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Achieving Critical Mass in Birmingham

June 29th, 2008 · 4 Comments

Seemingly out of nowhere, I received an invitation from my friend Elisa, via Facebook, to take part in the Critical Mass event in Birmingham last Friday.  I say “out of nowhere” with only partial accuracy, as Elisa knows that I have started riding my bicycle again, and she is a cycling enthusiast, as well.  The surprising aspect was that I had never heard of Critical Mass before, even though it has been around for years.

Critical Mass events occur on the last Friday of each month.  They were started as a form of awareness-raising for the co-existence of bicyclists with automobiles on roadways.  The first event was in 1992 in San Francisco.  Since then, they have come to be considered a form of political protest, a social movement, and are unique in that the typical Critical Mass gathering is rhizomal, rather than hierarchical (I won’t take credit for that imaginative use of the word “rhizomal,” which I cribbed from a very detailed description of Critical Mass on Wikipedia that I recommend you read).  If you spend much time in the garden, you know that I am likening the group structure and format of this organization to a self-propagating plant, and it fits.

Since taking up biking again this year, I have been trying my best to discover “friendly” routes around the city.  My motivation has been three-fold: I could use the exercise, gasoline costs have gotten worse than ridiculous, and my carbon footprint has gotten much larger than my shoes can contain (so to speak).  Birmingham is not easy for bicycles, however.  There is one bike lane in the middle of the city, and it is essentially an extra lane on 7th Avenue South that connects several business areas without approaching any residential areas.  I imagine that it’s useful to couriers, but that’s it.  The two best routes that I have found between my home and downtown take me either down a very heavily travelled road filled with speeding and honking cars, or along a frontage road that parallels the railroad tracks, and is riddled with ruts that threaten to grasp my front tire and toss me over the handlebars.  Elisa confirmed my opinion of the sorry state of road cycling when she described in excited detail her reactions to the reckless behavior of car drivers in this city, which consist of high-volume vocal protests and energetic extensions of her middle digit.

The Critical Mass ride on Friday attracted the largest group yet in Birmingham, according to one of the regulars, who told me that the group was only begun here this past February.  Our group was 18 cyclists strong.  The bikes ranged from sleek touring cycles to beach cruisers.  The attire ranged from skin-tight logo-laden apparel to baggy khaki shorts (me).  Some riders had helmets, some wore baseball caps.  Men and women, ranging in age from around 20 years of age into their 50s.  Compared to Critical Mass groups in some larger cities, we were tiny, but there was an excitement among the people there that seemed to indicate that the idea was finally taking hold.  For instance, we haven’t gathered enough riders to pull off a “cyclone” yet, but that day may be here before long.

June ride of Critical Mass Birmingham
Birmingham Critical Mass event: 27 June 2008  (photo: Elisa M)

The political aspect of Critical Mass was not fully clear to me until I read that Wikipedia entry this morning.  Reading about it encouraged me that I might actually have found a way to be an “applied activist”; that is, to be involved in a movement or for a cause that could directly impact the way that I, and others, live.  I am in hushed and reverent awe of people I know who regularly step out of their daily routine to make their voices heard in selfless ways.  In particular, my cousin Margy, who has always been one to translate her political opinions into action.  Recently, she travelled from the West Coast to Washington, DC, and performed Memorial Day Butoh dance tableaux in front of the White House as a protest against the current administration’s policies.  [For more informaion about that group of citizens – the Ground Zero Players – and their activities, click here.]  That is the kind of conviction that most of the rest of us rarely have an opportunity, or the inclination, to express.

Butoh protestors at the White House gates
Not barbarians, but Butoh-ians, at the White House gate.

I am of the opinion that the priorities of the city of Birmingham ought to be focused on maintaining and improving its current infrastructure to keep the quality of life of its citizens as high as possible.  That does not mean building a flashy new equestrian center on the western outskirts of town, or a domed stadium on the eastern edge of the city.  The city we live in needs to be user-friendly.  Part of that very simple concept includes providing ease of access for citizens who desire to be ecologically-conscious as well as for those who are physically-impaired, to encourage the use of self-propelled transportation as well as establishing a more widespread and accessible mass transportation system.

These are simple and easy ideas that everyone can agree on.

Will you join our critical mass next month?  We’ll meet at 6:00 p.m. where 20th Street South meets Linn Park, and will proceed on our cycles – in rhizome-like fashion – from there.

Tags: health · ideas · politics

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Elisa M // Jun 30, 2008 at 12:16 PM

    Yeah, Publicity! I am in for next month – even tried a few hills this weekend.

    Did you see the great pic of you holding your bike up on the 5 points fountain? I tagged you.

    We are hella hip and political even whilst sweating and pedalling.

  • 2 Jon Black // Jun 30, 2008 at 5:11 PM

    Amazing. Thanks for this.

  • 3 Seth // Feb 5, 2009 at 8:52 PM

    Hey! This is so great! I’ve gotten into commuting by bike and was looking for a Critical Mass ride here in Clemson and figured I would check for a CM in my hometown of Birmingham. Hooray!

    I will try and bring my bike back with me and will have to try riding around the ‘Ham.

  • 4 spitballarmy // Feb 5, 2009 at 10:17 PM

    Thanks for your comment, Seth!

    You can find Critical Mass Birmingham on Facebook by entering “critical mass birmingham” in the search bar. By joining the group, you will receive notifications of rides in the ‘Ham.

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