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Q&A: "Critical Manners" Vancouver founder aims to make streets less mean

Graham F. Scott

With the death early this week of Toronto cyclist Darcy Allan Sheppard, tensions between cyclists and motorists, always common, seem to have reached a boiling point. A spontaneous demonstration and  memorial last Tuesday on Toronto’s Bloor Street attracted thousands of cyclists who blocked traffic and held a moment of silence for Sheppard. The incident has prompted a wide-ranging discussion of road safety, the adequacy of cycling infrastructure, and plenty of strident opinions about who is at fault for the lousy street-level relationship between cars and bikes.

These kinds of problems have been around for years, of course, and the most visible public activism around bikes and cyclists’ rights have been the Critical Mass bike rides, where groups of cyclists take an unplanned route through the city, filling at least one lane of traffic, to prove the point that, as the Critical Mass slogan goes, “We’re not blocking traffic—we are traffic.”

However, Critical Mass has also driven away some cyclists who don’t like the tone of the rhetoric or the behaviour of the participants. One of the Critical Mass refuseniks, Jennifer Watkiss of Vancouver, recently started a new bike ride that aims to be a more polite alternative, called Critical Manners.

The first ride, on August 14, attracted about 100 cyclists. Reviews on the group’s website were generally positive, but not without criticism: Changing traffic lights splintered the mass into several groups, and a varied body of hand signal knowledge resulted in a few close calls when inexperienced cyclists stopped suddenly. The next ride takes place on September 11.

Q&A:

This: What made you want to start Critical Manners in Vancouver?

Jennifer Watkiss: The idea came about for the Vancouver police when the Vancouver Police issued their first-ever warning about a Critical Mass ride, for the July 2009 ride. The June ride had had a number of altercations, they had blocked off one of the major arteries in and out of town, and the July ride was set to come up on a long weekend, being the last Friday of the month. So the VPD issued a warning. I was explaining what the ride was to a friend of mine who had been out of the country for the past ten years, and was wondering what the fuss was all about. I’d always been frustrated with Critical Mass, thought it wasn’t the right thing to represent cyclists in Vancouver and hasn’t been for quite a while. So I was explaining to him what this was, and looking up the origins of Critical Mass found Critical Manners, which started in a similar response in San Francisco in, I believe, 2007. So I thought, wouldn’t that be a nice thing to do, and I figured I’d suggest the idea and, you know, 10 friends would show up, but cyclists in Vancouver really jumped on the cry and started to invite their friends, and pretty soon we had about a hundred people come out for a ride about three weeks ago.

Other than the people who came out to ride, what kind of response have you heard?

Most of the feedback has really come from cyclists who are frustrated with Critical Mass. It’s gotten a reputation for being quite antagonistic, and it’s sort of the most noticeable bike protest in Vancouver. So motorists are frustrated with it, and a lot of other cyclists are frustrated with it because they don’t want to be painted with the Critical Mass brush. Because the general consensus is that Critical Mass riders—or that cyclists, because of Critical Mass—are sort of kamikazes and civil disturbers. The biggest response was from cyclists, and then the media really picked up on it, because with the [VPD’s] announcement to stay out of downtown, a lot of people were really, really offended by that, rightly so, because why should they be held hostage downtown by a couple thousand cyclists who think they should have the right to block off traffic without any sort of plan, one Friday every month, especially considering the level it had gotten to.

What are the differences in terms of the actual ride? How is Critical Manners different from Critical Mass?

This is really about taking a positive action to show that something different can be successful. So there are two core differences: one is that Critical Manners has a planned route. One of the biggest disruptions with Critical Mass is that without a planned route—just the people in the front at any given time decide where to go—it throws off traffic, because no one knows where to avoid. Either you avoid the entire downtown core, or you just kind of cross your fingers that you don’t cross their path. So there’s that one. We always have a planned route, so that if anyone should feel the need to avoid us, they can. It’s also a courtesy to the city, there are lots of events that go on, and we don’t want to clash with film shoots, or other special events that people are planning, or road closures. The other thing is we truly ride as part of traffic. So we don’t take up a whole lane of the road, we ride as you would expect cyclists to ride every day. That’s largely single file: mostly because that’s part of the law in B.C., it’s part of the Motor Vehicle Act that bicycles are not supposed to ride “two abreast”, is the specific wording, and bicycles are to ride as far to the right as is practical. Often that means bike lanes, otherwise it’s to the right hand side of the road, that magic sweet-spot where hopefully you won’t get hit by a door opening in front of you, or crushed by traffic that’s going the same direction.

What we’ve seen in the last week, [with the Darcy Allen Sheppard case] is that the low-level, simmering antagonism between cyclists and motorists has boiled over in the last couple of days. Did you feel the same level of ambient hostility to you, as a cyclist, from motorists before you started doing Critical Manners?

Quite a lot. I’ve commuted almost every way you can think: bike, transit, car, walking, and I know, before I started biking regularly about four years ago, I was one of those drivers who thought, “Ugh, bikes, they’re horrible.” Just as a general sentiment I was willing to paint cyclists with the brush of acting like the laws didn’t apply to them. I’ve certainly felt that same hostility now as a cyclists, despite doing my best to try to ride within the rules of the road, in a safe and respectful manner. And I know other people do too, but there is certainly that low-level antagonism here, and there has been for quite some time. It’s one thing that keeps people from getting into cycling, is they just don’t feel safe. The cycling resources are getting better, but it feels still like “Bikes vs. Cars,” instead of everyone sharing the road. So Critical Manners is certainly a step to try to alleviate that, to put out some respect from cyclists for all road-users, in the hopes that will generate a bit more good feeling from everyone.

Some of the sentiments we’ve heard around here in the last few days are that people don’t want “good feelings”—what they want are hard-enforced laws, better bicycle infrastructure that will make bicycling safety the default rather than the exception on city streets. Critical Mass had always been what people felt was a necessary piece of civil disobedience in order to call attention to these issues. Do you think there’s legitimacy to that?

Absolutely. When the mass rides started, I certainly think they went a long way in drawing attention to cyclists, and saying “We’re out here, and when we get together as a group, we’re not small.” Vancouver, I feel, has gone quite a long way over the past few years, of trying to implement cycling infrastructure. The biggest problem with Critical Mass as it stands right now is that it has gone beyond bike activism and it’s attracted anarchists, basically. I’ve heard the sentiment often that “I love Critical Mass and I love to disturb the peace,” in words that aren’t quite that diplomatic. So there are also a number of cycling organizations that are doing what I think is a correct next step, and Critical Manners certainly follows with them, in saying, “Let’s use the bike resources, or ride as safely within the law as we can,” and when that’s not working, let’s demonstrate that to the city. Our city council right now is quite committed to bike resources, so let’s go out and show them we need new cross-town routes. We have a lot of North-South routes but only one East-West route that’s designated with a bike lane. We need more dedicated bike roads, not just bike lanes. Things like that. The Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition organizes rides to evaluate the current state of bike routes, so they go out and ride and say OK, this route has had a lot of increased traffic over the last little while, it’s less safe for bikes, or if new lights have been put in or not. There’s a lot of work going on in terms of continuously evaluating and improving the cycling infrastructure, and a lot of people don’t see that, because all they see is a mass of beer-drinking, pot-smoking, crazy people on bikes screaming at them.

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