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Bicycling Fri Aug 27 2010
(The following does not represent the official views of Critical Mass or of Gaper's Block and is merely one bicyclist's perspective.)
Today is a Happy Friday and not just because it will be the weekend soon and it is still quite nice out. It's especially happy today because of Critical Mass, the bicycle movement that this city just wouldn't be the same without. Even though other cities celebrate Critical Mass, I like to think Chicago's is special because of the welcoming people that are here to enjoy it. This is the kind of thing that neighborhood kids jump up and down over. This is the same mass that people watch from their balconies, clapping and smiling. It brings a bit of joy to people in different areas of the city and what they see passing by may just be thousands of bicycles to the naked eye but symbolizes community and possibilities.
Yet, something I've noticed as a Critical Mass bicyclist for the last couple of years is that the drivers who have to wait the ten extra minutes while the bicycles go by have gotten markedly more aggressive. For example, the act of corking or making sure that cars do not mistakenly drive into the passing mass, has become a point of contention. It's disheartening to witness more physical altercations, bicycles being run over, and drivers who seem on the verge of rampage, willing to risk killing someone or multiple bicyclists so that they can be where they want to immediately. Emergencies with ambulances are different and bicyclists clear a path as fast as possible. What I'm referring to are people who are merely impatient. They are irritable because they believe they are the most important people. They are irrational because the amount of time they'd save by making a dangerous choice would be rather minuscule.
We're always commemorating something in Chicago whether it's Gay Pride, a Blackhawks hockey victory, or St. Patrick. That's part of living in a big city and it shouldn't be opposed by its residents in such aggressive ways. It's just what you become accustomed to dealing with in an urban environment. If you live or work in Wicker Park or downtown, you also deal with daily block offs of streets for movie and T.V. filming. The most recent and biggest budget filming going on right now is Transformers 3, which has rendered parts of the Loop inaccessible for a significant portion of time. Still, I haven't seen any news reports of angry drivers getting out of their vehicles to attack camera men and actors. Why would anyone think it was ok to attack a bicyclist in this manner?
In addition, that's just a slight minority of traffic causing congestion that drivers suffer when they choose long auto commutes to work every morning and afternoon rush hour. Think of the traffic caused by Cubs games in Wrigleyville as well as sports games in other areas, major events downtown, and the slew of parades and festivities that occur randomly around the city. People don't just start driving into sports fans, marching bands, or floats instead of simply finding a different route. Again I ask, why does it seem appropriate to some to drive into a mass when people could easily be killed by such reckless behavior?
The root of the problem might be related to the way Critical Mass is perceived. Is it that Critical Mass is so intolerable to some? What is the cause of so much ire? Perhaps, it's a rejection of everything the mass stands for. Certainly, it can mean different things to everyone. On a personal level, I never would have built up the courage to bike in Chicago without it. However, I feel the mass also offers a visual alternative to others of all ages. For me, Critical Mass suggests it is possible to make the correct environmental choice and to not drive whenever biking is feasible. It makes the idea of bicycling seem like just another thing you can do to help make the world a better place. It's about as radical as not wasting water or recycling on a regular basis. It's the kind of peaceful revolution that suggests change can be accomplished if you care enough to try.
Drivers in Chicago should be thanking bicyclists for reducing the traffic jams they face every commute. Imagine if every bicyclist you see in the mornings and afternoons was a car how many cycles it might take you to get through each stoplight. We're also conserving on the same natural resources drivers are avidly using up. Yet, somehow, I've witnessed animosity and apathy. It's not uncommon to see cars purposefully driving too close, running stop signs so that they don't have to deal with bicyclists, or not bothering to check their rear view before opening their doors even when they parked right next to a bike lane. Bicyclists both during mass and the other 29 days of the month get names called at them, items sometimes thrown at them, and automobiles who completely take over our bike lanes.
Is it underlying driver guilt that is causing all of this immature and reckless behavior? Is it the idea that they could be living their lives differently for the world's future? It's possible that this is the case but I'm actually more inclined to think it's the age-old idea of bigger = better that pervades American society. Unfortunately, as the Hummer's gas mileage shows, bigger is not always better. The BP oil spill back in April continues to cause devastation, which makes it surprising that bicyclists would be greeted with such hostility.
This isn't meant to be a judgment on people who drive with caution and respect to bicyclists. Many bicyclists at one time or another drive whether it be for long distances, to transport bulkier objects, or during unsafe weather. However, if I could reach every driver in Chicago with one single message about critical mass, it would be this one: Next time you're waiting for a thousand bicyclists to go by, treat it like a parade. See it as a celebration for a group of people who have ideal goals that ultimately everyone should share. Many of us hold down the same jobs you do and live in your neighborhoods. Like you, we want a safe world but to us that also means a safe environment.
In addition, Critical Mass welcomes all people to get on a bike and ride. As counterculture as some automobile enthusiasts might try to portray it, Critical Mass represents the full range of demographics. In any large group of people, you will find randomly that some may be more antagonistic than others and unfortunately that is also sometimes true of masses. However, the vast majority of bicyclists are there for the sense of community and celebration.
People bring their families to mass and it isn't uncommon to see small children riding with their parents or senior citizens celebrating life in this way. There are people of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. There are those who spend $1500 or more on a bike and others who bicycle out of economic necessity and get their bike at Working Bikes. There are residents from the far north side to the far south side. There are those who travel to mass from the east along Lake Michigan to the distant west parts of Chicago. There are Chicagoans who live in neighborhoods where there are bike lanes and bike friendly streets and those who live in areas where they feel they risk their lives every time they want to get to work because of the lack of these. To us, meeting and bicycling together is a chance to exchange ideas and grow. People meet their partners for life at critical masses and dress up in their wedding clothes on the anniversary. People of many different religions and cultures come together and those with disabilities ride on adapted bicycles without feeling at a disadvantage. Critical Mass changes peoples' lives in positive ways. Truly, how can one be so angry at an occasion, which has that kind of momentum?
This Happy Friday, and all last Fridays of each month, when you're a witness to this grand promenade, feel special. You're seeing the true hope of the future here. Just think if all our world leaders from now until forever decided that instead of fighting each other with bombs and killing civilians like you and I, they'd take a bike ride together instead. You may never observe anything more exceptional than a Critical Mass in all your life. It should be the kind of thing you tell your grandchildren about at a very old age and, with our commitment to the environment, we're also trying to ensure that you live to the age where you have grandchildren if you don't already. Perhaps, you can even consider joining us.