Critical Mass and the urgency of cycling advocacy

Barry Sandland/TIMB - Critical Mass flag at the Giant Bicycle Parade in Brussels, Belgium

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Critical Mss and the advocacy groups that promote, advocate and encourage cycling.

Belgium is fortunate to have a series of cycling voices pressing advocacy and participation issues. From Fietserbond to GRACQ to Velorution to Critical Mass, the collective voice is always about the bike, making the roads safer, drivers more aware, improving infrastructure, encouraging participation. But I have a piece of my heart for Critical Mass, the most Bolshy, vocal, adversarial of all the advocates.

Critical Mass is one of the more rebellious voices, there mainstay being the bicycle parades they host informal rides in cities around the world. En masse, anywhere from dozens to hundreds to thousands of cyclists will ride through a city at reasonable speeds, using the entire lane for their transport. There is no formal organiser, no set route and, while that has been a frustration to authorities, it has been extremely effective in raising the visibility of cyclists – and the intolerance of some drivers.

The technique raises some irritation with some drivers (some, not all). The riders, travelling at speeds about 15kph block the road and slow motorised traffic. But it is an awareness event. Issues include that bikes are allowed on the road as equals to engine powered transport. That cyclists are not restricted to only the bike paths – that they actually have the right to sue the entire lane where needed. That the bike lane should be a protected space and not something cyclists have access to when a car driver does not want the space to pass or double park. That more protection, both physical and through policing, should be provided to cyclists.

For me, Critical Mass is a more anarchic element in advocacy. That may be wrong, but they certainly seem to be more willing to put the bike on the road and insist on their rights. It can bother me, but, ultimately, I agree.

Again and again when I am on the road, I see cars treat cyclists with a lack of respect that is frightening. I am a seasoned cyclists with decades of riding in dozens of countries. I have ridden on some of the worst environments – and I still get shocked at what I see in “educated” cities like Brussels. Note, I say shocked. I get frightened from time to time, but that is far less.

Cars double park in bike lanes forcing cyclists out into the unprotected lane; they race past a cyclist so they have “the lead” and then cut across their path to turn right, rather than wait five seconds; they overtake cars and drive directly at cyclists, believing the cyclist has to edge into the parked cars and surrender space; they stop in bike quadrants at traffic lights, often edging far too close to cyclists waiting for the light to change; they are verbally abusive when any cyclist protest.. And let us be clear. Protesting a driver is a perilous undertaking. They often chase the rider down the road, deliberately driving dangerously close to the bike’s rear wheel, revving the engine, blowing their horn.

This is not occasional happenings. It is every day. And that sort of intimidation, or the causal abuse of the bike areas, is what prevents more cyclists from getting on the road.

And the police simply tolerate it as a situation that simply is. I ride my bike every day. Every day. I ride all across Brussels and I have never, ever, seen a car stopped for their behaviour towards a cyclist – with one exception that I will be posted in a few days time. I am not asking for tickets to be issued constantly. But some style of stop-and-inform campaign would help, where drivers using bicycle lanes, stopping in bike quadrants, refusing to give space to cyclists, are stopped, asked for driver’s license and essential paperwork, and informed that they have to give space and awareness to the bikes on the road.

But advocacy for cycling is a painful process and it is, more than with any other party, carried by the cycling advocacy groups. They bear the brunt, they advocate the policies, they press the issues to the fore. Unfortunately, police, politicians, municipalities are not the leaders.

It was nice to be at an event where Critical Mass was flying the fag. Next year, I hope there are far more flags and far more riders.


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