Critical Mass

Amy and I rode our bikes in Critical Mass for Pittsburgh, which I didn’t realize is a monthly thing. We didn’t know what to expect at all, but it turned out to be a very mellow and pleasant affair. Some of the regulars were making fun of a “competing” ride called Critical Manners1, where the pack doesn’t blow through red lights and even rides in a single file. We were also dismayed when we arrived at the meeting place that it didn’t seem like the mass was nearly large enough; it would be a sub-critical mass, a fizz-out. But when everyone got on their bikes and swarmed out it seemed like the pack magically grew to something like 150-200 bikes. Then everyone just sort of ghosted along at a leisurely pace with some quiet talking and not much yelling in a loop around the Oakland area. Since it was a Friday at 6PM, there weren’t even that many cars to inconvenience.

Of course, the 200~ person pack would take a long time to cross an intersection and stopping for the red lights would have broken it up, so that’s where the bad-boy behavior comes in. Even this was pretty civilized. At each intersection, if the light was red the front of the pack would wait, but then the whole pack would pass through. A couple bikes would park in front of the cross-street, just looking at the waiting cars and smiling. So we did see one guy in a white SUV try to muscle his way past the “guards”, but the cyclist just slid his bike under the SUV’s wheel and suddenly there were a couple cyclists talking to the driver.

Okay, so the cool part was when the pack climbed up Craig St. toward Bigelow, which is a kind of highway on a height that drops down like a rollercoaster into either Bloomfield (a residential neighborhood) or downtown. This is a main commuter avenue for getting across Pittsburgh’s East Side, and normally it would be iffy to ride with the cars there. This is where we had a line of cars backed up behind the pack, probably fairly annoyed for the 15 minutes that we held them up for. The point wasn’t to hold up the cars, even though I didn’t feel too bad about it. A lot of people make hellish 2+-hour commutes to and from Pittsburgh, just because they can’t imagine actually living in the city. Some of those people are the same drivers who act squirrelly around bikers, tailgating because they’re afraid to pass, or freaking out when you pause to turn in the left-turn lane.

Anyway, it turned out that it’s just really nice to own the road for awhile, and especially a privileged car commuter road like Bigelow. There’s a weird little sliver of a park (“Frank Curto Park”) that’s up on this inaccessible ridge by Bigelow that thousands of car commuters pass every day. Nobody goes to Frank Curto park, not even by car. Driving past you sometimes see a flock of geese turkeys2 and wonder how they got there. We rode past that (but we could have stopped) and then the entire pack bombed down through the long descent to downtown, with the sun starting to set and all of Pittsburgh below us. That was a nice experience, seeing how all the people dealt with the descent, because each person is focused on controlling his bike and enjoying the speed and wind. So it was a solitary meditative moment enabled by this group activity and effort. The whole time this is going on there was a rear guard which was probably putting on the brakes to keep the pack from getting too compressed and which was dealing with the annoyed motorists and an advance guard that had to open up the traffic when we got to the bottom of the hill, so there was also a sense that you were being given a gift of being able to enjoy this descent.

The pack rode around downtown a bit and ended up at Three Rivers state park where there’s a big fountain with a circular ring around it that some used as a velodrome. By that time the sun was really red. After that, everyone dispersed; it seemed like it was your job to find your own way home. I knew where the path was, just not how to get to its entrance from the park, so we had a short adventure with a densely wooded unofficial path before we figured out the proper way to get back home. Between the Critical Mass ride and the ride back we probably did 9-10 miles.

Anyways, so that’s the problem with the Critical Manners concept. Especially damning to me is the single-file line rule. The whole unpleasantness between cars and bikes is that cars get anxious when they can’t go 30 miles per hour, even when they’re just racing to the next red light and even when a bike is going 10+ miles per hour. The other lane’s taken and here’s this guy just toodling along on his bike in front of you, and oh! it’s just so frustrating. Making them wait is the quasi-political statement that says, we let you drive those things that poison our air and boil the planet, you don’t let us use this asphalt that we pay for.


  1. In the article about a San Francisco Critical Manners, there are 16 participants mentioned [back]
  2. Amy reminded me that it was turkeys, not geese. Turkeys is weird, geese not so much. Also, apparently the group word for turkeys is “rafter”? link [back]