27 May 2009

The Bicycles of Madrid

My good friend Cristina was in Madrid for a weekend break last month and she heard a strange sound outside her hotel. Bell ringing. Ding ding.

She was quite surprised to look out the window and see a Madrid version of the critical mass rides. It took 20 minutes to pass by. They rode at a nice, casual tempo but there were many of them. Anybody know the number of participants?

The pictures speak for themselves. But here's me wondering why these kinds of rides are so popular in large European cities that have yet to re-embrace the bicycle. There is none of that agressive, sub-cultural attitude that one usually associates with the North American versions. There is more of a festival mood.

My friend Hynek in Czech Republic [I'll get around to blogging about it, Hynek...:-)] says that in their version, they even changed the name from 'critical mass' to something more festival'y so as not to be associated with the negative vibes from 'over there'.

I have been critical of 'critical mass' in the past but mostly the sub-cultural versions of the 'movement'. When you get this many people having a cosy bike ride together, it's a whole different ball game.

Interesting. Are Europeans better at protesting/demonstrating because it's more of a tradtion over here and the authorities respect it more than in North America? Just wondering. Discuss.


JP said...

Where cycling conditions are bad it sometimes takes the determination of the sub-cultures to make a stand. In reality it's those of us who do nothing to improve conditions and suffer in silence that leave the door open to those who use more direct methods to make their point.

Sadly it's often simpler and easier for some cyclists to match the aggressive stance of the minority of drivers than it is to be creative and make their point in a subtler and more engaging way.

bikecity said...

5.000 (http://www.elpais.com/yoperiodista/articulo/Periodista/Espana_Madrid/Bicicletas/Madrid/transporte_sostenible/5000/bicicletas/reivindican/uso/medio/transporte/elpepuyop/20090502elpyop_1/Ies

álvaro said...

As I said in you previous post about the Critical Mass, it is such a diverse ride, that you cannot really judge it as a whole.

I have been very active in a number of them (Madrid, Alcalá and Edinburgh), and they were all festive and peaceful. Many people who didn't otherwise dear to ride the streets joined us and rediscovered the pleasure of riding a bike.

I know live in Amsterdam and I can understand how form the point of view of a bicycle culture it looks absurd, but try and understand that in some places cycling is a just a subculture, and a monthly ride, however you might call it, is an excellent way of achieving visibility.


lagatta à montréal said...

In Montréal cycling activists found it very important to find creative means of protest and affirming the bicycle's right to urban space. But we've always had a lot of mass demonstrations about other issues as well, trade-union protests, the national movement, and more recently environmental issues.

I don't quite agree with Mikael about this, like JP I think sometimes it is necessary to group together to make a point and be rather proactive about it. But the point should be to grow out of that and develop a well-integrated cycling culture, or rather a culture of using the bicycle as the everyday means of transport in cities.

Bikecity, thanks for the El País article.

One always finds too many durned mountain bikes in cities where workaday cycling is not very advanced. I'm sure Madrilenos will soon see the advantages of urban bicycles with mudgards and carriers.

Emilio said...

Hi, I have participated in a few CM rides in Madrid, a city that is very far to be considered bike-friendly.

I'm not sure if I liked o disliked the "bicicritica" (as we call the critical mass in Madrid). I like the celebration side of it, a way to show people that riding a bike in the city is possible, and that it is more fun, healthy, efficient, etc.

But while it grows (over 1.000 participants lately, although last month was a special event, with 5.000 ciclyst coming from several countries), it is more difficult to "be traffic", and it rather stops other kinds of traffic, instead. And what is worse, it affects not only to motorists, but to pedestrians and public transport users.

Cyclists try to make it easier for people waiting, with good humour, fancy dressing, etc... but it is not possible to avoid some agressive situations in each edition. It's true that they always come from a minority, but it is not the image I'd like to give.

Anyway, I agree with you in thinking that the best publicity to bike culture is using it normally every day.

Brendan61 said...

Not all North AMerican Critical Mass Rides are the aggressive type. Unfortunately they are the only ones that get attention. We started a ride in a small city locally to where I live and tried to rebrand it as a "Yield To Fun" ride. Video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6UIYHwqZII
another group of people co-opted the ride and have been calling it a critical mass ride but the friendly fun vibe is the same.
Anyway, my efforts are now more grassroots. My mission is to create a cultural shift by changing one mind at a time.

Anonymous said...

And 5000 more in Athens:



kukupajtas said...

Critical Mass Budapest / Hungary

start 2007

finish 2008



kukupajtas said...

30.000 riders

Jeannie said...

Awesome turnout right there! Well, I'm from the Bay Area and have participated in rides in Berkeley and SF from 2008 and 09. The mood was light and fun; yes, we had police escorts to make sure some crazy people do not go onto the freeway, but the rides I participated in certainly were not aggressive. People chit-chatted, helped new riders who fell off their bike up (cause we ride sooo very slowly - that's a part of it, y'kno!), and we also let pedestrians pass (well, try to).

I'd say mass rides are quite fun, but unfortunately still widely perceived as traffic jammers, crazy-minded activists. Yes, even in cities like Berkeley and San Fran...

portlandize.com said...

I think one of the reasons North American folk tend to be a bit more extreme and ferocious about their views in general, is that they haven't had experience (as Europe has) to show them plainly that their social values are, for the large part, pretty relative and subjective. In general, we tend to grab onto what we believe is the "proper" way of things, and then cling to it with everything we've got. That goes for the people who are generally against bicycling as well as those who are generally pro-bicycling, and so you have this reactionary kind of competition as the two groups hold to their opposite views of life (bikes are harmful vs. bikes are *the* answer). It doesn't seem like there tends to be that extreme polarization on issues nearly as much in Europe.

In general, I think the critical mass rides in Portland (from what I've gathered after the fact) have mostly just made the "bikes are harmful" folks more angry, without really making all that much positive impact in getting more people out riding or making policy changes or anything like that.

Mendi! said...

Just one thing, this images could be taken from "La Criticona" http://lacriticona.ourproject.org/ which is an “interplanetary” annual meeting so is not really de Critical Mass that take place every month in many cities in the world.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the reasons North American folk tend to be a bit more extreme and ferocious about their views in general, is that they haven't had experience (as Europe has) to show them plainly that their social values are, for the large part, pretty relative and subjective.

... whereas Danish values, as Mikael repeatedly reminds us, are *absolute* and *objective*.

Nate (Salt Lake City) said...

I would respectfully disagree with the earlier posters.

In the US, motorized vehicles are very closely associated with male potency ... which makes Critical Mass a Testosterone vs Testosterone smackdown.

I remember an online bicycle forum from a few years ago, which had some motorists trolling through and responding to a Critical Mass thread.

The cyclists were talking abou surrounding cars and tipping them over. In response, the motorists were discussing the need to carry loaded handguns in their cars on the Critical Mass day to protect themselves.

Not sure what anybody gained in that discussion, but that's the flavor of Critical Mass in some US cities.

Kiwehtin said...

To "Anonymous" (18:49):

I'm trying to recall when Mikael claimed "Danish" values are "*absolute* and *objective*"... I have a hard time recalling any such thing being posted in either of his blogs. Perhaps you can dredge up the relevant posting(s) and put the link(s) up here for us to consult so we can see your view of Mikael's thought is indeed correct.

I *do* know that for the two or more years he has been blogging about cycling in Copenhagen, Mikael has put forth many strong personal opinions about what is being done right or wrong for cycling in his city and Denmark in general. Often he agrees with the way things are done, sometimes his values conflict with those of other Danes (for example the Danish Cycling (Helmets) Federation). Which of course shows there is no one set of universal Danish values.

His posts from the past couple of weeks, if you read through them, show quite an approving interest in the way things are done elsewhere, especially in the Netherlands. I don't think it is fair to imply, as you do, that he is a chauvinist for some abstract set of "Danish values". His bike-centric values, however, are shared by many around the world who realise the terrible price we have paid by letting everything revolve around accommodating private automobiles in cities. Car-centric values are not what any sane and ethical person can uphold.

To lagatta in Montreal:

I know there are critical mass rides here, but the funny thing is I cannot recall them ever being big enough to be noticed by the press. (But then I don't watch TV so I'm probably missing out on a lot of coverage.) The *real* events when bikes take over the streets are pretty organised events with lots of corporate sponsorship, like the annual Montreal Bike Fest in the end of May and early June:


During these events it gets quite difficult to travel in parts of town by car... (not that that bothers *me* at all!)

I'm not sure the critical mass rides (whatever size they might reach) have much if anything to do with the massive street demonstrations of the 70s and 80s, or the post Meech Lake period in the early 90s... These were spirit of the times things.

BTW, I often see unhelmeted and chicly attired women of a certain age whirring down my street (Casgrain between Beaubien and Bellechasse) and often wonder if one of them might happen to be you!

ERK said...

I live in NYC and our Critical Mass rides seem to get a lot of negative publicity (as was mentioned in earlier comments) when unfortunate things happen between motorists/pedestrians/police and the participating cyclists. There is a lot of negative sentiment in this city toward bicycles despite the large number of people who use them daily for work, commuting, etc; and the nature of our urban environment breeds an "us vs. them" mentality that is hard to shake from people's minds.
NY cyclists are forced to ride in over-crowded streets with extremely aggressive motorists and naturally become aggressive themselves in defense of their surroundings.
When you consider the NYPD's poor conduct toward cyclists, and their wanton disregard for OUR rights and spaces in the public realm, you can't be all that surprised that cyclists would band together for protection against a common aggressor.

The Critical Mass rides here accomplish exactly what their name implies: they bring a "critical mass" of cyclists onto the streets, so that for a couple of hours each month, motorists, police and pedestrians are made suddenly aware of our presence in the hopes that they will be more conscious of cyclists in the future and help lessen the frequency of death and bodily injury amongst two-wheelers.

Personally I think this is a totally acceptable form of protest despite the few wackos that take it too far and give us a bad name.

I agree with JP on this point: "...it's those of us who do nothing to improve conditions and suffer in silence that leave the door open to those who use more direct methods to make their point."

In places like NYC the sub-culture, however maniacal they may be, are the ones pushing the hardest for our rights.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is fair to imply, as you do, that he is a chauvinist for some abstract set of "Danish values".Sorry. My post should have read:

"... whereas Mikael's values, as he repeatedly reminds us, are *absolute* and *objective*."

Adrienne Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adrienne Johnson said...

Critical Mass is one of those things that engenders all of the stereotypes of those who ride bikes- scofflaws, punks, fringe elements...and while all stereotypes may have kernels of truth in them, they are always wildly distorted.

There have been times in the past (in SF) where CM has been wild and confrontational, although not because that was the goal. It has always happened when those who participate and those who don't let their frustration over ride their common sense. When something happens, both sides hold on to it forever as an example of how awful the other side is (much like how drivers see a cyclist run a light and then think all of them are dangerous). We haven't had any real drama in ages.

CM is what gave SF the energy to start looking at the bicycle as an integral part of society again. CM is also one of the things that keeps us in the radar of the police as something they need to protect (which has not always been the case) and prevents the city from sweeping us under the rug (something that has been a problem for decades).

When you are fighting for a "bike culture" you have to have things that keep people thinking about it, and Critical Mass is one of those things. When you have a bike culture that is established you don't need Critical Mass because your whole environment is CM- how many times do we here that in Copenhagen the bike is king and that cars are always wrong in the eyes of the law? That is the epitome of critical mass! Here in N. America where the cyclist is more like the royal taster, we have to get creative about how we get recognition for simply existing, never mind recognition as equally deserving of the road.

Erik Sandblom said...

Where I live, they have a critical mass for cars. Every day at 4 pm, motorists congregate for hours at particular places on the road network, stopping traffic. They call it "traffic jam" and use it to pressure politicians to improve conditions for the hapless motorists. Ambulances and fire trucks have been known to get caught in the "traffic jam", but the clever motorists claim this only underlines the need for more asphalt.

And they have been very successful. The newspapers buy into the message and write about expanding motorways for cars. They even have whole sections of the newspaper encouraging people to buy fast new cars.

The "traffic jams" are not entirely without conflict however. Some people write letters to the editor, saying that the motorists must have better things to do than to sit in stationary traffic every day. They point to the tram and subway networks which almost always keep moving, right through the "traffic jam". Other, more libertarian types say that they use their bicycles and never encounter any serious congestion. But they are usually laughed off.

bentguy said...

I don't know about other North American cities --or other Canadian cites for that matter -- but here in Vancouver we have a fairly peaceful, fun ride (coming up on again Friday). I have been on lots of them and have only seen a few incidents that stem mostly from drivers who don't seem to understand what's going on, likely don't care and probably act that way all the time anyhow.

We have a large contingent of Vancouver Police bike cops who ride with us and usually a motor cycle cop or two at the front and back. The ones I've talked with seem to see our safety as their number one concern and I have seen a few of them take on aggressive drivers. I once had one explain to me the proper way to safely cork a side street.

We get cheered on from motorists, pedestrians and restaurant patrons all of the time and I've seem little if any negative reaction in the local media.

Unfortunately there are always jerks who show up thinking that the ride is some kind of law free zone where they can make asses of themselves in public but their kind is far outnumbered by those who get the point.

My only wish is that the local media here would do a better job of getting the word out so most of the drivers in the area we use would be better prepared for what's happening.

Anonymous said...

Are Europeans better at protesting/demonstrating because it's more of a tradtion over here and the authorities respect it more than in North America?Define "better." Last time I checked, American protesters ended racial segregation and the Vietnam War. But I guess that shutting down an entire University system, like they do periodically in France, is *much* more of an achievement.

lagatta à montréal said...

Kiwehtin, the events I was speaking of (of a much more varied nature than "Critical Mass" took place mostly in the 1970s and early 1980s - and they were very much connected to other social movements then as "vélorutionnaires" were involved in many others as well. There are critical mass rides now, but indeed they are fairly small. The last major bicycle event here was the 30th anniversary commemoration of the 1976 die-in, with us old farts and the newer generation of vélorutionnaires. Claire was still alive.

Le Tour de l'Île, a fairly pointless mass ride sponsored by Vélo Québec, was taken over from our "Journée internationale de la bicyclette", which was a take off on May Day, 8th of March etc. Lots of suburbanites come into town with their bikes strapped to their cars.

Could have been me. I won't be more specific, but I do live in your neighbourhood, between Bellechasse and marché Jean-Talon, between St-Laurent and St-Denis. But there are many such women here, and younger ones too. And quite a few well turned-out men of all ages as well. We do get the lycra set here, but less than in many parts of North America.

On copenhagencyclechic, Mikael has a clip from Coeur de pirate set in the "friche urbaine" between Bellechasse and the northern Plateau Mt-Royal/Mile End area, on the right-of-way of the CP railway, featuring a very attractive young couple and bicycles.

Emigrant said...

The slogan for the Critical Mass in Madrid says it all: "Cycle every day, celebrate it once a month"


aronman said...

wtach the end of the budapest earth day 2009 critical amss:

Adrienne Johnson said...

@Nate (from SLC)-

I am a Critical Mass rider, as are many of my friends. I am quite decidedly female, as are many of my CM friends. The profile of those who participate in CM has changed greatly over the years.

The last major CM issue in SF was because a woman got impatient and confused and hit cyclists with her van.

CM can not be described as any one thing, or any one group or type of people. It has grown way beyond that.

redhotchilly12 said...

This is absolutely amazing. I have been pondering this topic,so thanks for posting. I will certainly be coming back to your posts. You can visit Bikes Blog for more info.

SiouxGeonz said...

Oh, this blog has made hte big time- gotten the spam posts!

Interesting thoughts on CM. We have it here in our little town and a friend of mine had said he'd gotten a real emotional charge out of it - being in a group big enough not to be intimidated - but I felt like I was among impulsive college kids riding all over the road 'cause they could for a little. I guess I felt like as soon as we were an inconvenience, we'd be squelched by the authorities, but that they were just as glad to know where we were and under control.

burrito said...

I was astonished when I saw my first critical mass ride in Vancouver, BC - having always heard of those rides as confrontational... Vancouver's was anything but! The pedestrians and motorists were often really amused/entertained by it - like they got to see a surprise parade. It has a really positive vibe.

I do worry that as it gets bigger and bigger in Vancouver that it will start to fray the good will it has right now. It's one thing to be blocked by bike traffic for 5 mintues, another thing to be blocked for 45 minutes! (I speak as a pedestrian.)

Anonymous said...

Others have commented on this in greater detail, but to add my two cents about my experience with the Critical Mass in San Francisco, I'll just say: in the dozens I've joined, I've only witnessed two agro incidents. Usually, the aggressive sort are overwhelmed by a friendly anarchism, to the greater amusement and entertainment of the majority of people on and off the streets. Those least amused have been: agro-cyclists, some motorcyclists, motorcycle police (sometimes), taxi drivers (losing income), some bus passengers, and over-50 BMW drivers.

Anonymous said...

Sub-culture is the only way to do a protest over here. you are correct, the authorities in europe respect protests.
In america, both recently, and all throughout our history, we are met by the authorities with violence and opposition... to anything.
Hell, we even have a history of the government siding with the auto manufacturers to physically beat the auto-workers for going on strike until they went back to work.
People are killed by the authorities when then protest in America, so no one other than the crazy hippies are usually willing to do it.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
Are Europeans better at protesting/demonstrating because it's more of a tradtion over here and the authorities respect it more than in North America?Define "better." Last time I checked, American protesters ended racial segregation and the Vietnam War. But I guess that shutting down an entire University system, like they do periodically in France, is *much* more of an achievement.


Hmm. Well-good to see some constructive debate on this issue... the stunningly ignorant generalisation above excluded of course.

I think the main difficulty with 'CM' rides that are too orientated towards the subcultural are that it tends to alienate the more everyday commuters, which is surely the opposite of what we want to achieve, no? It's pretty logical to assume that if a group identifies itself as explicitly 'anti' something anyone who may not meet, or see themselves as meeting, this same degree of activism will tend to drift away or be intimidated. That said, most CM rides I've seen or ridden in have been friendly, non-judgemental affairs that encourage people to participate, although you do sometimes get the odd bunch of folks that get an energy boost from riding in a big crowd and use it in the wrong way-i.e becoming antagonistic... I think more damage is done however by the fools cycling their MTB's on the pavement, cutting lights/crossings and pissing off pedestrians and motorists alike, as this happens all day, every day, not once a month, and erodes sympathy from the people we'd otherwise like to show us a bit more respect and consideration when we're on the road.

Rusl Bicycle said...

Dear Portlandize,

As an experienced Critical Masser in many cities I take an experienced view to my judgement of the Portland Critical Mass. I have not been in years but I did go to Portland's "biggest" Critical Mass during Bikesummer 2002. This was the worst Critical Mass I've been on. And it was very clear that the cause of this was regular police repression and a lack of a feeling of legitimacy among the CM riders.

There was a whole offshoot group who were going to do a "Polite" Mass. In the end they changed their plan to join the main group after realising that their action would give "cause" for police to be extra repressive of the ride. Too late they gave the police a mandate anyway. Police pepper sprayed stationary cyclists carrying children at that ride. This is the kind of thing that happens when we allow the lie that stationary cyclists carrying children are a threat to the city simply because they do it in a group.

The reason the ride could not avoid the police violence effectively is that the ride did not stick together, rule #1 of Critical Mass. The reason they didn't stick together is because considerate "riders" corking interesctions to keep the parade organised and together would be issued tickets if caught by police. This was a case of the police inciting mayhem to break apart the group. The result was some of the more pushy types running red lights when the police were not present (simply because they could do it only before the police arrived) which resulted in a spread out chaotic mess.

A few days later I helped organise a midnight naked bike ride which later grew into a much bigger event. Much more disruptive and pushy than a regular Critical Mass by any standard of measure but because it was different and cyclist/police had not fallen into the us vs them dichotomy that the lies about aggressive Critical Mass foster the naked ride has succeeded where regular Critical Mass failed. The naked ride is more countercultural alas, but unfortnately in America one apparently must be or risk being labelled disruptive.