Wednesday, August 30, 2006

An open letter to the WestEnder regarding their column on Critial Mass

Steve Burgess, columnist for the WestEnder (most notable for his dull travelogues, of late) last week wrote a pretty negative column based essentially on one woman's (dubious?) account of her experience being 'attacked' at critical mass. Reading the article made my blood pressure rise to dangerous levels but I let myself cool off before writing a letter to the editor. Unfortunately, I probably let myself cool off too long to actually get my letter printed (though I did send it in). I figured that I might as well circulate it to where it can be read, whether it ends up in the paper or not. My favorite part is when he closes with "Idiots are everywhere, I realize. How does it help to put some of them on bikes?". I thought long and hard before I decided not to respond with the obvious cheapshot "Idiots are everywhere, how does it help to have them writing front page columns." If we want to win public opinion, we have to refrain from injecting the same kind of venom and childishness into the debate.

You can read Burgess' article here

My letter is as follows:

It is unfortunate that the Westender feels the need to lower itself by publishing such inflammatory, and vitriolic material as Steve Burgess' recent column on Critical Mass. Indeed, it is unfortunate that Mr. Burgess relied on one person's account of an event and a lot of personal opinion for the bulk of his piece. Had he done his research (a quick Google search would have done), Mr. Burgess would have found that CM is not an 'organization' and hence has no 'leaders' whom he could have contacted. The Mass, rather, is just that – a mass of people, in most cases with little or no connection to each other, united by the love of bicycles and the desire to ride together. The corollary to this diversity is an intense diversity in motivation among participants. Certainly to some, CM is a protest in the traditional vein, but to many others it means many different things – a ride with friends or family, a chance to safely cruise the streets of downtown, a street carnival complete with tall bikes, mini bikes, music and people in costume, a place to meet new people or network, or just a chance to use public space in a different way. It seems to me that the Mass is much less of a protest against cars than it is a celebration of bicycles. Of course, there are occasionally confrontations between angry motorists and cyclists (I've seen some myself, though never anything that approached the 'hockey riot' scenario Burgess describes). In these cases I find it crucial to point out that the majority of the tense incidents are centered around one thing: safety. Yes, cyclists in the mass do violate traffic ordinances when they 'cork' streets to allow riders through a red light – this is done in the interests of safety. Should the mass become split and cars get between cyclists, drivers will try and get out – usually through cyclists. Situations like this are when cars become surrounded. Riders see the opportunity for a driver to attempt to cut through the mass and will place themselves to make absolutely sure that the car does not move anywhere until all riders have safely passed. I understand that this may appear threatening to a driver, but what drivers must understand is that a five-thousand pound machine revving its engine and inching forward appears pretty threatening to us too. My experience has been that tension and raised voices are nearly always a byproduct of fear. Before passing judgment on Critical Mass, I urge Steve Burgess (and indeed, anyone else concerned or even interested) to come out and actually ride in one. You might even have a good time.


So I went and grtabbed a WE today to see if they had printed any responses to Burgess' column - I've talked to a lot of people who told me they'd wrote in because they were upset. To my surprise, I found that aside from the Rant/Rave section, the WE contained no printed letters from readers on any subject. Tell me, now, how are readers to respond to information they find upsetting, incorrect, or conversely, gratifying? It seems to me that the public is not well served by one way communication with our media. Moreover, as a member of the cycling community, I find it distressing that we have been essentially openly attacked by a media outlet without any effective fora for response.

So, bikers and non-bikers alike, if this bothers you too write a quick email to the WE - you can hit them up at


marlo said...

Wow. I just went and read the Burgess article, and ugh. It's a total provocation. I really like your response. It's well-worded and thoughtful.

michael sean morris said...

I myself have been stuck on the Granville Bridge, choking on the exhaust fumes caused by the Critical Mass ride. Is this tactic useful? I mean I get that it demonstrates the toxicity of car exhaust, but really...

Cyclists in this city would do much better towards making their case by a) obeying traffic laws - such as actually stopping at stop signs - and b) staying off sidewalks where they're not allowed to ride.

As a walker, I feel more jeopardized by cyclists than I ever do by drivers; after all, drivers have their deductible to think about if they smash me in their grille. Cyclists have no such concern and therefore no such motivation to avoid injuring me.

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