Last night I went to Critical Mass for the first time. It’s a once-a-month bicycling event that happens in cities all over the world.
My interpretation of the concept is that roads are always dominated by cars, and the small number of bicyclists present do not have a substantial effect on the way that traffic moves. The result is that roads are basically unfriendly to bicyclists. However, we can imagine that if there were a sufficient density of bicyclists, the effective rules of the road would change, and becomes bicycle-dominated. Critical Mass creates this situation artificially, by gathering hundreds of bicyclists on a Friday afternoon to ride around the streets of Boston together. Although the term is borrowed from nuclear weaponry, the effect seems more like a phase transition, or two immiscible liquids.
The reality of Critical Mass is a good deal hairier. Just because cars don’t mix well into a huge crowd of cyclists doesn’t mean they won’t try, and so at every intersection a number of bicyclists stop and stand in front of oncoming traffic to prevent it from entering. The crowd is several blocks long and pedaling slowly, so traffic lights are simply not observed. There is no explicit leadership, and whoever is in front chooses the path, so the swarm may find itself in a poorly chosen location, like outside Fenway park just before a Red Sox-Yankees game. I wasn’t sure why anyone would lead the pack in that direction until I overheard an insightful remark from a nearby participant:
Some people come to Critical Mass to advocate in favor of bicycle-friendly streets. Some people come for the opportunity to ride, or for friendship, or for exercise, or as a political demonstration. Me, I come for the chance to be a real asshole.
Outside Fenway was also where a policeman yelled at one of my friends to stop, said “those are some pretty spokes; it would be a pity if something happened to them”, and then stuck his foot through the rear wheel, bending the spokes and skewing the wheel out of true. I noted at the time that had my friend not already been braking hard to comply, Critical Mass might quickly have been replaced by Critical Condition.
It was a relief when we broke off from the pack around Harvard Square to go get dinner at Cambridge Common. Unlike Critical Mass, I can recommend Cambridge Common without reservation. The food was tasty and not terribly overpriced, and they had an open table for six at peak time on a Friday night without any wait.