Critical Mass? Organized cycling in Greater Lafayette

Critical Mass is a monthly event held in cities worldwide with the fundamental purpose of promoting cycling as a viable transportation alternative. The term, “Critical Mass”, is derived from westerners observing bicycle organization in China. At an otherwise-dangerous intersection, bicyclists in China followed an unspoken practice of waiting until enough of them had approached the intersection that their group had reached a “critical mass” large enough to create substantial presence and cross the intersection safely. Similar to how schools of fish heard together to create the impression that they are a much larger creature.

The beginnings of Critical Mass rides as we know them first took place in San Francisco in 1992. Each city does their own rides slightly different, but the main concept remains the same; to create safety in numbers. These rides have become popular worldwide, and even spread to our own Greater Lafayette on September 14, 2007. Participating in Critical Mass is a great way to meet fellow bicycle advocates and commuters, and otherwise improve interactions amongst cyclists. Participating in Masses in large cities, such as Chicago, can also be very exhilarating, with thousands surrounding you in your ride through the city. Some participants however can take things too far, and see Critical Mass as a protest against cars / oil / bad environmental policy and use it as a platform to taunt automobiles and drivers. The majority of riders do not condone these actions, but it only takes one to give the entire event a bad reputation.

For those who bicycle around Lafayette, it need not be said that this is not the most bicycle-friendly place. For some, hearing “Get off the street!” yelled by drivers is a daily occurrence, and hearing about things being thrown at cyclists is no surprise. Even though bicycles have every right to the road as any car, this knowledge is not known and accepted by so many in our city. This is the reason Critical Mass has such an important message to be heard in Lafayette. This was my pure and simple belief up until the past 6 months or so. I had never heard any complaint about Critical Mass, and only saw positive benefit from it taking place. In April 2012 the Lafayette Journal & Courier released an article about our Greater Lafayette Critical Mass (GLCM), and this began to initiate some conversation. I heard responses from some cyclists saying they feel that GLCM does just the opposite of its mission, it in fact hurts the bicycle advocacy movement. If I were to only have ridden in the Chicago Critical Mass, I would say this is absolutely not true. The vast majority of cars gladly move to the side of the road, impressed by the flash mob of thousands of cyclists. Many cars roll down their windows to high-five riders passing by, and very few cars show any sort of disapproval of their 5 minute delay in their commute. This however is not the case here in Greater Lafayette. Perhaps it’s our smaller numbers (20-30 usually). Perhaps its the nature of the car-dominated culture of this city. Either way, the message of Critical Mass does need to be heard, although perhaps in a different tone of voice.

When news came out that just a couple months ago an elderly man was attacked by an enraged motorist because he was riding on the street, GLCM realized a formal statement needed to come out. Beginning last month, GLCM leaders are pushing participants into following all rules of the road, including, but not limited to:

1) Riding no more than two-abreast on city streets
2) Stopping at red-lights, even if it breaks the group apart momentarilly
3) Riding with rear reflectors/tail lights, and headlights. Bells are strongly encouraged
4) Remaining peaceful, even if an angry motorist taunts or says something rude.

These practices are not unique to Greater Lafayette. Some cities have begun hosting rides, called “Critical Manners” with the same bicycle advocacy as Critical Mass but strictly following the rules. Perhaps GLCM should adopt this new nomenclature? Either way, we hope that cyclists previously opposed to GLCM will consider giving it a second shot. We need more cyclists who know the rules, so that they can pass them on in educating less experienced cyclists. By abiding to road rules, drivers can learn that we aren’t out to cause them delay, we do just the opposite by reducing vehicle congestion and pollution. I feel confident that GLCM can substantially improve awareness of cycling as a healthy, sustainable, and viable means of transportation for our city!

If you are already a regular GLCM rider, please obey these practices. If you are considering joining us, or rejoining us for that matter, we hope you see that we are here for the same common goal of bicycle transportation advocacy. The next GLCM ride will take place on Friday, October 26, meeting up between 6:30-7 pm at Hot Box Pizza, Chauncey Village, West Lafayette. We’ll then ride for about 1.5 hours around West Lafayette and Lafayette. GLCM typically will take place the 3rd Friday of every month, except for when certain situations take place. The October ride was shifted to the last Friday due to allow riders to attend the 2012 Hilly Hundred. ( Greater Lafayette Critical Mass is an all-ages, all-abilities ride, so please bring kids and grandparents alike!

Follow us for updates or ride changes at: or in the near future at BicycleLafayette.Org

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