Critical Mass of frustration


Today, local blogger Will Campbell and Cato Institute senior fellow Randal O’Toole debate bike activism. Previously, they discussed , on bike lanes and paths, and to car commuting.

Having fun while increasing awareness
By Will Campbell

First off, from the obvious bias within which this final question is prefaced, I’m going to guess that there’s been an L.A. Times editor or two leaving work late one night only to get caught up in a Critical Mass or Midnight Ridazz “nightmare.” On top of that, by going so far out of town to reference Critical Mass at its birthplace, there might be those who participate in the Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley, Northeast L.A., Pasadena, UCLA and Santa Monica chapters of that famed ride chafing as to why our hometown paper either isn’t aware or doesn’t care to represent what’s going on in its own hometown. Or maybe it’s just me.

Certainly where I’m concerned, a bias also prevails — just in the other direction. While I’ve not rolled with any of the local Critical Mass rides mentioned above, I’ve only missed four Midnight Ridazz rides since my first in December 2005, and my next will be the one scheduled tonight (Jan. 11) in East Hollywood, departing around 10 p.m. from the corner of Heliotrope Drive and Melrose Avenue, the unofficial epicenter of the city’s burgeoning bike culture.


So the loaded question is, are the hundreds of cyclists with whom I’ll be riding around town this evening of benefit or detriment to any so-called mission? Well, that would depend a bit on the definition. As for me, I do such rides to increase awareness of and interest in bicycling in Los Angeles and to have fun in the process. So while I’d like to avoid taking a hard line as I did in Monday’s post and be far more fair and balanced and Randal-esque in tone, I just can’t. These Midnight Ridazz group rides rock my world.

Of course, in doing so, what they also accomplish is a big sloppy wet dis against the status quo, and that’s always bound to cause discord. Certainly, the way the tables get turned when a mass of raucous and reveling cyclists takes over the lanes of major streets has an impact on the vehicular traffic as we move through intersections en masse, oftentimes regardless of whether the light is green or red. I wouldn’t go so low as to label us “gridlock inducing,” but we do cause delays, and in doing so sometimes frustrations and tensions from impatient motorists escalate.

From my many Midnight Ridazz experiences and that of other popular ones such as RIDE-Arc and Sins ‘N’ Sprockets, the disgruntlement is far outweighed by the desire of people to know more. In vehicles and on the sidewalks, they look on in amazement at one of the last sights anyone expects to ever see in car-crazed L.A., and the questions come at us as we pass. They ask, “Why are you riding?” and I say, “For fun!” They ask, “Where to?” and I answer, “Wherever we want!” They want to know how they can come play too, and I say “Check out — with two Zs!”

No doubt plenty of people are adamant that we’re a bunch of anarchist hooligans hell-bent on wrecking the system with our reckless antics, and no matter what they’ll never change that mind-set. But there are more people then ever before getting out with their bikes at night and riding in Los Angeles and having a lot of fun doing it. To me that’s a mission accomplished.

See you on the streets!

Silver Lake resident Will Campbell beat his 2007 goal to bike 2,007 miles across L.A. by nearly 1,100 miles. He blogs at and and is an editor with Ascend Media.

Share the road as equals
By Randal O’Toole

Will, I have no doubt that Critical Mass, Midnight Ridazz and similar mass rides have done a lot of good by raising public consciousness about cycling. But you have to agree there are dark sides to these mass movements.


The obvious one is that Critical Mass’ habit of staging rides during rush hour on busy streets makes motorists mad. When you use such tactics to polarize the debate, you strengthen your side, but you also strengthen the opposition. Critical Mass is betting that cyclists will benefit from such polarization. So far, they may be right, but I worry about a long-run backlash.

A subtler problem behind polarization is that it turns the debate into something more than cyclists and motorists respecting each other’s rights to the road. Instead, mass movements make cycling a moral issue: Cycling, its adherents say, is morally superior to driving, so cyclists deserve more rights than auto users.

Admit it, Will: You’ve sometimes said to yourself, “I don’t pollute like autos, so I deserve better.” This reminds me of George Orwell’s “four legs good, two legs bad” chants from “Animal Farm.”

One result: Portland and a few other cities are installing “bicycle boxes” at many intersections. The bicycle box expands a bike lane to the full width of the auto lane at the intersection. Even if no bikes are present, cars are not allowed to enter the box or turn right on a red light.

Instead of treating bikes and cars as legal equals, the bike box gives bikes preference at the expense of delaying autos by limiting right-hand turns. Good for cycling — bad for respecting each other’s rights.

There is an even darker, subtler problem behind mass bike movements: Some participants become more arrogant and careless even when cycling alone. This is speculation, I know, but we also know that when people start to feel morally superior to others, they become willing to do things that they would never do to people they regard as equals. That is never good for civil society.


I understand the positive feelings you get from Midnight Ridazz, Will. But in addition to feeling good about ourselves, we have to instill a common respect for others. Almost everyone on the road, from the smallest cyclists to drivers of the biggest trucks, has to realize that some, such as pedestrians, are more vulnerable while others, such as light-rail trains, are bigger and more dangerous. Whether riding or driving, we have to approach the job with humility and care for everyone’s rights and safety.

Best wishes to all my fellow travelers.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and blogs at The Antiplanner.

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