Critical Mass bike rides: Three riders tackle issues
Get involved on many levels
Bill Batlle
May/June 1998

I am motivated to write about "critical mass" for the same reason that I was motivated to speak up before the last critical mass ride; I care deeply about the safety of people who choose to use bicycles instead of cars. (Admittedly, I have a selfish as well as a social interest here.) Even though Gainesville has done more than most cities to accommodate bicycle use, it is still dangerous and stressful to negotiate your way among all the vehicles on the roads. The situation is even more hair-raising once a cyclist leaves town, where cars and tractor trailers stream by at 50 to 70 mph, with only a few inches to a few feet between you and death or serious injury. I wish that last statement was an exaggeration but personal experience, a wealth of statistics, and bicyclists' memorials testify to the very real dangers of using bicycles on our roads.

Even though I own and use a car, I consistently try to find ways to use my bike more and more. This is where the issue of viable bicycle-friendly routes comes into play. I could use my bike instead of my car to a far greater extent if more roads had bicycle lanes and if there were more bicycle paths separate from the road. (A separate bicycle path is obviously much safer than a bicycle lane painted on the side of the road.)

The need to accommodate the use of bicycles can be demonstrated and promoted on many different levels. Gainesville is fortunate to have a legacy of people working to promote the use of bicycles by taking the time and effort to maintain a pro-bicycling voice within the political system. To name a few who are no longer with us (except perhaps in spirit): Dr. Kermit N. Sigmon (passed away suddenly in 1997), Doug Hill, and Margaret Elizabeth Raynal (both killed by a truck while riding with four other cyclists on December 26, 1997). And to name a few who are currently working on our behalf: City Commissioners Bruce Delaney and Pegeen Hanrahan, and Brent Wilson, who until mid-May was Gainesvilles' Bicycle/Pedestrian Program Coordinator. He has just accepted another position.

The planning for roads, bike paths, bike trails, and icycle facilities usually takes place years before the actual construction. Anyone interested in observing any aspect of this process or in being able to vote on recommendations is encouraged to call the Bicycle/Pedestrian program office at 334-5074. As mandated by federal and state legislation for urbanized areas with a population over 50,000, Gainesville has a Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization known as MTPO, which has direct authority over transportation decisions in the Gainesville urbanized area. Their next meeting is on Thursday June 11th at 7:00 P.M. in the Jack Durrance Auditorium, Alachua County Administration Building, 21 East University Avenue. Gainesville also has a Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Board which reviews the plans of the MTPO and makes recommendations from a citizen's perspective. They currently have two positions available if you would like to become a voting member. Their next meeting is on Tuesday June 23 at 7:00 P.M. in the Grace Knight Conference Room, Alachua County Administration Building, 21 East University Avenue.

Gainesville is also fortunate (in my estimation) to have people who are willing to take the time and energy to promote critical mass bike rides and to participate in these rides. When you join with like-minded people who are determined to use bicycles in spite of the dangers and with your collective presence you impede the flow of automobile traffic, you make a more forceful statement against using automobiles and in favor of using bicycles.

The more you disrupt the flow of traffic the more forceful your statement. Given the wealth of undesirable fallout resulting from such a prolific use of automobiles, I am tempted to say that no statement against automobiles could be too forceful. But right before last critical mass bike ride, I spoke up in favor of taking only one lane and not running red lights. Not because of any great compassion for the people using their cars or an abundance of respect for laws or law-enforcement, but because I think that by more tactfully presenting our concerns--by taking only one lane, for one hour, once a month--we can accomplish more to promote the interests of those who choose to use bicycles.

There are a number of positive results from taking only one lane. We are more highly visible because the lane of traffic that can get past us can see what we are doing. A lot of times as the people pass us they give us smiles, hoots, honks, or thumbs-up. Not only do they see that we are having a good time, so perhaps they will join us in the future, but it lifts our spirits as well. It makes the ride even more enjoyable. I think most people will agree that--one lane, one hour, once a month--is not asking too much. Even the police seem interested/willing to support us to that extent.

If we take up all the lanes in one direction we may incur a number of negative results. If cars are not able to pass us, and they are instead stuck behind hundreds of other cars, those people may not have any idea of what is going on. We miss those opportunities to let them know what we are doing. And while there are people in cars who do not like bicyclists no matter what, there are a lot of motorists who support our cause and who are happy to see us out there. If we take up too many lanes, if we snarl up traffic too much, we risk losing those supporters. If instead of making a forceful public statement we instead infuriate the public, we risk more heated calls to the police, a repeat of the police presence of the last ride, and/or the possibility of instigating road-rage or violence that we may not be aware of.

The issue of running red lights by having a few people block the intersection while all the others ride through in a tight formation (called corking) is not as important to me as riding in one lane. However, I advocate not running red lights while on these rides. (The police obviously feel more strongly about this.) At this point we number between forty and ninety riders and it is easy to make it through the green light as long as we stay together. It is really an exciting feeling to ride your bicycle through downtown Gainesville during rush hour, while talking and laughing with friendly people, and for that one hour you do not have to worry about getting run over.

The debate over what is good or bad about critical mass bicycle rides and how they should or should not be conducted is going on all over the world. To some extent bicyclists must have a legitimate gripe or these protests would not be so widespread. They started in San Francisco in 1992. Yesterday I pulled up a page on the Internet that lists sixty-six cities with critical mass bike rides and I personally know of two cities that are missing from the list. I sincerely hope that the trend and the debate continues. Come and join us any month that you can. There is no hierarchy or chain of command so be prepared to speak up to the group if you feel strongly about something that we are doing. The rides start from the Plaza of the Americas on the University of Florida campus on the last Friday of each month at 5:00 P.M.

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