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¶ Critical Mass
Today, I went for a ride with Critical Mass Boston. From the Wikipedia entry:
Critical Mass is an event held typically on the last Friday of every month in cities around the world, where bicyclists and self-propelled people take to the streets en masse. Critical Mass has no leaders, and no goals other than to meet once every month and enjoy the security of riding, rolling and travelling through the city together.

At around 5:30, the cyclists began gathering in Copley square, mostly just hanging out and chatting with friends while everyone trickled in. By the time I got there, a number of people were already riding in circles around the square, creating a ring of bicycles just going round and round, getting bigger by the minute as people joined in. At 6:00, there were at least a couple hundred bicycles in the area, and the ride began.

As we rode through the city, we pretty much took over the streets and all automotive traffic came to a complete standstill. Reactions from drivers and pedestrians were mixed - most people stopped and stared, wondering who we were and what we were doing. Quite a few drivers got angry and impatient, honking their horns, trying to inch their way through a sea of bicycles, inevitably without success. Making our way down Newbury street, a chant started somewhere in the group. "Who's streets!?" "Our streets!!" [repeat]. Not everyone joined in; some rang their bells or honked their bicycle horns in approval, others just watched and rode on in silence. Passing by a few city tour buses, a few cyclists would shout to the confused tourists, "Welcome to Boston!!!".

Occasionally, the group would thin out as the more eager cyclists sped up and moved more quickly than the rest of the pack. When this happened, someone would start shouting "Mass up!!" and an invisible hand would massage the group back into a critical mass as those in front slowed down and the laggers caught up. There was no leader, no one person directing the flow of bicycles. Instead, whoever was riding in front determined the next waypoint. Sometimes there were competing factions trying to steer in different directions ("To Cambridge!" "No! Turn left, to Allston!") and some unseen roll of dice would choose the winner, but never was there an individual who could be singled out as heading the group.

Riding with Critical Mass was a completely different experience from any cycling I'd done before. On the streets, we became first-class citizens. No more hugging the side of the road, flinching as cars and trucks barreled past. Instead, there was an undeniable sense of safety and solidarity throughout the entire group. When I finally broke off at Harvard Street and rode home, I became intensely aware of how alone I was on the road when there weren't a few hundred other bicycles riding alongside.

There were a few things I saw that I didn't particularly like. Although we took the road away from the drivers, we also took it away from people on foot. Those trying to cross the street had no choice but to wait with the cars as a flood of bicycles washed by. A few people who got impatient and tried to cross were bumped and not treated very well. A number of arguments started between cyclists and upset drivers, with the cyclists dishing out more than their fair share of harsh words. Without any leader or governing authority, cyclists were free to act how they pleased and hide in the safety of the group, and with that many people there are bound to be some bad apples.

All things considered, though, I'm glad something like Critical Mass exists and happens. There is no doubt in my mind that all of the drivers we passed by today will be significantly more aware of cyclists and skaters on the streets, which at the very least means a safer road for me when I'm riding around town.

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