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Gas may never return to sub-$4 levels. The city is avidly painting sharrows and bike lanes all over town as it prepares to implement its

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Critical Massholes?

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Gas may never return to sub-$4 levels. The city is avidly painting sharrows and bike lanes all over town as it prepares to implement its $27 million Bicycle Master Plan, and the number of cycle commuters is up 31 percent over the last eight years according to the Department of Transportation. All of which would seem to indicate Seattle is, indeed, one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the U.S.

Unless, of course, you were trying to move your white Subaru station wagon out of a parking spot on Capitol Hill last Friday evening, at precisely the same moment a few hundred Critical Mass riders blocked off the street to parade by. Within a few minutes, the smiling face of eco-friendly bipedal transportation began to look like the ugly scowl of vigilantism. In some press accounts, cyclists have become cycling’s worst enemy.

As has already been well reported, what occurred next is a matter of heated dispute: The motorist received a beating, causing minor injuries, at the hands of enraged Critical Mass riders (two of whom were arrested), who accuse the impatient motorist of having violently assaulted them with his vehicle. (At least one rider went to Harborview with minor injuries.) Whether a third cyclist the police suspect of assault will be found and arrested, and whether any of the riders will be charged, remains to be seen. For now, the blogs are burning up with dueling accusations of “bicycle Nazis” and SUVs with intent to kill.

In the future, however, this outbreak of two-wheeled versus four-wheeled road rage will cause reflection on the last Friday of every month, when ad-hoc, leaderless Critical Mass rallies assemble at Westlake Park then pedal through the streets. Though they block traffic--including those proceeding by foot, bike, bus, and car--for a few hours, they do so without a city permit or official policy for the police to enforce.

Normal protest groups, even if they’re using city streets, must gain permission from the Department of Parks for their marches or demonstrations. But says Parks spokeswoman Dewey Potter of the Critical Massers, “They don’t apply for a permit.” Over at the Seattle Police Department, Mark Jamieson adds, “They’re not in direct communication with us.” No parade routes are filed, which can catch motorists off-guard--as was the case in 2006, when members of the King County Sheriff’s department got in an altercation with Critical Mass riders who claimed the lawmen failed to properly identify themselves. That incident occurred near the Olympic Sculpture Park, where, per Critical Mass custom, some riders had dismounted to block vehicular traffic at an intersection. (This is essentially what happened Friday on Cap Hill.)

The city is forced into a stance of tacit tolerance. Says Jamieson, “The position is that they police themselves. I had always thought they stayed downtown.”

Should the riders be required to file an itinerary or otherwise notify the city of their un-permitted plans? “That’s a policy decision somewhere,” says Jamieson. In other words, either the mayor or the city council would have to propose some new law to regulate these spontaneous rallies. That may depend on how much, if at all, voters have been angered or inconvenienced by the group.

On its Seattle Web site, the group states:

“Critical Mass has no leaders and no set agenda and people come together to ride for many different reasons. Just a few of those reasons are...to assert cyclists’ right to the road, to promote bikes as a fun, healthy, viable alternative to cars, to build a greater sense of community, to get more folks on bikes, or simply to celebrate bike love and ride in solidarity with other like minded individuals and have some fun!”

Sounds great, but has Critical Mass outlived its purpose? Is it, as many onlookers have suggested--even before last Friday--merely an excuse for a rowdy, anarchic parade that unnecessarily impedes traffic and perhaps also inadvertently hurts the notion of responsible, law-abiding cycling?

At time when urban congestion is getting worse and worse, is this confrontation and traffic snarling actually helping anyone? Shouldn’t cyclists be promoting efficiency and smoother traffic flow--not trying to jam the works and alienate potential allies on the other side of the windshield?

At the Bicycle Alliance of Washington, a state advocacy group, Gordon Black says of the Friday incident, “I think it’s a storm in a teacup. I think it’s one of those things that’s a little blip.” He sees the number of cycle commuters rising with gas prices and real estate values, regardless of how popular Critical Mass is or isn’t. “There are people in the bike community who think [Critical Mass] is a great idea and those who think it’s a terrible idea.” Speaking of his former home, however, he does recall “a greater maturity in San Francisco, where it was founded.”

A carefully worded statement from the Cascade Bicycle Club said: "Based on the actions of a few, Seattle Critical Mass is undermining any potential to create positive community exchange and to draw focus to improving conditions for bicycling in our city." The statement also lauded the Bicycle Master Plan and encouraged aggrieved motorists and cyclists to call the cops rather than rumbling.

Of course, unlike Critical Mass, the 9,000-member CBC is a highly professional non-profit organization that issues press releases, has spokespeople, and goes through city channels to gain permits for rides, races, and other events. That means attending a lot of boring meetings, not just creating a ruckus in the streets.

Come next Friday, August 29, Critical Mass will again have a chance to show whether it’s riding into the future, or into the past.

 
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