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February 27, 2011

Brazil Critical Mass: Carnage in Puerto Alegre

Critical Mass is a bicycling advocacy demonstration where a group of bicyclists ride through an urban area usually dominated by cars.

On Friday night in Puerto Alegre, Brazil, an angry motorist mowed down a group of about 150 bicyclists riding in the local Critical Mass. The motorist accelerated his car directly through the group of riders.

From TreeHugger:
On the last Friday of every month, hundreds of bike riding enthusiasts take to the streets for Critical Mass in Puerto Alegre, Brazil to raise awareness of cycling in a city dominated by motor vehicles -- but at their most recent event, the unthinkable happened. As the lively group of cyclists pedaled together down the street, one disgruntled motorist decided to accelerate through the crowd, running down dozens of riders in a disturbing hit-and-run.

At time 00:38, this video shows a car accelerating through a crowd of bicyclists.

Discussion of the incident here.

What is Critical Mass? From Wikipedia:
The first domestic US Critical Mass ride within the present wave took place on Friday, September 25, 1992 at 6 pm in San Francisco. At that time, the event was known as Commute Clot and was composed of a few dozen cyclists.

One participant noted that in China, motorists and bicyclists have an understood method of negotiating intersections without signals. Traffic would "bunch up" at these intersections until the backlog reached a "critical mass", at which point that mass would move through the intersection. The term "critical mass" was applied to the San Francisco ride and the name caught on, replacing "Commute Clot" by the time of the second event.

By the time of the fourth ride, the number of cyclists had increased to around 100 and participation continued to grow dramatically, reaching about 1,000 riders on average.

Critical Mass is one flavor of bicycle advocacy. It has some organizational similarities to Anarchy in that there is no assigned leadership; the Mass just happens. There is no accountability. "Massers" consider their gatherings as celebrations of bicycling rather than demonstrations (demonstrations require permits and prior coordination, celebrations don't).

Pittsburgh Critical Mass used to assemble at Dippy the Dinosaur by the Carnegie Museum, last Friday of every month at 5:15 pm.

Some people say that Critical Mass is an unwarranted interruption of public roads, usually during Friday rush hour. Who are these bicyclists who presume to take over the streets and interfere with people trying to get home from work?

Here's a Critical Mass kind of answer:
Bikes are allowed to be on the road, just like cars. Every morning between 7 and 9 am, and again between 4 and 6 pm, untold numbers of car owners gather in their vehicles and congest the public roads to the point of gridlock. They do this almost every workday. Why doesn't somebody do something about all those drivers?

In my opinion, that discussion is too cute by half. I'd love to live in a Copenhagen-type environment but I don't. We live in a society fully given over to the car culture, and to suggest otherwise at your own physical risk seems unwise.

If the Critical Mass stops at red lights and allows other (car) traffic to keep moving, that's OK. But when Critical Mass blocks the cross streets with a technique known as "corking", and illegally makes drivers sit at cross streets interminably, conflicts are inevitable. When the other side has heavy weapons (cars) and your side has bicycles, guess who loses?

Assuming the facts are as presented, I think the driver in Brazil should go to prison for the rest of his life. He intentionally drove in to a crowd of people, accelerating as he went. But if the riders were illegally restraining his movement, and they should bear a major portion of the shame for this event.

There are cyclists who believe that Critical Mass tactics are counter-productive and unsafe. Bicyclists in some cities have started non-confrontational alternatives, holding rides called Critical Manners.

Pittsburgh's well-mannered alternative to Critical Mass is Flock of Cycles. From the Flock of Cycles website:
  • Flock of Cycles is not a cycling training group.
  • Flock of Cycles does not insist on, but may look good in, spandex.
  • Flock of Cycles rides with the cyclist and motorist in mind, treating both with respect.
  • Flock of Cycles is safe and fun for everyone of any experience, age or ability.

Flock of Cycles communicates pretty effectively through their FaceBook Page. Take a look.


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