Friday, October 5, 2007

More Critical Mass

Here is a letter to the editor I wrote to the Star Tribune in response to a column by Katherine Kersten.

In her column about the “bike-riding mob” that she says own the street of Minneapolis during Critical Mass rides, Katherine Kersten neglected to mention the car-driving mob that owns the streets for the rest of the month.

I do wonder when the vote was taken to give streets over to cars. All you have to do is look at a pre-1900 photo or painting, or watch a Western movie, for that matter, to see that streets used to be shared by many users. Streets were where people gathered for special events, and where children played. Pedestrians, bicycles and carriages all shared the road without a single mode dominating. At some point, cars took over the streets, and all those shared uses ceased.

The streets are really owned by those who pay for them. I pay taxes that repair streets, clear them of snow, put up signals, and so on, and yet I do not own a car. And my tax dollars do not pay for the infrastructure that I do use: sidewalk repairs are paid through assessments to homeowners, sidewalks are shoveled by individual property owners. This signals a strong bias in local government toward car transportation. Twenty percent of the households in Minneapolis do not own cars. These people are paying local taxes for car infrastructure, and getting very little for their own use.

In the last hundred years, city streets have been re-engineered from community gathering places into veins and arteries in the car transportation system. Traffic signals and signs and road rules are all based on the needs of cars. Pedestrians and bicycle riders are subservient to cars in these spaces.

A Critical Mass bike ride is a success when there are enough bicycle riders that the bikes do, for a short time, become the primary mode of transportation on a street. As the temporarily dominant mode, the bicycles determine the traffic speed and rules, just like cars do the rest of the time. Bicycles certainly do marginalize cars for a few minutes a month during a Critical Mass ride, just like cars marginalize bicycles and pedestrians for the whole rest of the month.

Kersten thinks that the authorities in Minneapolis should clamp down on the rides in order to get them to stop. But when I was in Portland, Oregon earlier this year, a series of articles in the newspaper described how the Critical Mass rides there were dying out. The cause of the demise of the rides was that many bicyclists felt they were no longer necessary. Portland is a national leader in changing traffic laws and re-directing transportation money to even the playing field for bicycles. These days, in Portland, cars are seen as just one piece in the transportation puzzle rather than the dominant mode, and streets are spaces that should be shared by everybody and all kinds of vehicles. And the Critical Mass rides were one of the reasons for this change in thinking and policy.

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