Critical Mass Chicago

Critical Mass is a Critical Mess… Oh, and It’s Terrible for Cycling

Tomorrow, hundreds of “cyclists” will take part in the Chicago Critical Mass, an event that is quite possibly the worst thing to ever happen for cycling. And yes, I put “cyclists” in quotes because if the people that take part in this event knew how terrible it was for cycling in the city of Chicago, they would never do it.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this topic because I have so many things that I want to mention, but not sure I will get them all into this post. Let’s first start with the basics…

What is Critical Mass?

I decided to go directly to the Critical Mass website and I’m taking this paragraph right from their “About” section:

“Critical Mass is a bike ride plain and simple. The ride takes place on the Last Friday Of Every Month (in Chicago anyway). A Critical Mass is created when the group of riders comes together for those few hours to take back the streets of our city. The right of the people to assemble is guaranteed in the Constitution, and Critical Mass helps people remember that right. The Mass itself has no political agenda, though, no more than the people of any other community do. Critical Mass is open to all, and it welcomes all riders to join in a celebration of riding bicycles. Why? Because bikes are fun!”

I wish that this is what this event actually was… “a bike ride plain and simple.” Unfortunately, it turns into the following:

  1. A severe traffic jam on some of Chicago’s busiest streets during the evening rush hour
  2. An excuse for people (pretending to be cyclists) to act inappropriately, break traffic laws, and sometimes cause damage to motor vehicles and property
  3. A reason for everyone that didn’t already hate cyclists in Chicago, to REALLY hate cyclists.

The Critical Mass website also mentions that the rides are “free and fun.” Free? Yes. Fun? Well, maybe for those involved, but definitely not for anyone else.

My Experience

I’ve never actually participated in this event, but I didn’t have to. Seeing it from the sidewalk was enough to let me know that I did not want to be any part of it. I happened to be walking down North Avenue towards Wells street in the late afternoon when I heard a lot of yelling and then cars honking. The honking seemed to stop as people in their cars realized what was going on, but as the honking faded I started to hear pounding. The pounding happened to be cyclists riding by and slamming their fists on the outside of a CTA bus stopped in the intersection of North Avenue and Wells Street. Cars that were trying to make it through the green light were also blocked as hundreds of bicycles clogged a large stretch of North Avenue. Cars that were stuck partially in the intersection also got their hoods and roofs pounded on as cyclists rode by. I stood there for twenty minutes watching bicycles ride through the intersection, ignoring traffic lights and causing a traffic jam that probably took another twenty minutes just to clear once all the bicycles were gone.

Why This Bothers Me

I’m a cyclist, and I ride a lot in the city of Chicago. I ride to and from work every day and on the weekends I will do longer rides along the lake and north along the many bicycle paths around Chicago. I love to ride and one of the things that bothers me most is when I hear people talking about how terrible cyclists are on the city streets. Pedestrians hate cars and cars hate pedestrians, but ask both what they hate most and I guarantee you that the majority will say they hate cyclists the most.

The reason for this is because so many cyclists are careless and they don’t follow traffic laws. I’ll admit, that it’s annoying to make a full stop at a stop sign when on a bike, but I always slow down and if there are people crossing or cars at a stop sign, I will ALWAYS stop. I’ve seen cyclists ride right through stop signs, almost hitting pedestrians and cutting off cars that have the right away.

Critical Mass just makes this situation worse. Every idiot on a bicycle that participates in Critical Mass and breaks traffic laws while being loud and causing damage to buses and cars is just making my life as a city cyclist even harder.

As cyclists, we share the road with cars and with pedestrians as well. We need to stop thinking we own the road and follow the laws that everyone else has to follow. There should be no reason to “take back the streets” in the city of Chicago. Every year they are improving roads and adding bicycle lanes so that cars and cyclists can share the streets.

Some More Fun Reading

While writing this blog post I came across a site that posted an article about Critical Mass in Pittsburgh. The author of the article actually wrote about how they enjoyed participating in Critical Mass. One of the readers added their own comment to the discussion. I enjoyed it so much that I included the link in my post. The comment starts out with, “Critical Mass is a bunch of misguided fools.” The last paragraph is my favorite. Enjoy.

14 thoughts on “Critical Mass is a Critical Mess… Oh, and It’s Terrible for Cycling”

  1. Critical Ass is awful and an embarrassment to all cyclists. Perhaps you can find other riders who are critical of Critical Mass and start a different ride, something polite and law abiding. Pick a nice place to have lunch or dinner, then start earlier than the Critical Ass people, have a nice, orderly ride, waving to people and wearing comfy street or casual clothes. Then when the asses show up, go eat lunch and watch the chaos from a safe distance. After a while, maybe you will get interviews and editorial space to promote your event and criticize the hooligans.

  2. My experience has been that the rate of of people who obey traffic laws is comparable across all modes of transportation, aka not very much at all.
    In my opinion bicycles should have a separate set of rules of the road, and that’s why I support the Mass.

    1. Hi Steve, I’ll agree that pedestrians break just as many traffic laws as cyclists, but I’m not really sure about cars. It’s not very often that I see a car blow through a stop sign or red light.

      I’m curious what the separate set of rules for the road should be for cyclists? I’m just interested in what your main rule changes would be. I think it’s an interesting topic…

      1. Andy you must not watch cars much in that case. At least one car goes through every red light that i happen to be at. Stop signs not much different. A good number do not use proper signaling and a similar number are on their phones while driving. A very common thing that I witness is cars turning left while speeding thru a red light with no turn signal while on a cellphone.

      2. If you counted every cyclist red light and stop sign infraction, and compared it to every motor vehicle infraction its like an anthill to a mountain.

      3. Steven, I’m not even going to get started on people driving cars while on their cell phones. It’s drives me nuts when I’m in a car and even more so when I’m riding my bike.

        When you mention that at least one car goes through every red light that you happen to be at, are you referring to cars that continue through as the light turns or just after? Yes, cars do that… cyclists do that. It happens all the time. When I talk about cyclists going through red lights I’m referring to the cyclists that roll up to red lights and cut across once traffic has already started in the other directions. If you can honestly tell me that you see cars trying to cut across traffic when the light is red, then I will be shocked.

        I can agree with your second statement about the comparison being like an anthill to a mountain, but I only agree because there are more cars on the road than there are bicycles. I think it’s a different story if you look at percentages.

  3. Actually, Andy, Chicago Critical Mass has done a lot of good for local cycling. For starters, it’s been a point of entry into bike activism, advocacy, and careers for many people. For example, through my network of CCM friends, I heard about a bike parking program manager job at the city, where I worked for five years, arranging the installation of thousands of bike racks, some of which you probably lock your bike to. Nowadays, I report on transportation news at Streetsblog and Newcity for a living.

    The guy who was doing the bike rack job before me, who also got into urban cycling through CCM, eventually became the bike coordinator for Berkeley, CA. Alex Wilson, who runs West Town Bikes, a cycling education center in Humboldt Park that has taught safe biking and mechanics to hundreds of low-income kids, also got his start in advocacy through CCM.

    There are dozens of stories like ours. I suggest you withhold judgement on CCM riders until you come out for a ride yourself.

    1. I will not disagree that CCM has and will probably continue to do a lot of good for local cycling as an organization. There are the people that run CCM and bike activists that want to get involved and do something great for cycling and the community… Those people are the people that we need riding in Critical Mass. The problem is that there is a large number of people that don’t even know or care what the true purpose of the ride is. And I know that CCM cannot control who participates in the rides, which is the problem with a lot of events like this, but I’m still amazed by the types of people that end up participating.

      Unfortunately, I have a hard time withholding my judgement. Yes, there is a possibility that I could ride with CCM and I would be riding with a group that is out there to enjoy a nice ride, but I already know what some people do during this ride because CCM has gone past my apartment on two different occasions and another time as I was walking through Old Town. What I saw was enough for me to say that I don’t want to be associated with the ride.

      If riders were just riding through the streets and stopping traffic at times, that would be fine… Once a month to get out and have a little fun while riding through the streets of Chicago. No problem! There is an issue though when riders pound their fists on the sides of buses and the hoods of cars that are trapped in intersections (saw this two different times). The worst thing I saw though was during two different rides where the streets were so packed that riders were going up on the sidewalks to get around other riders. Not a big deal, but on their way I saw two different people kick over garbage cans as they passed by. Unfortunately, this is what drivers and pedestrians see and this is why I have an issue with the CCM rides.

    1. Thank you, Robert, I will. I visited your page and you seem like a nice guy, so I’m surprised you enjoy taking part in Critical Mass. Oh well, to each their own I guess! I “rant” a lot on this site, but it’s only because I love cycling so much and I feel that certain people are ruining it for the rest of us. I’m not sure if you ride around downtown city streets much during commuting hours, but the streets are being taken over by cyclists that run red lights, cut off cars at stop signs, and nearly run over pedestrians at times. I commute every day to my office in River North and see at least 2 of those things happen each day… and cyclists wonder why we’re the most hated people on the streets. So, when I see people abusing cars and destroying property during Critical Mass, I don’t want to be any part of it. From the picture on your site I would like to think you’re someone that enjoys cycling for some of the many reasons I do… fresh air, exercise, the wind in your face, green travel, etc. Keep riding. Ride safe… and enjoy!

      1. I thought graffiti artist were the most hated people. People do not have that much hate for bicyclist. I think its all in your mind. If you do not mind we do not matter.

      2. Hello Flash, thanks for joining the conversation. I’m just curious where you live? In a city, suburb, or a more rural area? It’s definitely different in the city with so much going on in terms of pedestrians, cars and cyclists. Every conversation I seem to get into with people talking about driving or walking around the city, the most common thing that people say is, “Ugh, and cyclists are the most annoying of everyone!” Also, when I referred to the most hated people, I was talking about people in or around street traffic… pedestrians, drivers, cyclists. If we were just going to say who are the most hated people in general, I think I could think of a lot worse… like murderers or rapists.

      3. I’m not sure what’s meant by “taking part in Critical Mass.” I just go for a bike ride, like the vast majority of the rest of the riders do. I ride around the city a lot, alone. This is once a month to go for a ride with a bunch of other people.

        A few are activists. A few are “Massholes”. Most are just out for a bike ride.

        Over the past few years I’ve seen fewer and fewer objections and complaints from car drivers. Most are actually friendly and giving the “high-five” from their cars window, You have to experience riding you bike through a neighborhood or by a park and watching the kids run out, smiling and laughing, and enjoying watching the parade go buy. The kids have no idea what Critical Mass is, all they know it’s a parade of people who seem to be having fun.

        That’s the real reason drivers don’t seem to like bikes. Bikes travel faster, easier, and more convenient. They’re cheaper and they always get rock-star parking up front. Plus they don’t need to pay to park. They’re easier and cheaper to maintain, don’t require a license, and you can start traveling by bicycle at a much younger age.

        Drivers are at a very serious disadvantage, and they know it. That’s their big objection to bicycles.

    2. “Taking part” – To participate or be actively involved.

      I’m sure that there are good people that ride CCM, but I also enjoy the term “Massholes” for the others. I must have been unlucky on three different occasions and happened to see only massholes as they were riding by. Maybe you’re riding with a different section of the CCM group of riders than what I usually see? Or maybe you don’t participate in the full ride and break off before it would normally get to my neighborhood?

      I’m sorry Robert, but I can’t agree with you that the main reason drivers have an issue with cyclists is because they know that they are at a serious disadvantage… or to basically say that drivers are jealous of cyclists’ freedom on the road (which is what it sort of seems like you’re hinting at).

      That’s probably one of the most ridiculous arguments on this topic I’ve ever heard. It sounds like something a cyclist who is oblivious to the world around him would say.

      Okay, maybe there are a few drivers that actually think that way, but I’m pretty sure the vast majority do not think that. I’ve had many conversations about cyclists in the city… why is that? Well, I ride my bike a lot, so when I meet new people it’s usually a topic that is going to come up at some point. The usual reaction is, “Oh, your a cyclist… Cyclists in the city drive me nuts.” I’m always curious what people don’t like about cyclists so I ask.

      Here are the top three reasons usually:
      1. Cyclists rarely stop at stop signs and red lights
      2. Cyclists always think they have the right of way
      3. Cyclists are reckless

      I’d like to reverse this, but there’s not much one person can do and it’s nearly impossible to change thousands of cyclists that don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. I’ll keep stopping and following traffic laws. The occasional thumbs up I get from a driver at a red light or stop sign will be good enough for me.

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