The title is a comment from someone involved in Critical Mass in San Francisco and reflects the lack of subjective safety experienced by that cyclist on the streets of San Francisco other than on Critical Mass day. The interview is a part of Ted White's 1999 film "We Are Traffic", which I have just re-watched.
It's interesting to watch this film again. The protesters are a product of their situation. I can understand them wanting their one day each month of dominating streets that are normally not pleasant to cycle on. They also make some very good points about wanting to rebuild community on the streets. There is a lot of good intention there. However, while they've made a leap of imagination in their environment, they still have relatively low aspirations. One of the interviewees says about cycling as transport "Not everybody can make that decision... it's really absurd to assume that they can." The problem in front of them is so big that even the protesters are aiming low (over here cycling crosses all demographic boundaries. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, male and female. Virtually everyone cycles. Not for all their journeys, but for a great number of them.)
I'm not a fan of "critical mass." It takes a confrontational line which unfortunately has resulted in alienation and conflict and while the views expressed in the video were generally very positive, I perceive that the confrontation has become the aim for some participants. Ultimately I feel it has amounted to very little. Most importantly, it's actually failed to create a true "critical mass." While the amount of shouting and hooting by those involved makes it sound huge, and the film is shot in such a way that there appear to be a huge number of cyclists, one of the riders in the film lets slip how many there are. He says that he counted and that there are 190-200 cyclists on the demonstration. He says "This is a big ride."
Critical mass in San Francisco has grown and now attracts an average of around 1000 participants (wikipedia). However, for a special event this is still not a largenumber given the population. San Francisco's population is over 3 million. 7 million if you include the metropolitan area.
Over here in the small city of Assen there are just 65000 people. However, between themthey make an average of more than 70000 cycle journeys every day. Critical mass is an event which really doesn't have a place in the Netherlands. There have been occasional events calling themselves "critical mass", but they're protesting about other things.
What we can never know is what might have happened in the 16 years that critical mass has been taking place in cities around the world if the participants had put their energies into taking note of where the truly successful cycling cultures are (i.e. here) and tried to replicate that success in their own countries. A thousand people spending a couple of hours once a month for 16 years amounts to over 40 man-years of effort.
For me, "We are traffic" is an interesting glimpse of another world. It's a well made film, but is limited simply because critical mass as a movement isn't offering much. However, 7 years earlier, Ted White made another film which I think is timeless and wonderful:
The conflict of the later film is missing and interviewees in this film are all glowing with enthusiasm about cycling.
The name "Critical Mass" came from "Return of the Scorcher", another Ted White film dating from 1992. It was used to describe when a group of Chinese cyclists forced their way into traffic in the film. You can see at this point that cycling is already under stress in China in the early 1990s. Once cyclists are forced to be in conflict with vehicles, the feelings expressed in the title of this blog post come to the fore. For many people this is a reason to want to be in a car. What's more, bicycles have in some instances been banned from streets. Cycling has unfortunately declined sharply in China since the film was made, but it was inevitable given what has happened in China.
"Return of the Scorcher" also visits the Netherlands. Amongst the interviews we hear a beautiful story from an old Dutch couple about their honeymoon by bicycle during the second world war. The Dutch cycling culture is far more healthy than the Chinese. Cycling here has increased since the film was made. The difference between this country and China is that the Dutch cyclists are being looked after in the way that infrastructure is designed. They are not expected to compete with cars on an unequal basis.
The equivalent scene of lots of cyclists crossing the roads at once in the Netherlands would be not of people having to get in the way of cars and cause them to stop, as in the Chinese example, but of the simultaneous green junctions which allow cyclists priority over all other traffic. Not only does this remove conflict on the streets, but as cyclists get a green light twice as often as drivers, it also increases the convenience of cyclists relative to drivers.
Perhaps the world would be a different place now if the name of the cycling protest had been taken from a different part of this film. One which presented cyclists in a less pressured situation, and within a country where cycling was being promoted. Perhaps if more notice had been taken of Michael Replogle's comment 22 minutes into the film that "Infrastructure tells you what to do. The way we design our streets tells you how to behave in those streets. It tells you about modes of travel to use and how to use them," then the result might have been different. Perhaps then we would see different patterns emerging in those nations where "critical mass" takes place, but where a true critical mass of cyclists still has not appeared.
Cycling needs to be for everyone, not just for a counter cultural minority.
To see infrastructure which really encourages cycling as a means of transport, come and visit us here in Assen. "We Are Traffic" is also watchable online. Also, both films are available to buy. Also note that I'm aware of the limitations regarding my crude man-years calculation.
Before and After in Eindhoven
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