Red light jumpers and sensiblists agree on a lot

I was shocked to come back from holiday and read about how mean everybody had been to James, after he'd advocated red light jumping. Not that I agree with him; but I think the antagonism disguised the fact that there is an awful lot of common ground between the "sensible" cyclists and the RLJers. We all think - don't we? - that the road regulations as they relate to cyclists are a mess and need reforming; and that other road-users need to learn to accept the presence of cyclists. It's a question of strategy: the RLJers believe in confronting things head-on and showing motorists we have a right to space on the roads. The sensiblists believe in a Fabian strategy, persuading other road-users that we're not so bad and we deserve their support.

The problems were crystallised for me on the last Friday of July, when I went on my first Critical Mass ride in London. For those who haven't come across it, Critical Mass is a regular, unorganised ride featuring as many cyclists as will come along, winding on an unplanned route through the heart of a city - the intention being to celebrate urban cycling and make the point that, as the slogan goes: "We aren't blocking traffic - we are traffic." It is a very jolly event, with people in fancy dress, riding weird bikes, smiling and waving at passers-by and motorists, playing merry music through their sound systems, experiencing a sense of common purpose and demonstrating that cyclists are friendly and harmless. Alternatively, it is a complete bloody nuisance, blocking the traffic for 20 minutes at a stretch, threatening pedestrians who are trying to cross the roads, irritating everybody through the horrible music played at ear-splitting volume, and turning cyclists into objects of hatred and derision.

Which of these versions is true? Both, I'm afraid. As a pedestrian, I've encountered Critical Mass several times. On a sunny evening when you don't have anything particular to do, it's a pleasant thing to watch. But if you have somewhere to go and several hundred cyclists weaving between you and there, Critical Mass is a nightmare of preening selfishness. As a cyclist, I enjoy being among other cyclists, but I couldn't shake off an anxiety that the fun was at the expense of cycling's public image. And I still couldn't stand the sound system.

Last month's ride was, I was told, particularly frustrating. That was partly because the route went through Westminster and past Downing Street, so that people could protest against the war in Lebanon. But it may also have been about policing. Only this year, the Metropolitan Police insisted that Critical Mass is an organised demonstration, and had to conform to the relevant regulations - submitting a route in advance, supply stewards with armbands, and so on.

Critical Massers felt that this was entirely alien to the spirit of the ride. The case went to court and the Met lost. But they have now started marshalling the ride quite strictly - blocking traffic, lassoing stray cyclists back into the herd, shouting at motorists who try to force their way through. I ran into David Dansky, my former cycling instructor, who has been going on the rides since they started: his view was that the police presence actually slowed the ride down and made it more confrontational. A few days later, listening to the excellent Naked Scientist on Radio Cambridge (you can hear it via the BBC Radio website), I heard a specialist in crowd dynamics explaining that unpoliced crowds are more flexible, better behaved, and able to flow more quickly through an urban environment. I think it's likely that the police presence is pushing Critical Mass towards meltdown; but telling the fuzz to back off is probably not an option.

If you want to make up your own mind about Critical Mass, the London ride meets under Waterloo Bridge this Friday at 6.30ish, and there are plenty of other rides around the country, and indeed the known world. Meanwhile, I'm settling into a position of sympathetic scepticism.

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