"It never gets any easier. You just go faster." ---Greg Lemond
"Don't buy upgrades. Ride up grades." --- Eddy Merckx
"You drive like shit." ---The Car Whisperer


Condition Critical

Will the real Michael Bloomberg please stand up?

Late last week, just in time for Earth Day 2007, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his intention to impose a so-called "congestion tax" on all vehicles entering the busiest parts of Manhattan. At $8 per vehicle, the plan is closely modeled after the program that has been in place in London for quite some time.

My question, then, is why does Mayor Bloomberg continuing to persecute people at the very heart of the solution to traffic jams and pollution vexing his overcrowded island metropolis: bicyclists?

On Friday, August 27th, 2004, the New York Critical Mass ride participated in the protests of the Republican National Convention. Over 1,800 people were arrested, including over 400 cyclists, many of whom never saw their bicycles again after they were confiscated. A documentary on the night can be seen here: Still We Ride.

Since then, New York has passed or is reviewing a series of reactionary laws designed to curtail and discourage riding within the city. In addition to wasting city funds policing Critical Mass in the city (by some estimates up $1.3 million), the city has arrested nearly 500 cyclists since the 2004 protest, and around 50 or 60 cyclists are ticketed each month. Many of these tickets are deemed faulty and dismissed, yet the reaction continues. It is also illegal for more than 50 bicycles to travel in a "identifiable group" without a parade permit, and the city in considering a bill that would drop that number to 30. There is no telling what constitutes an "identifiable group". This is left up to the police department's discretion. Pedicabs will also be restricted to a total of 325 from their current number of around 450, and will also be restricted from bridge bike paths and parks.

New York's anti-cycling stance continues even as it moves towards the congestion-tax and their pledge to have America's "cleanest air" by 2030.

Started in 1994 in San Francisco by urban cyclists fed up with car-drivers casual dismissal of them often resulting in injury and death, Critical Mass is a forceful assertion of cyclists rights, and a mobile protest of Car-Culture. If you have ever been on a ride, or have been corked at an intersection for that matter, you certainly know it is an obnoxious and boisterous affair. In fact, it is parade-like. On any given ride expect to see freak bikes and roadies, triple tandems and recumbants, little old lady commuters and militant-communist-manifesto-bearing messengers, people dressed up as super heros or wearing suits or simply dressed in nothing at all.

The event's power, and it's weakness, lie in it's anarchy. There is no leader. Aside from various people who volunteer to run a website or own a bullhorn, the entire operation is run by consensus. The only rule is to meet the last Friday of every month at a predetermined location and ride together. Sometimes a route is voted on, sometimes the entire ride is as random as the people within it. Attendance can very from a couple dozen in the winter, to as many as 27,000, set in Yugoslavia in 2005, protesting a national election. Yet, as previously mentioned, it was too successful for it's own good that 2004 night in New York. As it had no organization, it was powerless to immediately fight the police.

The opinions on Critical Mass are wide and varied. People may, rightly, argue that Critical Mass is a selfish, bullheaded way to get a view across that bicycles are the way to go. After all, if you are convincing people that they need to ditch their cars, pissing them them off at rush hour on a Friday when they are trying to get home might not be the best way to go about it. And yes, there are the "bad apples." Those in the group who vandalize and spit on cars. The behavior that paints the entire group an awful color with a wide brush stroke.

Yet, aren't there assholes in every segment of society? There is a bigger picture, others argue, rightly. How else has any Status Quo been overturned without a fight and pissing off those who have the power? As early as 1971 in New York and elsewhere, cyclists have been crying out over needless deaths caused by nothing more than impatience and a lead foot. Motorists are most often only charged with a misdemeanor in an accident involving an injured or killed cyclist, when many times a felony of manslaughter or worse is warranted.

Car congestion and oil demand are at an all-time high worldwide. It is obvious that supply is dwindling and cannot keep up with the increasing demand. Oil-wars and diplomacy are upon us. Yet, in 2006, bicycle purchases outranked car-purchases in the United States for the first time in in 35 years. We, as a civilization, are at a critical juncture.

If you have the luck, or unluck, as your attitude may have it, to be stuck on that final Friday, corked as that boisterous bunch of bicycles blows by, think of cycling commuter's average day the other 353 days of the year. Think of the sound a revving V-8 engine makes from behind to a cyclist slowing for a yellow light (I know what you're thinking - and you haven't?). Or the sight of a car in the left turn lane, jerking back and forth, it's driver unable to make up it's mind as a cyclist, with the right of way, enters the intersection.

People like to say, "Tough shit. The roads are for cars." People who subscribe to this view point certainly wouldn't stand for the status quo continuing on any issue they're against. Car-culture, the vehicle's insulation against the outside world, it's false sense of power, and our self-entitlement blind us to the real issue. And that issue is we have constructed a society built on a model of unsustainable growth and nonrenewable resources. And a large part of society that has been speaking up about a viable solution is being marginalized, simply out of inconvenience. After all, it's far easier to drive. But the time will come when there will be no choice, inconvenient or not.

But no matter your current position on the issue. The mantra of Critical Mass should ring true for everbody. A mantra you should keep in mind the next time you are stuck in your car behind one bicycle for 20 seconds, or 27,000 for an hour. "One Less Car" equals one more parking space, one less engine spewing carbon dioxide into the air, one less demand on non-renewable resources, and one step in the right direction.

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