Going out: How to stop traffic

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Indy Lifestyle Online
One of the hottest, driest summers on record, and how did huge numbers of us choose to spend great chunks of it? Sitting in hot, little metal boxes pumping out poisons into a soupy summer smog.

Cars can be useful, invaluable even. But you don't have to look too far these days to see them being used stupidly, and selfishly. This wasn't the original idea. Cars were meant to liberate us, but instead, they've trapped those who drive them and made life hell for everyone else. And an increasingly large part of the population is refusing to take it lying down anymore.

On the last Friday of every month, there is an "organised coincidence" of cyclists on the South Bank of Waterloo Bridge in London, and at a growing number of venues around the country. Having assembled, these cyclists begin a slow, good-natured excursion around their city, gradually if temporarily, reclaiming it from the usual sea of petrol-guzzling, fume-belching traffic.

Critical Mass, as it is known, was the brainchild of an informal coalition known as CHARM - Cyclists Have A Right to Move. One of the original Charmers - Chris Eardley - explains the thinking behind the protest.

"The point is not to annoy motorists. The point is to show everyone - commuters, pedestrians, residents, whatever, that there is a better way to get around. Once people see how much fun cycling can be, and how much safer and more pleasant it makes their streets - well, it just starts them thinking."

Critical Mass, launched in early 1994, achieved its critical mass in London - about 300, reckons Eardley - several months ago, and continues to grow apace. More than 1,000 demonstrators attended the last ride, and CHARM expects the numbers to grow at least until October, when darkness will put off a few.

The result of such numbers is that the Mass creates a traffic vacuum in front of it (as well as a jam behind it), in which people walk safely, hand out leaflets - some even dance and turn cartwheels, all on normally murderous thoroughfares. The sound of applause from residents is never far away - once they realise what is going on.

"The route is never planned out," Eardley admits. "Sometimes someone will show up with a map... Other times the people in front just make it up as they go along.

"The whole thing lasts for about 2 hours usually, so obviously some people drift away during that time... Others stick around and have a bit of a party afterwards - we usually try and finish up somewhere like Trafalgar Square or Hyde Park. The police are very co-operative nowadays."

But surely some motorists must suffer a sense of humour failure when faced with this slow-moving swarm of cyclists?

"Obviously, we do get the occasional bit of aggression," Eardley says. "But we make a real point of explaining to them what we're about, and the vast majority are basically sympathetic. We're not trying to cause them problems - all demonstrations stop traffic, you know?

"First and foremost, it's a chance for cyclists to get together and have a good time. A couple of hours a month of slowing the traffic up is really just our way of pointing out to people what a hideous bloody mess the roads are in the rest of the time."

Information from CHARM via PO Box 3738, London E8 2BA

London's Critical Mass meets on the South Bank under Waterloo Bridge on the last Friday of each month at 5.45pm

For others around the country write to CHARM, or telephone the Cycle Campaign Network on 01908 674812

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