March 26, 2007

Bicycle Commuting and Activism

Posted in Life at 3:25 pm by ndsmith

I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts on activism, its aims and tactics. One thing that has come up recently (and I’ll hopefully post more on this soon) is the case for vegetarianism as an inherently progressive practice. I think this is wrongheaded and serves to further marginalize progressivism. In the mean time, however, I got into a conversation with someone about methods of bicycle commuting. Check out the full post here at Citizen Rider.

The issue in that blog was raised by a bicyclist posting his commute on YouTube. Cafiend suggested, and I think correctly, that this should not be considered an “instructional video.” The rider in the video exhibits some unsafe techniques (running red lights, weaving in and out of traffic and riding in the lane against the flow of traffic). Cafiend takes the rider to task in a recent post. While I do not commute right now (because I scarcely leave my desk), when I used to commute daily in Boston, I practiced some of the techniques exhibited in the YouTube video and I could sympathize with the rider who made the video. The thing I object to, and it’s something I have objected to before in my interactions with bicycle activists in Boston, is that taking the moral high ground and criticizing other riders for their riding style is just a downer. It puts a damper on the whole event and can snuff out the energy of activists.

This was palpable in Boston where a few active participants in Critical Mass (mainly those associated with MassBike) would routinely argue and criticize other riders at the monthly ride and in the email listserv. I unsubscribed from the listerv because of the sheer volume of email it would periodically generate when some new user would raise a some hot button issue. The absurd conclusion of their position can be characterized by the oft-repeated claim that we should obey traffic laws while participating in Critical Mass rides (i.e., we should occupy only one lane of traffic and stop at all red lights). This seems ridiculous to me. The greatest thing about Critical Mass, for my money, was the sheer carnival of it. One of my favorite seasons was when a few riders built a makeshift trailer and mounted variously a couch and a live rock band on it. They towed this thing all around the city during the ride; and I’ll bet their legs thanked us when we didn’t force them to stop at all red lights.

I have participated fairly regularly in the protest movement since the 2000 election and I have found the same thing operating there. Sometimes people criticize the protest movement for lacking direction, unity of purpose or a coherent position. But this just entirely misses the point! Protests–among which I would include Critical Mass–are about mobilizing people (period). The goal is to get people out in the streets! Once they’re out there we can talk about why and where we’re going. But if we had to have all of that straightened out beforehand, we’d more likely stay inside on our couch or at our computer, fostering our own self-righteous indignation at the fact that the whole world isn’t exactly like us.

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