Approaching Critical Mass
By Marisa Demarco
According to Albuquerque municipal bike laws, bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists on the road. They have the right to take up a lane of traffic as well as the responsibility to obey streetlights and stop signs. Sometimes the safest way to ride is by taking up the entire right-most lane, says Julie Luna, former president of BikeABQ, a local nonprofit bicycling advocacy group. This is especially true, she says, when the lane is small enough that a cyclist's presence forces autos to change lanes to pass.
Luna has also been a part of Albuquerque's version of Critical Mass, a group ride on the last Friday of every month that happens in cities all over the world, sometimes drawing thousands of riders. When it began in San Francisco in 1992, the purpose of Critical Mass was to give riders an opportunity to assert their presence and right to the road. The model of the event is kind of anarchistic. No one in particular organizes it. It is not formally announced. Notice of the place and time spreads by word of mouth.
Critical Mass rides began in Albuquerque years ago, but due to the decentralized nature of the event, it's hard to pinpoint exactly when. Often, a hundred Duke City cyclists converged for the event. But in the last few months, Albuquerque's mass has been less than critical, sometimes with fewer than a dozen folks coming out to the UNM Bookstore at 6 p.m., says Luna. The last Critical Mass happened during the March 18 peace protest, which brought together around 60 bicyclists, according to Luna.
“Different cyclists take different views on cars,” Luna says. “For Critical Masses, there would be a lot of cyclists being extremely aggressive to motorists. That has turned a lot of people off.” The Critical Mass is losing some momentum in Albuquerque, and there hasn't really been one in months, “but it's nice that it happens now and then,” Luna says.
It began as a celebratory reclamation of public space, according to the unofficial website, www.critical-mass.org. (There can't be an official website for what has been termed an “organized coincidence.”) It's not supposed to be about harassing motorists, leaving a bad taste in their mouths and making them more likely to be aggressive with cyclists. That's the problem Bike Coop owner Greg Overman has with the concept.
“It's already dangerous enough as it is,” Overman says. “Pissing off drivers is not going to serve your needs very well. In San Francisco, hundreds would get together and block the Golden Gate Bridge, but we don't have that here. We have a couple dozen or a couple hundred.”
The lack of turnout could also have something to do with the unconventional method of its happening. Mark Allen, a salesperson at the Albuquerque Bicycle Center, said he started looking for one as soon as he moved to Albuquerque from Chicago three years ago but couldn't find it. In Chicago, he says, it was gaining quite a bit of popularity, with thousands riding together every month. Critical Mass was all about celebrating bikes and bike culture, according to Allen. “You get a lot of people that ride really interesting bikes there,” he says. “There's a camaraderie. And it's fun to ride down the middle of streets that are normally off limits to you.”
Danny Hernandez, a bike commuter and reporter at KUNM 89.9 FM, doesn't think Critical Mass is the best way to improve awareness of riders' rights to the road. “It's one of these things that makes bicyclists look like they're rogue,” he says. Instead, the best way to assert yourself on Albuquerque's roadways is to behave like a vehicle. “Anything you do that makes you ride unlike motorized traffic puts you in danger,” he says. “Riding on the sidewalk is one of the more dangerous things to do. They're looking for you to behave like a vehicle.”
Luna adds to that safety tip: Plan and test your route, use side street alternatives, and wear safety gear. Call 768-BIKE for information on signing up with the city's free Effective Cycling Class. BikeABQ also offers a safety course, which you can find out about at bikeabq.org.
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