September 18, 1993

Ted White

c/o California Bicyclist

490 Second Street, Suite 304

San Francisco, California 94107

Re: Criminal Mass, or Cream Puff Mass? Nice Bicyclists Finish Last

Dear Ted:

I enjoyed your description of Critical Mass in the September/October issue of "California Bicyclist". However, I question your insistence on the "positive approach".

Bicycles and cars have both been around about 100 years. In all that time, bicycling has made no progress whatsoever, relative to the automobile. We have, what, 5% of the transportation "market"? People who don't like conflict always say "Be nice". "You catch more flies with honey, than with vinegar". "We must be practical". "We must appear reasonable, so that we won't lose our credibility -- so that we can be at the table". This belief is so strong, it feels like a religion. It sounds reasonable. It is rarely questioned. Our opposition loves it, because they hate having the truth exposed and their boat rocked.

But it is pure horsepucky. I spend a lot of time going to public hearings, taking full advantage of our freedom of speech and telling the unvarnished truth (about transportaion and environmental issues) as I see it. Right after me follow a stream of my friends, far more eloquent, nicer, totally polite, reasonable, and "practical". All of us are ignored! Of course! After all, we are suggesting that billions of dollars of highway and transit funds should be spent differently. They may be tolerated "at the table" more than I am (after all, why invite someone who might upset people by insisting on telling the truth?), but the bottom line is the same: those who are profiting from the status quo (the motor vehicle subsidy) are in power and have no reason to change, no matter how nicely or reasonable or rationally we talk to them.

Was Gandhi "reasonable"? "practical"? "positive"? Martin Luther King? Has any underdog ever righted the balance merely by means of sweet reason? If African Americans were still politely sitting at the back of the bus, drinking out of the "Colored" water fountain, saying "Yes, Ma'm" and "No, Ma'm", and making sure they offended no one, would they be where they are today? Would Americans with disabilities have the Americans with Disabilities Act, if they hadn't chained themselves to buses, and forced people to notice them? If they had simply continued smiling and emphasizing the positive? I doubt it.

I think you also underestimate the seriousness of the automobile's hegemony. We are not up against "poor transportation planning". We are seeing the destruction of Life itself! The Earth is losing over a hundred species (species!) per day. Global Warming, Ozone Depletion, acid rain, toxic pollution, etc. are unravelling our life support system. Human beings are not separate from Nature. We literally cannot live in a concrete world. Our continued viability as a life form depends on our protecting other species, most of which haven't even been discovered yet. Only those who choose to remain ignorant pooh-pooh this situation.

In the light of this reality, I don't think that bicyclists who run stop signs, stop auto traffic, and ride on the freeway give bicyclists a bad name. I think people who compulsively stop at stop signs when there is no one around, while insisting that bicyclists smile and be super-polite at all times and ignore "the depressing anti-car thing" (thing?) give bicyclists a bad name. Bicyclists who meekly ask that bicycles be "integrated" into massive freeway construction projects give bicyclists a bad name. Nice bicyclists finish last, just as nice species become extinct. You may occasionally get tossed a crumb, but real power doesn't change hands because the underdog politely asks for his/her share.

What we are asking for is not radical. It is essential. We are right. Why compromise? Why accept anything less than what we want? Our anger is righteous. Our disgust is justified. Books with titles like "Effective Cycling", which teach coexistence with the automobile, should be burned. The oil is running out, and will soon be too expensive to waste in burning. The Automobile Age is over! How much of that book will still be important, when there are hardly any more cars on the road?

If anything, Critical Mass is too tame. Random vandalism makes no sense, because it doesn't focus attention on the real issues, but focused, physical protests such as blocking traffic (just as parades and funerals do -- and aren't we a parade/funeral celebrating the death of the Age of the Automobile?) and riding on the freeway seem like a natural reaction to a real threat to our health and well being.

Motor vehicles block traffic; why shouldn't we? They ride on the freeways and bridges that we paid for; why shouldn't we? They pollute; why don't we do likewise? In 1970, while a member of Synanon, I suddenly began noticing cigarette smoke and how offensive it was. I bought the cheapest, stinkiest air freshener I could find, and began spraying anyone who smoked around me. When they protested, I simply said that I had as much right to pollute the air as they did, and that I would stop as soon as they did. Within a year, the whole Synanon community stopped smoking. (By the way, I find smoking during Critical Mass very offensive. Let's ban it! Why spoil such a joyous celebration?)

Let's bring air fresheners and spray motorists who are polluting our air. That includes police auto- and motorcycle escorts. Both are legal, aren't they? Both should be illegal, shouldn't they? We are riding through too many green lights. We should wait for the yellow. This is legal, isn't it? Cars make offensive noises. Don't we have the same right? Polite signs like "Thanks for waiting", and leaflets that imply it's not the motorists' fault that they have to drive are nice, but what is wrong with telling the truth? Isn't that why this country was founded? What is wrong with good old-fashioned social peer pressure? If CM is truly democratic, then there is room for both points of view, and we should all recognize that no single "religion" (philosophy of cultural change) has a monopoly on effective tactics.


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.