By Edward Ng
“Excuse Me. Ex-cuse Me, Sir. Could you please move out of the way?” Said a girl with a bike as she walked up next to me, implying in no uncertain means that I was in her way.
“I’m waiting to cross the street too,” I responded as she shoved her bike into my leg and next to me.
“Oh well, sor-ry,” she exclaimed as she tried to edge her bike on the sidewalk, again trying to cut in front of me.
Normally, if you are in that much of a rush, I am going to let you go ahead of me. However, what I saw before me was the same as the last Friday of August, and it dawned on me that she was only in a rush to get to Critical Mass.
Perhaps it is here, for those that do not know, that an explanation of Critical Mass would be best. Critical Mass is a large-scale biking event that started in San Francisco in 1992 and now conducted worldwide, and which takes place in Los Angeles on the last Friday of every month. During Critical Mass, bikers assemble en-masse and ride across a city in a demonstration of what would happen if bikers ruled or shared the road.
For many advocates, Critical Mass is perhaps rightfully regarded as an example of what could be. In a car dominated society, Critical Mass serves to visibly provide us with a grasp of an alternative system involving heavier bicycle usage, by challenging the status quo. By demonstrating the hazards that cyclists face and highlighting the needs of a group who by right share the road, Critical Mass has the potential to demonstrate a need for change.
It was only recently that the Los Angeles Police decided to more heavily supervise the event for safety reasons, though it was obvious that they could not fully control the crowd. Bikers illegally wavered in the streets, circling unchecked. The crowd of bikers fills the plaza on the corner of Wilshire/Western, essentially blocking easy access to both the regular and handicapped access to the Metro subway station as well as the bus.
The lack of enforcement for much of the traffic laws in the set-up of critical mass sends a sign to cyclists that perhaps they can get away with forgetting common traffic laws designed for their safety. Beyond this inability to simultaneously control a crowd and enforce traffic laws, the police presence in Los Angeles also inadvertently legitimizes practices such as those which amount to corking, a disruption of normal traffic that ignores the timeframe and structure regarding who has the right-of-way.
Drivers are irritated, but they arguably have every right to be. Their travel patterns are being delayed far beyond normal circumstances, and for those who are driving around the staging point of Critical Mass, the police’s lack of control over the bicyclists who flagrantly disregard the rules on the road creates a real danger for both the drivers and the bikers. Despite the demonization of drivers for their accidents with bicyclists, most drivers on the streets would rather avoid injuring another human being.
From the bicyclist standpoint, however, it has become the night where they rule the road. Avid and casual bikers alike can come out and show that after being marginalized they too can take what they consider their proper place. The oppressed, as some advocates have framed it, shall at least temporarily be an equal. Ironically, however, in their pursuit of their ideal or in executing this event, the oppressed moved too far in the opposite direction and became an oppressor.
There seems to be little realization of this point, and for advocates, this weakens their argument from an advocacy standpoint. If bicyclists want to show that they reasonably form a part of traffic, then perhaps greater consideration should be shown on how they can share the road, not push others away from other means of transportation.
In this demonstration of what could be, we find that perhaps bicyclists do deserve a place on the road, and that biking can be a viable alternative in multi-modal transit. At the same time, we also see pedestrians struggling to wade through a crowd so that they can catch their subway or bus at Wilshire/Vermont. We find widespread disruption of what is already a congested traffic pattern along Critical Mass’ route. We find that there are issues of safety with improper bicycling which affect bicyclists, drivers, and pedestrians. These items should pose a worrisome concern given that Critical Mass is considered or often marketed as a form of biking advocacy.
What planners and advocates should ask is not whether the bikers have the absolute right to the road, as some have argued in their quest for the imposition of their viewpoint of a sustainable future. As planners, we can act as advocates in our attempt to shape the future according to our ideas and values. Urban planning arguably exists to establish order, not to tear it down. Can we really say that the disruption of the flow of pedestrian traffic and the disruption of normal traffic patterns serves the public good? Does it create the order that is the goal of urban planning? Somewhere, lost in all the hype, people forgot the word moderation. People forgot that every group has specific interests, and that the imposition of ideals leads to a need to manage trade-offs in the rights of individuals.
It is perhaps important then that planners recognize the inherent lesson here. Planners are not free from bias and in a free society each is entitled to his or her own idea of their Utopia – their ideal. Planners need to be cognizant, however, of their roles in society, because of the increasing significance that role will most likely have going into the future. Though they need to protect the interests of the minority, planners need to consider whether the imposition of some rules, policy, or action will be to the benefit of one but of large detriment to another. More importantly, planners need to remember to consider whether they make decisions as a result of the preferences of the people or if it is because they have let their own bias irrationally dictate the answer. At times, the decision of an advocate or a planner in power is exactly that: the imposition of their bias on an unwilling society. Like the effect of the bias of the bikers’ preferences during Critical Mass, it is very much an application of the idea of trade-offs and balance.
This article is not designed to criticize Critical Mass as a general concept, but rather recognize that there is a limit to sensibilities and a need to recognize the disruption that Critical Mass has caused in Los Angeles. Good can be found in concepts such as Critical Mass, so long as the ideals in place bear the moderation necessary in addressing the issues that arise from recognizing the trade-offs in society. As long as there are conflicting wants and needs, society will require that management of such conflicts should result in more order and in a more equitable distribution of rights.
I started off with my anecdote about a simple “Excuse Me” and the message of my being in someone else’s way because it represents exactly that. Excuse me. You’re in my way.
As a pedestrian on a sidewalk trying to make my way to the subway and bus stops, peacefully and with minimal obstruction to myself and others, and as I wait for my crosswalk light to change, I beg to differ. You told me that you want to belong here. But lest you and others forget, I belong here too.
Edward Ng is a Master of Public Policy/Master of Planning degree candidate concentrating on Economic Development at the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts from Rutgers University in Planning and Public Policy, and completed a certificate Program in Housing and Community Development from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. Edward currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of Plan On! Trojans, as well as the Professional Development Chair for the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, and is a committee chairperson for the Graduate and Professional Student Senate at the University of Southern California.
The views expressed within this article are solely those of the author.