Critical Mass: Occupying the Lion’s Gate Bridge

June 27th, 2009
About 2000 Vancouverites participated in the June 26 Critical Mass ride, which ended on the Lions Gate Bridge

About 2000 Vancouverites participated in the June 26 Critical Mass ride, which ended on the Lion's Gate Bridge. (photo copyleft Rodger Levesque)

I participated in my first Critical Mass Ride since moving to Vancover in 2004. When I lived in Ontario, I was a commuter cyclist, beginning in my undergrad days at U of T, where my bike was an extension of my body. I went everywhere on it, rain or snow, day or night. When I moved to Windsor, Car and Smog Capital of Canada, I was one of perhaps 10 commuter cyclists in the city. There were no bike lanes and I was told that I literally took my life into my own hands when riding certain roads, despite the fact that bicycles were (and still are) designated as vehicles by the Ontario Highway Traffic Act subject to the same rules of the road as automobiles.

Those were the days when I was working at ROOM magazine, an alt weekly I co-founded with NotLeftToChance in 1994. One of the bees in our bonnet was cycling in Car Town, and we wrote a lot about the environmental, health and community benefits of human-powered transportation. We supported the city’s Bicycling Committee in its fight to put bike paths on Riverside Drive, something the (ill-informed, yet well heeled) residents opposed. We organized Windsor’s first Bike-to-Work-Week, and we held the first mass ride – I think there were about 10 people on it, which, despite the small number, still produced an odd sight in a town where there is one mode of transportation: driving. To see people walking, let alone cycling, is strange indeed. Today, some “inroads” have been made to raise the profile of cycling in Windsor, though I’m not sure how much of the Bicycle Use Master Plan has been implemented.

Having young children, moving to a new city and starting my PhD really put the brakes on my cycling. My old bike, which I brought from Windsor, rusted in the rain. I found myself with little time for cycling, and little inclination – I didn’t venture too far from home with the kids, and walking suited us just fine. I took transit to school everyday, and that was that.

Then two birthdays ago, I got a new bike. A shiny orange cruiser with fat tires and no gears. I slowly got back into the cycling groove. I’ve wanted to attend a mass ride for awhile now, and yesterday’s beautiful weather decided it for me. As it turns out, the weather also called out at least a couple thousand Vancouverites, who converged at the Vancouver Art Gallery for what would be the year’s biggest ride yet.

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A researcher from SFU's psychology department interviews me about Critical Mass for the study Bike Activism & Collective Action. Photo copyleft Rodger Levesque.

The ride was super fun – a nice tour of parts of downtown and the west end that I don’t get to very often, being fairly ensconced in the Republic of East Van. There is truly something amazing about doing the unexpected and forbidden – about gathering together with other cyclists to ride en masse on the city roads – normally so hostile and dangerous for the two-wheeled. There is an exhilerating feeling of liberation, of community, and the sense, too, that things could be different, could be better. That we would make it better together.

The ride had its tense moments too. I’ve learned that this comes from confronting the status quo with alternatives, with forcing people to step out of their comfort zones (in this case, the security and isolation of their metal shells). I did witness some confrontations with motorists. Those who tried to bypass the “corkers” (cyclists who block oncoming traffic by lining their bikes up in a row across an intersection) were surrounded by more cyclists. In this scenario, someone usually tries to engage in polite, educational dialogue, to assuage the motorist’s concerns and develop allies.

As the Critical Mass Vancouver blog states:

This is not an us vs car drivers ride. Those stuck in car traffic are our friends and we need to be polite and respectful of them as we increase the traffic by putting more people on the roads. We do have to prevent cars from entering the mass and if anyone tries to use a car as a weapon to threaten aggressive force we call 9-11 and try to defuse the tension.

Most drivers I saw were pretty calm. A lot looked annoyed, many were resigned, and some called out questions. My favourite, of course, were the ones who honked and waved and smiled. One guy got out of his car, cranked the tunes, and watched the scene go by. Not surprisingly, though, some drivers became irate, shouting at cyclists. One woman even opened her car door into the ride and refused to move from beside the door, making a slow-moving part of the ride even slower as bikes wended their way along Beach Ave. Mostly, the mass riders I saw were cool and polite (though, like any large group, there are always those who don’t adhere to the spirit or intent). Sadly, conflict is inevitable when dealing with motorists who see driving (often single-occupancy) cars as their godgiven right, inalienable as their property rights.

Vancouver Critical Mass, June 26, 2009

Bikes and the City: A pretty awesome mix. Photo copyleft Rodger Levesque

I understand that the wait was long (at least an hour or more in spots) and I understand that it was the end of a long day, at the end of a long week. But progressive social change isn’t convenient. It isn’t comfortable. It takes and shakes us out of our complacency, out of our routines, which – in the case of massive over-driving – is having devastating impact on our planet and human health. Cars kill, literally. For example, a 2005 study found smog -  a key ingredient of which is the major atmospheric pollutant carbon monoxide, a by-product of internal combustion engine use – kills thousands of Canadians prematurely each year. There were 2,889 people killed and 199,337 people injured in road crashes in Canada during 2006 (the most recent year for which official statistics are available).

Like everything, this translates into dollars and cents. One government study estimated that the social cost for car collisions is $62.7 billion a year or about 4.9 per cent of Canada’s 2004 Gross Domestic Product. BC ranked fourth among the provinces, with annual costs of $8.8 billion (see the Transport Canada report). Another Transport Canada report estimates the annual financial cost of roads to be $156.35 billion, and the social costs (such as accidents and pollution) were $29.59 billion.

There is some irony in the fact that Vancouver motorists willingly wait two or three  hours to cross the border or board a ferry in long, boring, sweaty line-ups. But for the odd time they might encounter a mass ride, whose social objectives are hard to argue with, they often can’t see beyond the smog horizon. We forget that along with certain rights (and I’d seriously question that auto travel is a right) that membership in society confers, it also conveys responsibilities. We are beholden to our fellow humans. We are required to husband this earth, from which we derive sustenance and often abundance. We don’t just get to drive in our isolated metal shells from the suburbs to work in the city every day and ignore the consequences. Critical Mass simply draws our attention to the consequences of our behaviour. And points to positive alternatives. Better health. Cleaner air. Physical connection to our streets and neighbourhoods. Strengthening of community, and of the caring it brings.

There was time when it was inconvenient to have women in the workplace. And to have black people sit at the front of the bus. Social change is uncomfortable. Sometimes it even hurts. But it is necessary if we are to continue to evolve as a sustainable, equitable and caring species.

How can we change?

1. Stop driving to work if it’s under a 15 minute drive. Ride your bike, walk, or take transit.

2. Stop driving if you live within a 10 minute walk from transit. Buy a pass. Get going.

3. Carpool. Find someone at work with whom you can do this. Make it work.

4. Sell your car! Join a car co-op and drive only when it’s really necessary.

All these things will improve your physical fitness, save you money and maybe, just maybe, lead to something interesting, something that the isolation and alienation of car travel could never provide. And remember, Critical Mass is the last Friday of every month, rain or shine. Save yourself the “hassle” and don’t plan to be anywhere near the core of the city with your car between 6 and 8pm. Telecommute, take transit or goddessforbid, bring your bike and join the ride!!

See you on your bike!

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