Bicyclists instigate a traffic jam with a purpose

Protest: Members of Critical Mass block city lanes during rush hour to remind drivers that they have a right to be on the road, too.

July 12, 2004|By Scott Waldman | Scott Waldman,SUN STAFF

Drivers blared their horns and shouted obscenities as they bore down on the line of 14 bicyclists like sharks into a school of fish.

The bike riders smiled and waved back, but did not yield any lanes. Giving way would dilute the message of this Critical Mass gathering during Baltimore's afternoon rush hour.

"We are the traffic," said Kathleen Ellis, a Critical Mass participant from Irvington.

Critical Mass is a semi-organized group of bike enthusiasts and devout environmentalists that assembles monthly to raise awareness for issues related to cycling. The bicyclists block traffic as a protest to remind people that cars are not the only form of transportation.

Critical Mass -- whose Baltimore chapter meets at 5:30 p.m. on the last Friday of every month at the intersection of Charles and Redwood streets -- has groups on five continents and in more than 300 cities nationwide, said Chris Carlsson, editor of the book Critical Mass: Bicycling's Defiant Celebration.

"It totally alters the experience of being in cities," said Carlsson, who lives in San Francisco.

Carlsson participated in the first Critical Mass ride in San Francisco in 1992. He has ridden with the group in Mexico City and Milan, Italy, as well as in many American cities.

The group does not have a leader, to avoid having one voice dominate, said Carlsson. Members use fliers, the Internet and word-of-mouth to spread the news about their rides. In larger cities, such as New York and San Francisco, thousands of bicyclists have shown up for rides.

Carlsson, who rides a 63-gear homemade bike, said he enjoys Critical Mass because it gives public spaces a celebratory atmosphere. Though he said environmental concerns and community building are primary motivations for his participation, he said the group has no central message.

"It's a tactic, it's a way of life, it's a different thing for different people," Carlsson said.

The notion that the Critical Mass experience differs with the rider was apparent in the recent Baltimore ride.

One angry rider, who claimed that a sport utility vehicle sideswiped him, challenged the driver to get out of his car. When the driver stepped out at a stop light, other riders waited nervously for the red to change to green. The cyclist later apologized to other riders and asked whether he had reacted too strongly.

Other cyclists generally responded to the obscenities hurled at them by irate drivers with friendly reminders that bikes deserve their share of road.

They broke ranks only to let dangerous drivers pass, as well as buses -- which Critical Mass participants see as a more environment-friendly means of transportation.

Though the complainers made the most noise, the group received some support, too. At a stoplight, one man suggested that the group should visit his neighborhood.

Others simply stared in disbelief at the bicyclists clogging St. Paul Street as a line of cars formed behind them.

"I wish these protesters would at least try to do their homework," said David Brown, a spokesman for the city Department of Transportation.

Brown said many people see the city as bike-friendly. He said last month's Tour du Park and May's Bike Jam are examples of events that have catered to Baltimore's bicyclists. Brown said the city has about 19 miles of bike lanes already established or designated to be. The city would be willing to take into account any complaints from cyclists, he said.

A spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Police Department refused to comment on the monthly cycling protests.

Many Critical Mass participants said they live up to the ideals they preach. For example, Sandor Dormbush of Federal Hill rides 20 miles each way to work about three times a week.

Mike Shea, an activist and part-time computer programmer, said he uses his folding bike -- or a replacement if it is in the shop. From his Reservoir Hill home he travels out of the city to the suburbs -- and has no plans to buy a car.

Shea said he rides with Critical Mass because he is sick of unsafe situations caused by inconsiderate drivers. He said the monthly rides are the only time he and other members who ride their bikes frequently feel safe.

"If people could ride their bikes without maniac SUV drivers running them over, the city would be a better place," said Matt Clark, a 35-year-old participant and Green Party candidate for City Council inthe new 1st District.

During the last Baltimore ride, safety seemed fleeting. But that did not affect the Critical Mass riders who were enjoying getting their message across.

Ellis, a UNIX administrator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said she "laughed and smiled the whole time."

"It makes you want to keep riding," she said.

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