offenses, but no arrests for parading without a permit. Meanwhile, at the party, the crowd erupted with shouts of “Victory!”

Victory. Maybe. Or maybe ultimate defeat for the 115,000 regular bike riders in the city.

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