I attended August Critical Mass, which was the first time I had been on a Critical Mass ride for a while. It was smaller than I expected, but lively. People gathered on the South Bank chatting and (in some cases) putting on zebra costumes; the ride left around 7:20pm and headed over Westminster Bridge to Parliament Square.
After circling Parliament Square the ride went up through Bloomsbury before heading down Oxford Street and around Hyde Park Corner to Buckingham Palace.
There were several short stops to rest and wave bikes in the air.
I generally find Critical Mass an enjoyable experience; one which can feel quite different depending on the group and what else is going on (for example, during the large anti-war protests, the ride took on an anti-war character which was however not supported by all riders). It’s rare to have the opportunity to feel so safe on the roads, and to be able to ride the city streets sociably, using the full space available rather than lanes or gaps. There is a carnival element – today, the group at the front of the ride broke into choruses of “YMCA”, with those who could ride without hands doing the actions! This was popular with pedestrians. Whooping and cheering also made the ride feel like a mobile party.
At the same time, there’s always an undertone of conflict, as there was last night. Pedestrians are usually curious and intrigued, and overt hostility generally comes from drivers rather than from those waiting for buses. Usually motor traffic is not held up for long, and drivers in Central London must be used to frequent delays for a range of reasons. However, the existence of Critical Mass acts as a reproach to the usual hegemony of the motor vehicle. It is an “improper” use of the streets as public space. Usually streets are of necessity heavily regulated to cope with – and generally to prioritise – large volumes of motor traffic; a recent addition to this being the traffic lights at Holborn which now count down to discourage pedestrians from crossing part way through the green phase.
It will be interesting to compare last night’s Critical Mass with the “official” annual traffic-free Skyride, which takes place on Sunday 5th September.