Columns, Opinion

MOOK: Squeaky wheels get grease

As the semester comes to a close and I think back on all the bike-y topics touched upon in my columns, I can’t help but wonder how non-bikers view those of us on two wheels. Is there a sense of annoyance directed at riders who arrogantly zoom through intersections and crosswalks? Or maybe astonishment because of the death-defying nature of biking Boston’s streets. Or admiration because of the small, eco-friendly carbon footprint. I’ll bet there’s some jealousy involved, since bikes are fast, cheap and enjoyable forms of transportation that get into every nook and cranny of the city.’

But more so, I wonder what image bikes should portray as they fit into the composite of urban transportation. Bikes need to be accepted and appreciated by all, and we need to make a presence without alienating or irritating fellow Bostonians. Only then will the city provide the structure and raise the consciousness needed to give us our world-class biking city.

One of the issues I’m torn about involves the monthly ‘Critical Mass’ rides. These take place on the last Friday of each month, when like-minded bikers from all types of backgrounds descend upon the streets and ride together as a block throughout the city. It’s both a parade for pedal power and a protest for bike awareness, and it’s quite impressive. As the sun is setting over the financial district and the nine-to-fivers are leaving their offices, hundreds of bikers gather spontaneously in Copley Square. With no clear leader or any organized route, they head out into the streets, filling Boston like an invasive herd that winds and flows through the congestion of rush-hour traffic.’

The Mass is characterized by anarchy. Since there is no leader or formal organization, one can argue the legal case that it doesn’t need advance notification of the police. But because there is no herding authority, it’s run by ‘sheep mentality;’ those at the front decide when to turn left or right, and the long line of bikers follows in form. At intersections, individual bikers peel off to stop and ‘cork’ traffic, preventing cars from plowing through the line. The solidarity and volunteerism of corkers is appreciated by the ‘thank yous’ of bikers riding past. The horns and curses from the drivers who are temporarily inconvenienced for a few minutes show the counter-response.

Some describe the Mass as a ‘political protest’ ride in which bikers obnoxiously take over the streets to demand better bicycling conditions. Some say it’s to force drivers to recognize the large numbers of bikers on the roads. Judging by the actions of some riders, ‘protest’ is an apt description. Frequently heard on the ride is the familiar chant of ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ Of course, I would like to note that ‘our’ includes cars, pedestrians, wheelchairs, babies in strollers, etc. But invariably there are confrontations between corkers and drivers. This past ride, after a conflict with an Escalade SUV, I overheard the biker say, ‘I kicked his car, so he got out and kicked my bike.’

And there’s the famous case of the Manhattan police officer who tackled a Critical Mass rider in Times Square last year. The video footage shows the cop standing in the street being passed by biker after biker. Then he squares himself up, pounces and takes down a guy riding by. Of course, the biker was arrested for assaulting the police officer. Thanks to widespread YouTube coverage, the charges were dropped, and the cop was stripped of his badge. But it goes to show the animosity that can come from a bike parade in a car-filled city.

But more than a dissenting demonstration, Critical Mass rides are safe, fun and carefree. Because we ride in such numbers, there is no chance of getting hit by a car, and we ride at a slow pace, so even novices can partake. People will take off their helmets for once and let the air flow through their hair. The jovial nature of happy bikers can be heard through greetings of ‘Happy Friday!’ to onlookers, who are waving and clapping as we ride past. And we get a great response from the duck boats.

But I wonder if this strong show of bike power is hurting our cause. Nobody listens to a protest, and we won’t help anyone get over their bike phobia by rubbing their face in the issue.’ Like communism, the populism that comes with Critical Mass may be good in theory but bad in practice – a few bad apples can make the whole bunch seem rotten. So since we are seeing a sea change for biking in this city, we have to keep a good face and contribute through productive, not destructive, measures. We must be inclusive and cordial if we’re going to get the average Bostonian to realize life is simply better when viewed from a bicycle.

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