Saturday, January 26, 2008

cycling protests - road wars, part 5

so this is the last part of the car-versus-bike debate that ran in the LA Times. i think it finished sometime over a week ago, and i must have missed the timing. this last part dealt with protests involving mass bike rides, and whether they are effective in asserting the interests of cyclists.

the link to the point-counterpoint is:,0,965872.story?coll=la-opinion-center
if the link doesn't work, the full text is at the end of this post.

i have very mixed feelings on these kinds of protests.

on one hand, i do see them as being very good to raise public awareness of cyclist concerns, and i also see them as useful in forcing drivers to be aware that a substantial (or at least non-trivial) portion of the population uses bicycles for transport. these issues may seem obvious, and hence make protests over them unnecessary, but you'd be proven wrong in dense, high-traffic, vehicle-intensive areas like Los Angeles. for places like Los Angeles, where 1) endemic conditions of scale (in distance and time) require frequent motor traffic, and 2) existing public transportation is anemic or inadequate given endemic conditions of scale, the larger populace tends to live within a paradigm of automobiles--meaning that it is all too often an alien concept for LA citizens that anyone would be riding bicycles in this city. making reminders via mass bike protests valuable...some might say even necessary.

on the other hand, i seriously question whether confrontational methods of protest are ever effective as long-term mechanisms for resolution--not just for the car-versus-bike debate, but for conflicts in general. i see confrontation as a strategy leading to tension inciting full-scale perpetration of extreme measures, including violence. confrontation is really about fueling the causes of hostility, by having opposing sides alienate each other. in which case, confrontation isn't about solving the problem of car-versus-bike, but rather about propagating it.

more than this, however, is that this approach tends to frame the debate as a zero-sum game, with an all-or-nothing, win-or-lose worldview in which the only way for 1 party to gain is for another party to lose.

to me, this is problematic, because i don't think this a viable public policy solution. the vision of no-car roads or no-bike roads are absurdities that don't service the reality of modern life--people have to get around however they get around, choosing whatever forms of transportation are available to them...given the finite amount of roads and public funds, the only way to preserve such freedom of movement is to allow both cars and bicycles to share the asphalt and concrete.

i think that if there are going to be mass-bike protests like a Critical Mass (incidentally, this article is wrong...Critical Mass is all over LA--reference: and Midnight Ridazz (reference:, they should try to be less confrontational. at the very least, they should be less obnoxious. protests shouldn't be about trying to create new enemies--Los Angeles car culture provides too many of them in the car-versus-bike debate--but rather about trying to create common modes of living that can ease the tensions in an already incendiary urban environment.

drivers need to learn to live with cyclists, cyclists need to learn to live with drivers. neither side is going away, and there's only so many roads and so much money available to build them. we have to learn to live together.

i mean, seriously, to quote the LA cliche': can we all just get along?

From the Los Angeles Times
Critical Mass of frustration
January 11, 2008

San Francisco has Critical Mass; L.A. has the Midnight Ridazz -- both can be nightmares for motorists. Do these gridlock-inducing bike rides help or hurt cyclists’ cause? Will Campbell and Randal O’Toole conclude their debate.

Having fun while increasing awareness
By Will Campbell

First off, from the obvious bias within which this final question is prefaced, I'm going to guess that there's been an L.A. Times editor or two leaving work late one night only to get caught up in a Critical Mass or Midnight Ridazz "nightmare." On top of that, by going so far out of town to reference Critical Mass at its birthplace, there might be those who participate in the Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley, Northeast L.A., Pasadena, UCLA and Santa Monica chapters of that famed ride chafing as to why our hometown paper either isn't aware or doesn't care to represent what's going on in its own hometown. Or maybe it's just me.

Certainly where I'm concerned, a bias also prevails — just in the other direction. While I've not rolled with any of the local Critical Mass rides mentioned above, I've only missed four Midnight Ridazz rides since my first in December 2005, and my next will be the one scheduled tonight (Jan. 11) in East Hollywood, departing around 10 p.m. from the corner of Heliotrope Drive and Melrose Avenue, the unofficial epicenter of the city's burgeoning bike culture.

So the loaded question is, are the hundreds of cyclists with whom I'll be riding around town this evening of benefit or detriment to any so-called mission? Well, that would depend a bit on the definition. As for me, I do such rides to increase awareness of and interest in bicycling in Los Angeles and to have fun in the process. So while I'd like to avoid taking a hard line as I did in Monday's post and be far more fair and balanced and Randal-esque in tone, I just can't. These Midnight Ridazz group rides rock my world.

Of course, in doing so, what they also accomplish is a big sloppy wet dis against the status quo, and that's always bound to cause discord. Certainly, the way the tables get turned when a mass of raucous and reveling cyclists takes over the lanes of major streets has an impact on the vehicular traffic as we move through intersections en masse, oftentimes regardless of whether the light is green or red. I wouldn't go so low as to label us "gridlock inducing," but we do cause delays, and in doing so sometimes frustrations and tensions from impatient motorists escalate.

From my many Midnight Ridazz experiences and that of other popular ones such as RIDE-Arc and Sins 'N' Sprockets, the disgruntlement is far outweighed by the desire of people to know more. In vehicles and on the sidewalks, they look on in amazement at one of the last sights anyone expects to ever see in car-crazed L.A., and the questions come at us as we pass. They ask, "Why are you riding?" and I say, "For fun!" They ask, "Where to?" and I answer, "Wherever we want!" They want to know how they can come play too, and I say "Check out — with two Zs!"

No doubt plenty of people are adamant that we're a bunch of anarchist hooligans hell-bent on wrecking the system with our reckless antics, and no matter what they'll never change that mind-set. But there are more people then ever before getting out with their bikes at night and riding in Los Angeles and having a lot of fun doing it. To me that's a mission accomplished.

See you on the streets!

Silver Lake resident Will Campbell beat his 2007 goal to bike 2,007 miles across L.A. by nearly 1,100 miles. He blogs at and and is an editor with Ascend Media.

Share the road as equals
By Randal O'Toole

Will, I have no doubt that Critical Mass, Midnight Ridazz and similar mass rides have done a lot of good by raising public consciousness about cycling. But you have to agree there are dark sides to these mass movements.

The obvious one is that Critical Mass' habit of staging rides during rush hour on busy streets makes motorists mad. When you use such tactics to polarize the debate, you strengthen your side, but you also strengthen the opposition. Critical Mass is betting that cyclists will benefit from such polarization. So far, they may be right, but I worry about a long-run backlash.

A subtler problem behind polarization is that it turns the debate into something more than cyclists and motorists respecting each other's rights to the road. Instead, mass movements make cycling a moral issue: Cycling, its adherents say, is morally superior to driving, so cyclists deserve more rights than auto users.

Admit it, Will: You've sometimes said to yourself, "I don't pollute like autos, so I deserve better." This reminds me of George Orwell's "four legs good, two legs bad" chants from "Animal Farm."

One result: Portland and a few other cities are installing "bicycle boxes" at many intersections. The bicycle box expands a bike lane to the full width of the auto lane at the intersection. Even if no bikes are present, cars are not allowed to enter the box or turn right on a red light.

Instead of treating bikes and cars as legal equals, the bike box gives bikes preference at the expense of delaying autos by limiting right-hand turns. Good for cycling — bad for respecting each other's rights.

There is an even darker, subtler problem behind mass bike movements: Some participants become more arrogant and careless even when cycling alone. This is speculation, I know, but we also know that when people start to feel morally superior to others, they become willing to do things that they would never do to people they regard as equals. That is never good for civil society.

I understand the positive feelings you get from Midnight Ridazz, Will. But in addition to feeling good about ourselves, we have to instill a common respect for others. Almost everyone on the road, from the smallest cyclists to drivers of the biggest trucks, has to realize that some, such as pedestrians, are more vulnerable while others, such as light-rail trains, are bigger and more dangerous. Whether riding or driving, we have to approach the job with humility and care for everyone's rights and safety.

Best wishes to all my fellow travelers.

Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and blogs at The Antiplanner.

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