Critical Mass Austin: Political Activists or “Lawless Time Thieves”?

This was the question raging on the Austin Chronicle’s message board in early April after the arrest of two bikers participating in one of Austin’s more controversial political parades—the monthly Critical Mass bike ride.

The Chronicle reported that riders James McCue and Nathaniel Hill had been arrested for running a red light at the Sixth and Congress intersection, a form of civil disobedience Critical Mass has fashioned into something of an art form (others might liken it to a tragicomedy), since its emergence on the streets of San Francisco in the early 1990s.

With no predetermined route, the “leaderless” cluster of bikers meet at 5 P.M. on the last Friday of each month on UT’s West Mall— located on Guadalupe between 22nd & 23rd Streets. Here a collection of fixed-gears, two story trick bikes, unicycles, plain-old road bikes and a man transporting a giant boom-box in a wheel-sled participate in something resembling a seasonal mating ritual, as they swirl around the West Mall fountain building up mojo.

When enough bikers have coalesced to form “the critical mass,” a peloton large enough to pierce and block an intersection of oncoming auto-traffic, an unspoken euphoria spreads throughout the gathering. Then, at a seemingly innocuous moment, everyone slips into the congested afternoon traffic to the sound of horns and pounding beats. Through the open windows of cars and trucks come the sounds of encouragements and admonitions—a reminder of the ambivalence Austinites feel towards this motley crew of vigilantes.

It is no coincidence that their monthly vigil takes place during rush hour on the busiest day of the week. Though the unofficial CM website claims that the organization “doesn’t have any specific agenda or goals,” they do confess that most riders “would like to see an end to the car culture.”

“Everyone has their own reasons for riding on Critical Mass,” writes Michael Bluejay, the operator of the site. “Some see it as a protest of cars, others just like to go on a fun bike ride. After being menaced every day by cars, many of us find it exhilarating to ride with 50-100 other cyclists in a fun, supportive atmosphere.”

Critical Mass has had a long and controversial history in Austin. An early adopter of the movement, the city first responded to the bike ride with intense police scrutiny. Bluejay writes that during the first year of the ride, “typically, dozens of motorcycle, car, and bike cops would be waiting at the meeting site before the ride started, and ride with the mass, looking for any excuse to issue tickets or make arrests.” Though CM enjoys a more amiable relation with the city’s police force today, it has not been without some bumps in the road.

In late September of 2001 an incensed Jeep driver, frustrated by delays, accelerated into the gathered bikers, hitting one. After exiting his car to confront the riders, the man returned to his vehicle only to cruise into a Honda Civic parked at a red light because there was a bike lodged around his car’s axle.

The event was carefully chronicled by Bicycle Austin info, including video documentation, and is held up both as an example of the danger inherent in this kind of demonstration as well as the unfair portrayal it has received in the media. According to the website, “The Statesman ran one version of the events, the Chronicle ran another,” pointing to the cultural split which the movement has inspired.

On the same message board where the debate took place over April’s arrests, one of the first participants of Critical Mass Austin summed things up eloquently:

“It’s a fun, empowering participatory event that also incited near-fatal road rage on my very first tour. We desperately need improved bicycle infrastructure just as urban centers are increasingly finding cycling preferable to hunting out parking spaces. But we also need improved services. I don’t expect sympathy from rush hour commuters, but I do expect the APD to cease operating as if cyclists live with a level of privileges and liberties below that of both motorists and pedestrians.

The city needs to put cycling issues at the forefront of their agendas, if for no other reason than to prevent downtown from becoming a rush hour battleground.”

Whichever side of the debate you may fall under, it’s hard to deny that Austin owes some of its patented “weirdness” to the continued success of Critical Mass. Moreover, participants argue that the ride has helped transform the role of bikers in Austin, paving the way for new bike lanes and making bikers more “visible.”

As someone who’s been on a few rides (mainly as a spectator, though the line gets a bit blurred), I can tell you, there are few local events as exhilarating as riding neck and neck with four hundred people in the heart of downtown Austin.

This Friday the 29th will be a big day for Critical Mass, with the monthly bike ride falling on the same day as the “Full Moon Cruise,” a midnight ride through the city. If you’re bold enough, and if Critical Mass’s brand of activism squares with your values, this will be the perfect day to wheel by.

And forgetting everything else about it, Critical Mass is admirably inclusive. More like an event than an organization, anyone will feel welcomed by this odd lot of peddlers.

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