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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.