Back in the late ’90s I hosted a news/current events show with a strong local social justice and environmental focus on the McMaster campus and community station CFMU – I was also deeply involved in several volunteer activist groups, and here, in this cassette recording of a live broadcast, I am both interviewer and partial subject since I was one of the organizers of the city’s first ever Critical Mass bicycle ride.
Listening all these years later it is hard to imagine how stark the cycling conditions were compared to even today – lacking as it still is. There were no bike lanes across the highway #403 on Main or King, no lanes on Sterling, really hardly any infrastructure to speak of. Bike parking? Good luck.
CYCLING THEN, CYCLING NOW
Nowadays the mass rides are done by the Hamilton Glowriders, and are more party than protest, but cyclists can never be far from either aspect when we get together I suspect.
In this campus newspaper article about the glowriders, they talk about the “more adversarial approach to cyclists’ relationship with motorists” as expressed by the generation of critical mass rides.
In contrast, Glowrides, the article explains,
“actively seeks to repair this frequently tense relationship by adding an element of fun and celebration to the group ride and stressing the need to be safe and follow all rules of the road. Instead of tense interactions, now most drivers in the downtown core drive and honk along in support of the cyclists.”
If you see photos of the Critical Mass rides (including the first one in May 1998, you will note that costumes were quite festive, and, while the ride was a lot of fun, it was consciously meant to be – simultaneously – a protest ride.
But let’s not forget these key elements in defence of Critical Mass:
a) We had nothing to lose
b) Protest can be fun
It’s odd that Critical Mass is now pitted against the Glowride as though we were the older lawless and ill-tempered cousin, but the similarities are probably greater than any differences. Attending my first Glowride last fall, we did pretty much the same amount of lawbreaking as Critical Mass might have – i.e. blocking intersections as the ride went through a traffic light that turned red before everyone was through – there were hundreds of riders, more than our biggest mass rides which peaked around 70 riders. I was quite impressed with the turnout and the fun atmosphere, enlivened by a massive sound system on a cargo-bike.
Yes, the early Critical Mass rides took up the whole road for long stretches of Main and King, and that certainly upset a lot of rush hour drivers. Glowrides start later in the evening and spend a big part of their ride on the car-free Waterfront Trail, for example, eliminating some of the strain that Mass riders faced when staking a claim for bikes on the hostile streets downtown.
NOW AND THEN, WE RIDE!
Glowrides have LED lights and social media networks that weren’t available to the Masses in 1998, and, they have the advantage of a steady increase in cycling in the decades since – some of which was certainly engendered by the Mass riders of old.
Have a listen and reflect on how far we have come in terms of support for cycling, and how we can continue to work together as we advocate – and agitate – for more!
Critical Mass Hamilton Video: Critical Mass: How You See It (2003)
Parking Meter Party Video: parking meter party on car free day (2007)