Critical Mass makes cycling safer

By Barbara Ross

As a longtime volunteer with Time’s Up!, a volunteer-run environmental organization that promotes group bike rides to enhance cyclist safety, I was excited to read about the success of the recent Upright Bicycle Ride that drew a large number of cyclists of all types and ages, celebrating the wonderful aspects of cycling in New York City. However, advertising the Upright ride as anti-Critical Mass is counterproductive and factually misrepresentative of Critical Mass’s history, purpose and impact.

Critical Mass attracts cyclists who enjoy riding in a group for fun and for safety, just like those on the Upright ride. Critical Mass participants are neither “renegade” nor advocate for chaos and disorder (which N.Y.P.D. spokesperson Paul Browne incorrectly describes as “anarchy”). Yet, the N.Y.P.D. likes to advance these false and inaccurate characterizations in order to justify their wasteful and unconstitutional tactics used each month to harass the ride participants. In fact, Paul Browne’s baseless claims are continually proven false as they are challenged and defeated in civil, criminal and traffic court. Even N.Y.P.D Commissioner Raymond Kelly admitted under oath that Critical Mass cyclists are no different than any other New York City cyclists.

Dating back to 1993, Critical Mass in New York City has made numerous positive contributions to our city’s move toward sustainability and its transformation into a safer, more bike-friendly place to live. Publicizing N.Y.P.D’s fabrications about Critical Mass’s purpose and history not only spreads misinformation about its participants, it also rewrites history in a way that new riders, many probably on the Upright ride, will be unaware that the safer biking environment they now take for granted was made possible in large part by the grassroots changes by the Critical Mass rides.

That’s why we want to set the record straight.

Bike riding in New York City during the Nineties was far more dangerous than it is now. There were few bike lanes, and cyclists had no voice in policy decisions. The first Manhattan Critical Mass emerged to promote cycling visibility and safety by riding together in a group. These monthly rides were safe and fun for all participants. Steadily, more new cyclists were attracted to New York City streets on those monthly Friday night group rides. Many gained the skills to become everyday cycling commuters.

By early 2000, New York City Critical Mass had gained significant popularity and had ushered in the beginnings of biking as a viable transportation option for city residents. With its celebratory spirit and safe community environment, the number of ride participants continued to grow, which helped build a strong grassroots voice for nonpolluting transportation. Riders of all types — weekend cyclists, families, bike commuters, messengers, novices and racers — gathered together the last Friday of every month, as they do in hundreds of cities around the world, to celebrate the joys of urban cycling.

With the Republican National Convention coming to New York in the summer of 2004, the N.Y.P.D. politicized Critical Mass. Without warning or justification, the N.Y.P.D. harassed Critical Mass riders with arrests, tickets, undercover agitation, a lawsuit and even stealing legally locked bikes and using other dangerous and unconstitutional tactics to squelch the burgeoning movement. The cyclists acted in solidarity and continued to ride. The N.Y.P.D.’s harassment campaign toward Critical Mass resulted in a global media exposé of the N.Y.P.D.’s intimidation, as well as a string of legal victories for cyclists and legal defeats for the N.Y.P.D.

The cycling community’s determination to make positive sustainable change grew and their ability to negotiate with the city for safer streets strengthened. When Mayor Bloomberg appointed bike-savvy D.O.T. Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan in 2007, her powerful vision quickly took shape in the form of new bike lanes, bridge access and other groundbreaking improvements to the bicycle infrastructure.

Today New York City’s streets are a safer place to ride than they were when Critical Mass started 17 years ago. All New Yorkers enjoy the benefits of this environmentally responsible vision.

We are hopeful that the police harassment will end, and that there is more appreciation for the kind of positive progress that is making New York a truly bicycle-friendly city. It would not have been possible without Critical Mass participants who exercised their right to ride and were early visionaries in the movement for an environmentally sustainable city. We continue to ride and invite everyone to join us.