This article first appeared in Ka Leo, the University of Hawaii student newspaper in 2008, but there were a few things in it that were cut that I thought were important.
For those who don’t know, Critical Mass is an event typically held on the last Friday of every month in cities around the world where bicyclists and, less frequently, unicyclists, skateboarders, inline skaters, roller skaters and other self-propelled commuters take to the streets en masse.
While the ride was originally founded with the idea of drawing attention to how unfriendly the city was to bicyclists, the leaderless structure of Critical Mass makes it impossible to assign it any one specific goal. In fact, the purpose of Critical Mass is not formalized beyond the direct action of meeting at a set location and time and traveling as a group through city or town streets.
Critical Mass: Making the Streets Safe for Bicyclists
By Vago Damitio
If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle in Honolulu, you know that it can be a death defying adventure. Far too often drivers don’t see bicycles when they pull out, change lanes, or turn into driveways. Bicyclists also seem to be invisible to the City and County of Honolulu if one uses the criteria of bicycle lanes, signage, and maintenance of the few bike lanes that do exist on Oahu. For those who ride commuter bikes, a bike path filed with gravel, glass, or trash is almost worse than not having a lane. As a result of all of this, nearly every bicyclist on Oahu has at least one story of near death, honking and yelling motorists who think bicycles don’t have the right to use lanes, angry pedestrians who rightly don’t think bicyclists should be on the sidewalks, or flat tires caused by badly maintained bike lanes.
Much of this frustration boiled over on Friday, February 29th when hundreds of bicycle riders took to the streets in a flash mob style critical mass ride through rush hour traffic on some on Oahu’s busiest (and most dangerous to bike riders) streets. The ride was spread from person to person using word of mouth, text messaging, craigslist, and cellphones. Since it is against the law to have an unregistered parade, organizers didn’t really organize anything. There was no set route, no official rally cry, and no agenda. In fact, there weren’t really even any organizers- simply a bunch of people who are tired of being treated like they don’t deserve to be able to use Oahu’s busy roads.
Among those who rode were visitors from mainland cities who saw the notice on craigslist and decided to rent bikes and participate. “We ride in critical mass rides in Chicago,” a visitor said. “It’s crazy there. Thousands of riders blocking traffic for hours on end. It’s really paved the way to make Chicago a more bike friendly city.”
Her husband pointed out that Chicago officials have tried to make the Critical Mass rides illegal but they continue to happen on the last Friday of every month. “It’s like trying to put protestors in a protest zone,” he said. “It goes against the main point.”
And the main point of Critical Mass is that if enough bike riders band together, they can turn the tables on who rules the road. Motorists on Oahu got a taste of what it’s like to play second fiddle with Friday’s ride. Riders gathered at the state capital starting at 4:30 pm and then rode through busy downtown streets, Chinatown then on to King Street all the way to Kalakaua and a slow ride through Waikiki. Riders occupied all lanes and made the larger, usually dangerous vehicles wait. Some motorists became irate and began to lay on their horns, aggressively bump the rear tires of the bicycles in the rear, or yell foul epithets from their air conditioned interiors.
Riders generally responded with the much used call and response “Who’s streets?” “Our streets.” Several riders were ticketed by police in Chinatown though most chose not to stop when the police turned on their siren. One bystander on Nu’uanu asked “Is the point of this that you can break the law?” a rider responded by saying that the point was that bicyclists are treated as second class citizens on Oahu. The overwhelming response of pedestrians was to cheer as the bikes went by. Numerous bicyclists who were heading the other direction turned around and joined the fun ride and this caused cheers from spectators and riders alike.
Noticeably absent were the colorful faux-Lemond bike jerseys and expensive bicycle shorts, though at least one such rider sprinted through the mass and cussed about how it was slowing him down. Friday’s riders were mostly un-helmeted, casually dressed, every day people who like to use their bikes to get from place to place. Some riders wore political messages on their shirts such as “One less car on the road” or “Bikes are zero-emission”. Slogans seemed to be the exception rather than the rule though and overpriced bikes and gear were not observed amongst the crowd- except for the one angry Lemonde wannabe.
The critical mass was a huge success with the ride finishing where it began around 7 pm.
One sad personal note, after the Critical Mass I joined friends at the Ward Entertainment Complex. While I was eating spaghetti, someone snipped my bike cable and made off with my ride. Security was nowhere to be found. Don’t worry though, I have another bike. If you’d like to become involved in bicycle politics or just meet for a casual weekly ride, you can join us at Manoa Gardens on Thursdays at 4:30 pm. We plan on riding for an hour, then drinking beers and talking story. See you there. </blockquote>