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Critical Mass Rome

May 30, 2011

[Sorry about the poor quality of the above image; it’s a screen shot from video since I wasn’t taking stills.  My full Critical Mass videos are at]

I joined two of the three days of Critical Mass events in Rome this past weekend, as I have in the past, and for the most part I advocate this movement to promote sustainable mobility in cities around the world.  Like many “every-day cyclists” I do have a few doubts about the efficacy of Critical Mass though.

Question: is it okay to block traffic by going through red lights?  I personally prefer a form of militant legality, stopping when the light turns red (while cars who wanted to run the red curse me from behind), or stopping to let surprised pedestrians cross at the zebra stripes.  I suppose this would break up the continuity of the mass, and allow lots of smelly cars to get in the middle of the group, defeating the purpose.  But I think the driver watching the light turn green and bikes continue to pass probably doesn’t have too much sympathy for bikers.  Some bikers in the Forums say that we suffer the consequences of this pent up anger in days to follow. I don’t know.

In Rome the vast majority of the observers, whether on the street, in apartment windows or behind the wheel of automobiles, seem amused and entertained.  One comment I read today claimed that the traffic police hate cars as much as we do and are therefore great supporters of CM. I beg to differ;  I saw the vigili do some pretty arrogant things the other day, including gesturing for a motorcyclist (not police) to speed through a light at double the speed limit just as it was changing. Not real human-friendly, never mind bike-friendly.

The great thing about Critical Mass is the experience of riding around Rome without a. breathing fumes, b. being deafened by engine noise and c. risking being hit by motor vehicles.  Occasionally I’ve had this same experience when streets have been closed to traffic for special events or emergencies, but until Rome wakes up to the fact that car-free streets are better for everyone the only chance to briefly experience this bliss once a month or so is through militant biking. If that means ticking off a few drivers, so be it.

In anticipation of the objections of motorists who “have nothing against bikers but just want to get home” I’m always amazed how the consequences of cars can be so easily ignored.  You just want to get home, but you’re doing so in a 2 ton device that kills about one person every hour in Italy, not even counting the health costs and economic costs.  At best it just gets in the way, causing people on foot, in wheelchairs, with strollers to go out of their way to maneuver around you.  Your trip home means burning a resource that took millions of years to form and which is scarce–your burning fuel means that my grandchildren won’t be able to. You’re also pumping carbon into the atmosphere contributing to global warming.  You just want to get home but future generations may want to just have homes to go to.

I’m sorry but your commute has consequences that mine, by bicycle, doesn’t have.  The time will come when critical mass doesn’t happen once a month, it will have been “reached” and motorists will feel pretty silly sitting in their cars in cities flowing with clean, silent, civilized two-wheelers.  Until that day, I’ll keep up my daily militant legality and my monthly collective celebration of a clean alternative to cars.

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