Sharing the Joys of Cycling in Chicago and Baton Rouge (Shift Happens! excerpts)

September 9th, 2012 by LisaRuth

There’s this funny thing about a good idea, people pick up on it and it spreads!  Part of the fun of a book like Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20 (available for purchase now, either as standard book, or as a Kindle book) is seeing just how similar Critical Mass rides can develop and feel, yet how each place lends its own personality and character, and how the ride adapts.  We’d like to share some excerpts from Daniel S. Libman and Moshe Cohen’s essays in the book, about their rides in Chicago and Baton Rouge.

Daniel S. Libman elegantly explains why “We ARE Traffic” in Chicago:

The power of the Chicago Critical Mass only becomes apparent once the ride is over. While it’s happening it’s all energy — electric and social and inclusive. People are kind to one another the way they are on vacation. Even most of the motorists seem to be at least experiencing the ride as novel, if not fun. “What’s the cause?” a woman in a Volvo shouts out her window on a recent ride. “Friday!” I answer. She makes an incredulous face. “Seriously,” she calls out, “Are you raising awareness for something?”

I’ve biked too far past her to continue the conversion, and my answer wouldn’t have satisfied anyway. “Yes,” I should have said, “We are raising awareness. For something.”

It is a radical notion that the bicycles get to decide how quickly or slowly the traffic moves. When I try to explain the appeal of a Critical Mass ride I invariably begin with its polar opposite: me alone on my bike in the corn fields. I live in a rural part of Illinois and have to drive two hours just to get to the starting point of the Chicago rides. Aware as I am of the absurdity in this, there is simply nothing I can do about it. I work 90 miles west of Chicago and if I want to participate I have to get there. I can’t be a one man Critical Mass in my farming community — that would be me just going out for a bike ride, and I do this with mind-numbing regularity as it is.

Critical Mass…gives motorists an opportunity to think more about the guy on the bicycle. What we’re really doing, regardless of how much fun we’re having, is creating moments (long moment, perhaps) for drivers to think about the other. Little children love stuffed animals because the teddy bears they hold are cuddly, loveable versions of something which terrifies them. Critical Mass is the raging grizzly version of that defenseless dude on the bicycle you cut off on your way to work this morning. It only works if we do it together, which is why I make the drive to get there.

My favorite rides are the ones that end up by Buckingham Fountain. The bikes circle triumphantly, the clipped-in riders de-clip and drag their shoes on the new cobblestones, their cleats throwing sparks which shoot like geysers from their soles. You can stay back with the evening tourists and just watch the display, amazed at the sight like it’s a giant, living Fourth of July pinwheel. And when this spectacle is finished, the bicyclists all disappear from the main arteries and are absorbed back into the bloodstream of the city, going off their separate ways.

In “Building a Biking Community with Critical Mass Baton Rouge” Moshe Cohen shares about a (last Fri)day in the life and the cross-pollination of disparate biking groups in that Louisiana college town:

Critical Mass Baton Rouge meets the last Friday of every month at 5:30 p.m. in front of the Louisiana State University clock tower on the parade grounds.

New riders show up minutes before five thirty, giving them plenty of time to meet new friends as the mass slowly builds. BMXers do tricks on the oversized steps. Members of the LSU Cycling team race home to drop off their school stuff and switch rides. Local musicians amongst the ridership put on impromptu concerts. Mountain bikers with water packs and fingerless gloves show off the new coating of dirt they picked up at the local trails last weekend. Cruisers show up with reggae-blasting boom boxes in their baskets. Members of the Baton Rouge Advocates for Safe Streets (BRASS) discuss the latest bike news. Local bike shop mechanics struggle to close shop so they can make it by six. Everyone waits until the last minute to get their bikes ready for Mass.

By design this ride is a positive party on wheels with cheering, waving, and smiling. This tricks new cyclists into learning routes and destinations across the city while arming them with the courage to take on the streets by themselves… The parade culture of Louisiana means that pedestrians, neighbors on their porches, and yes, even drivers are more apt to smile, wave, and applaud than get angry.

Several progressive hubs emerged on campus (LSU) for groups to share their projects and gain support. At the Hill Farm Community Organic Garden, rows of strawberries, tomatoes, and mustard greens were usually lined with bikes as well. Weekly community gardening days spurred ad hoc debates on how to spread the love of cycling. These set the precedent for the pre- and post-Mass discussions on how the ride could be improved and how a coherent message could be spread to more people. Despite the multitude of more minor messages that its members brought to the group, the main one was always: “Come ride with us!”

The is the legacy of Critical Mass Baton Rouge: all of the different bike-related projects that grow out of having some loosely affiliated community. Bicyclists are like blades of grass: the intertwining of roots creates a safer firmament on which to build. On its own, Critical Mass can only do so much to make the streets safer for cyclists throughout the month. Yet by bringing everyone together, new ideas can be incubated on what can be done to share the joys of bicycling with the rest of the world.

What happens when Critical Mass literally crosses borders? Find our tomorrow in our next installment from Shift Happens! featuring rides across Europe and to Palestine. And check out our week of activities planned from 24-28 September to usher in the 20th Anniversary ride!

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