[Sidebar] June 21 - 28, 2001

[Features]

Battle of the bikes

After years of delay, Providence is poised to become a more bicycle-friendly city. Will Critical Mass, which uses in-your-face tactics to promote bicyclists' rights, help or hurt the cause?

by Ian Donnis

[] Massing on the State House lawn shortly before rush hour on a recent Friday, a gathering of about 70 bicyclists goes virtually unnoticed as we prepare to unleash an audacious gambit: a meandering two-hour ride designed to temporarily block traffic and disrupt, however briefly, the unquestioned superiority of cars on the streets of Providence. With the nearby sound of screeching tires -- the testosterone calling card of car culture -- and multiple lanes of vehicles roaring past the front of the Providence Place Mall, the outlook hardly seems auspicious.

But things go smoothly as we find our way into traffic, move over to Memorial Boulevard, and then make several passes through downtown, as a point person periodically races ahead into an intersection and boldly dismounts, effectively halting oncoming cars and buses. The participants are mostly denizens of the local arts and activist underground in their 20s and 30s, and the vehicles of choice range from mountain and road bikes to old beaters and modified versions, including one with an extended fork and a Georgia O'Keeffe-style cow skull adorning the handlebars. "Bikes for the city!" exults one rider as others whoop. "Fuck cars, use bikes!" shouts another.

It wouldn't have been unreasonable to expect a little conflict to occur during this June 1 outing of Critical Mass, an international "unorganized coincidence" that employs in-your-face tactics and the ideals of lefty icons like Emma Goldman and Malcolm X, to assert the rights of bicyclists to the roads. At one point, a bicycle cop orders a cluster of us to yield to cars at a south side intersection, and a Critical Masser with his feet strapped tightly into toe clips abruptly falls sideways to the ground. But the ride, the second since Critical Mass reemerged in Providence after being inactive for several years, goes off without injury, arrest, or fisticuffs.

Pedestrians and motorists stalled in traffic look at us with a varying mix of astonishment, bemusement, and disinterest -- and some shout encouragement or pump a supportive fist in the air -- as the improbable procession moves through the west side, down Atwells Avenue, back downtown, and then to a politically themed art opening of inmate-made works at AS220's Broad Street Studio in South Providence.

For bicyclists accustomed to getting short shrift from motorists, the brief upending of the status quo is fun, unifying, celebratory, and exhilarating. "There's a lot more spirit and there's a lot more energy in a ride like this, and I feel like the cars really have to respect the bikes," says Clara Holzwarth, a recent Brown grad who works at Southside Community Land Trust. Most strikingly, the concentrated presence of so many bikes is also a rarity in Providence, which, other than pockets of the East Side around Brown and RISD, has a surprisingly sparse amount of bicycle use.

"I know a lot of my friends are terrified to ride bikes," says Holzwarth, adding that cars have hit her bike twice in the last four years, albeit without serious consequences. "I mean, people are terrified to drive. Cars definitely aren't paying attention to bikes. You definitely have to be very defensive when you're riding a bike, and it can be kind of scary." Still, the relative lack of bicycle use is curious, she says, since Providence "is so accessible by bike, even faster by bike sometimes. It just sort of depends on your willingness to brave the drivers."

Rather than just braving the drivers, Critical Mass is brazenly defying them while presenting a broader critique of our dependence on cars and consumer capitalism -- not for nothing does the monthly ride start in the shadow of the Providence Place Mall, although Roger Williams's wish for a "lively experiment," chiseled into the back of the State House, also seems appropriate. "Part of the point of Critical Mass -- it has to alter the way that people use the roads," says Mike Araujo, 30, one of the informal organizers of the monthly ride, who works at Trinity Repertory Company, most recently as a child wrangler. The gathering of almost 100 bikes, many adorned with little flags, offers a good feeling of solidarity, he says, and serves "to remind people that we own the streets."

SINCE BEING introduced in San Francisco in 1992, Critical Mass has spread to more than 100 communities in the US and Canada, as well as Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and South America. Critical Mass rides in cities like Austin and San Francisco often attract hundreds of participants and have sometimes been marred by clashes with authorities and allegations of police brutality. In contrast, Critical Mass came to Providence in 1998, but the local incarnation soon withered. This time, by gathering on the State House lawn at 4 p.m. on the first Friday of every month, a handful of activists hope to make a statement, get more people onto bikes, and eventually mount weekly rides. In the parlance of Critical Mass, the revolution will not be motorized.

It's impossible to know whether this anarchist-inspired road show will remain a novelty, become a potent form of dissent, or fall somewhere in between. But although Critical Mass remains unknown to most Rhode Island motorists, it has caught the attention of Ray Alexander, chairman of advocacy for the Narragansett Bay Wheelmen, the state's largest bicycling club, who fears Critical Mass will undermine progress just as Providence is poised on the brink of becoming a more bicycle-friendly city. City officials are expected to soon consider final approval of a plan -- which also has components in Warwick and Cranston -- to put signed and striped bike lanes on major streets throughout the city.

Alexander, a Vietnam veteran who returned to protest against the war, isn't a stranger to taking unpopular stands. Considering his familiarity with activism, he feels like a ring-winger simply for advocating obeying the law and working through the system. At the same time, after investing almost a decade in promoting the Providence On-road Bicycle Plan, Alexander clearly considers Critical Mass about as welcome as the Ebola virus. "The last thing we need is more motorists upset with bicyclists," he says. "As it is now, they yell at you, throw things at you, try to run you off the road. Critical Mass won't end that, and will make it worse."

The budding disagreement between the Narragansett Bay Wheelmen (NBW) and Critical Mass shows no sign of relenting. It basically comes down to a stylistic chasm: NBW organizes weekly recreational rides (helmets required), has a Web site, and counts 1000 members in Rhode Island, southeastern Massachusetts, and western Connecticut; Critical Mass rides (headgear is typically eschewed) are announced via random distribution of flyers. The NBW follows the law and seeks good relations with local police and community government; Critical Mass participants, who are younger and scruffier, deliberately break the law by riding more than two abreast. United by their love of bicycles, the two groups are divided by their tactics.

There's an inherent contradiction in how Critical Mass seeks a massive expansion of bicycle use without advancing a more detailed plan for achieving it. Instead, some enthusiasts favor dictums, such as the observation by author Edward Abbey, whose The Monkey Wrench Gang served as a kind of manifesto for the radical environmental group Earth First!, that "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." Others tend to be fetishistic, if self-effacing, about their rhetoric ("The `.org' domain notwithstanding, Critical Mass is not an organization, it's an unorganized coincidence," reads the introduction at www.critical-mass.org. "Accordingly, this isn't the official Critical Mass Web page, because there is no official Critical Mass Web page"). Still, local supporters remain untroubled by the lack of a more formal strategy.

"We're not a reformist thing," says Araujo. "It is direct action. We want people on the road, riding bikes, today. In that sense, yes, it could be seen as confrontational. [But] it's not a weapon. It's clearly people using streets that belong to them, and I don't think it should be seen as a military tool or a tactical tool. You should take it for what it is . . . I think most of the participants have avoided advocating specific political goals, other than the goal that bikes are better than cars and that we have a right to the roads, and that they're more socially responsible and environmentally superior."

Alexander, though, maintains that it's foolish to flout the law and take on the car-driving public without exhausting incremental steps to advance bicyclists' rights. "What steps have they [Critical Mass] taken in the past nine years, or the past nine months, . . . to improve bicycling in Providence?" When you get right down to it, he says, Critical Mass rides -- which combine the free wheeling fun of bicycling with a bit of anarcho-surrealism and the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King Jr. -- are nothing less than "the ultimate weapon in the bicyclists' arsenal."

WEATHER PERMITTING, Alexander pedals the seven miles each weekday from his home in Cranston's Edgewood section to his teaching job at Goodwill Industries of Rhode Island in Wanskuck. With hazards ranging from hostile motorists to piles of accumulated sand and trash in the road, he says, "It's a short commute, but it's not a pleasant one. I've had motorists come up right behind me when I'm on Allens Avenue. They don't seem to believe that we have a right to the road."

Such is the plight of the humble bicyclist. Non-polluting. Human-powered. And an easy target for the hurried, narcissistic psyche that tends to envelop us when we step behind the wheel of an automobile. Although bicycling exploded in popularity with the introduction of mountain bikes in the '80s -- enough to since become the fifth most popular participatory sport, with some 42.5 million cycling enthusiasts, as measured by the National Sporting Goods Association -- bicyclists remain marginalized in our car-dependent culture.

During typical solo riding, Lu Heintz faces catcalls from men, disdain from women, and a general lack of respect. "I get all kinds of things, like, `You're in the middle of the road,' or I get treated a lot like a child -- like anyone who's on a bike would never be a mature adult," says Heintz, a sculptor and bartender at the Red Fez, who participated in the recent Critical Mass ride. "Like, obviously, this girl isn't using this as a means of transportation, she just doesn't know what she's doing. Also, I get remarks like, `Take it to a park, what are you doing in the road?' "

The real and perceived hazards that come with the unrivaled primacy of cars don't have to be an impediment to bicycling. Boston, for example, was cited by Bicycling magazine in 1999 as one of the worst three North American cities for bicycling, but the Hub has a strong bicycling culture and for those who are comfortable with urban cycling, it's can definitely be a fun place to cruise around. At the same time, while Providence is a good city for bicycling -- compact, easy to get around -- it's also a bad city for bicycling in some ways, particularly since the car-intensive connectors that link a variety of neighborhoods -- such as the sections passing over Interstate 95 -- represent unwelcoming terrain for bicycles.

Other examples of what's wrong with bicycling in the area aren't hard to find. Consider the layout around the Point Street Bridge, one of the main links from downtown to the East Side (and the best one considering the formidable pitch of College Hill). Although the bridge includes an easily navigated sidewalk, the confluence of Wickenden Street and access roads under Interstate 195 present a gauntlet of zooming cars without a linear path for cyclists. The only real principle in designing this stretch seems to have been accommodating the needs of motorized traffic. And throughout the city, many of the major arteries that should be logical conduits -- like Hope Street -- are constricted by lanes of parked cars and otherwise ill-suited for bikes.

Although Providence has a long way to go to rival the most bike-friendly cities -- some of which have coordinators to ensure that bicyclists' needs are incorporated into roadwork and new construction -- the introduction of bike lanes on major streets would represent a major step forward. (The exact status of this plan couldn't be learned since Sam Shamoon, Providence's deputy director of planning and development, didn't return repeated calls seeking comment, but Alexander believes the outlook is good.) After the addition earlier this month of a signed and striped bike lane on Narragansett Boulevard in Cranston and part of Allens Avenue in Providence, Alexander is already seeing improvement in bike-motorist relations. "People are beginning to understand what it is," he says, "and they're beginning to give me the lane."

Considering how the plan to bring bike lanes to Providence, Cranston, and Warwick has made halting progress since Alexander introduced it in 1992, it's no wonder he takes a paternal interest in the project. At one point, the only copy of the plan was lost, sparking nasty letters between Providence planners and the state Department of Transportation, he says, and about two years passed before DOT officials realized the map was taped to the side of a filing cabinet that had been put flush against a wall. Residents of the plush Blackstone Boulevard section of Providence then objected to a proposal to include the street -- a popular evening spot for bicyclists, walkers and runners -- in a bike path from India Point Park to Pawtucket. Other delays resulted when one Providence planner involved with bike issues left City Hall and another, Christopher Ise, who said that he paid a bribe to get his job, was suspended by the city in the course of the Plunder Dome investigation and later reinstated.

Now, says Alexander, "we've made a lot of progress and we're close to seeing the results of our hard work." This is why he's outraged about the local renewal of Critical Mass, drawing references to how American colonists went through years of incremental measures before going to war against the British. "We're months away from having the Providence bicycle system and you start Critical Mass now?" he says. "You drop your ultimate weapon? That's politically immature. It's impulsiveness."

THE CAR occupies a frontal place in the American consciousness, successor to the horse of the mythic frontier and a ticket to travel from city to suburbia or roam the road in the exploratory style of Jack Kerouac. At the same time, the development of interstate highways in the '50s, formally known as the Military and Interstate Highway System, divided cities, was conceived for military use during the Cold War, and, although supported by all taxpayers, fundamentally altered the terrain by closing these vast and far-reaching stretches to bicycles and pedestrians, writes John R. Stilgoe, a Harvard professor of landscape history, in Outside Lies Magic (Walker and Company, 1998).

With the first ozone warnings of summer, growing recognition of the harmful effects of suburban sprawl, the high price of gasoline, and some consumers perhaps rethinking the wisdom of owning a costly SUV, Critical Mass supporters think their timing for taking on Providence is good. As put by Fletcher, 29, a cook at Julian's, and another informal organizer, Critical Mass rides serve notice for those stuck in traffic while trying to rush home that "maybe something isn't right."

In contrast to the popular image, says Araujo, cars and trucks are proving "not a freeing thing. It's a shackling thing that's destructive environmentally, economically and socially." Araujo doesn't believe that cars and bicycles "can live together peacefully" since the dominant interest of cars will always trump bikes.

These theoreticians aren't completely opposed to the use of cars; some even own them. Araujo himself recently paid $400 for a used Oldsmobile Cutlass, but not without a case of the heebie-jeebies. "I haven't registered it yet, because I still feel bad about it," he says. But his mood improves while recalling the vibrant bicycle culture of Austin, where hundreds of cheap bicycles are left around the city as a kind of improvised public transit system.

Recognition has spread that pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly efforts can play an important role in transportation. Funding for such efforts by the Federal Highway Administration climbed from $4.9 million in 1988 to $296 million in 2000. But this is still a tiny fraction of the FHA's $28 billion budget, and hardly compares with $20 billion in annual federal subsidies for the coal and oil industries.

And despite the renewed popularity of bicycling over the last 20 years, much of the action in Rhode Island has remained confined to the East Bay Bike Path and other off-road areas. In the popular consciousness, bicycles are still seen more as an exercise tool and recreation device than a mode of transportation. But Providence's incipient evolution as a more bicycle-friendly city could have a variety of benefits, from easing the downtown parking crunch, reducing car-related pollution, and complementing the city's pleasant scale.

An analysis by the Surface Transportation Policy Project recently found, for example, that the cities in which the most new roads were built have had little success in easing traffic congestion. "In our metro area, better transit service could mean less congestion," says Alicia Karpick of the Sierra Club's Rhode Island chapter. "However, 90.5 percent of residents are driving because transportation choices are not sufficient."

But even with high gas prices, a soft economy and rising concern about the greenhouse effect, few observers expect a significant reduction in car use. While he sees an urgent need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, Ross Gelbspan, a former Boston Globe reporter and author of The Heat Is On (Perseus Books, 1997), thinks hybrid cars, which derive their power from a mix of energy sources, are likely to supplant the traditional reliance on internal combustion engines.

If the Providence bicycle plan goes astray, Alexander pledges to pedal at the head of a Critical Mass ride. But for now, he throws out a challenge: if Critical Mass participants really want to make a display of bicyclists' unity, they should sit down with the Narragansett Bay Wheelmen, Providence officials and, if necessary, the police, to plot a single-file ride from One Allens Avenue to Narragansett Boulevard in Cranston.

It's more likely, though, that the wheelmen and Critical Mass will continue to talk past each other. Told of Alexander's challenge, Araujo extends an invitation of his own: "We usually communicate by flyer. If the wheelmen do want to attend, they're welcome to keep an eye out for one of the posters and to show up. Anyone's welcome."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

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