Critical Memories We didn't always have it this good

Critical Mass Hysteria, Cleveland Free Times, June 18, 2003

Any of the Summer 2012 months could have broken Cleveland's record for most cyclists on a Critical Mass ride. With the amount of enthusiasm and visible increase in cycling activity in town, it seemed a sure thing that some Summer 2012 month would break the record of 435 riders, set in August 2011. All the hot and dry summer long, though, the rain came on the last Friday of the month and kept the numbers down. Hundreds still rode--400 in May, 420 in June, 365 in July, according to the Cleveland Critical Mass blog--but the record was elusive.

Until August. Finally, a last Friday with nothing but sun in the sky, and the Mass rolled 740 strong--not double the previous record, but getting there. All of which makes me think back to a time when Cleveland Critical Mass was nothing like it is now. 


I picked up a couple of new bicycle accessories back in the Summer of 2003, and I still have them: A City of Cleveland bicycle license, which I keep in a little box in the basement, and and a handlebar bell, which I keep on the bike I use for commuting. I would never have owned either of those things without a little push from the Cleveland Police.

It was May of that year when Critical Mass was looping through Downtown in the Gateway Neighborhood, having been followed all over the central business district by half a dozen police cars. The Tribe had a ball game. There were lots of people downtown. But after shadowing the Mass around the neighborhood for a while, the police decided to pull over the entire group of about 40 riders.

Once they made that decision, the six police cars that had been slowly following along changed their behavior and charged around the streets like sheepdogs herding the Mass. A handful of riders here and there split off and escaped down alleyways. But a group of about 30 did what the police said, stopping to answer for the crime of having clogged the streets in the shadow of Jacobs Field. In the end police wrote tickets for about fifteen people—citing “reckless operation”--which apparently meant riding more than two abreast—and for not having bicycle licenses and handlebar bells.

I didn't get a ticket that day. Looking back, I believe this may have been because as I stood there with the rest of the Mass, I had my wallet out. Each police officer who saw me must have thought one of his colleagues already had my ID and was writing me up. So none of them asked me for my papers. The reason I had my wallet out was that I was working for the Free Times, and I was handing out my card to people who did get tickets.

I went back to the office and started making calls to cyclists, and to city hall. I called each city council rep, asking whether they had bicycles, whether their bikes were licensed, and whether they had handlebar bells. Lots had bikes. None had licenses or bells. I learned later through a public records request that Jane Campbell got her pink Schwinn ladies model registered that day.

Here are a few selected paragraphs from the story that came of it. I'm putting them here to show the contrast in tone between then and now.

The recent Cleveland Police roundup of bicyclists on a Critical Mass ride downtown made some Cleveland City Council members laugh at the absurdity, caused some embarrassment, and stirred others to anger that municipal resources would be spent cracking down on environmentalist pleasure seekers, while neighborhood complaints of dangerous automobile traffic go unattended.

The cyclists were not laughing or embarrassed, though some are angry. The tickets are likely to cost them $175, and for some, points on their drivers' licenses.

Mayor Jane Campbell got cyclists' attention with her public declarations that she wants to make Cleveland a more bike-friendly city.

Marty Cader, an active cyclist (still!) who works for the city planning commission, says she is serious about this. Bless her.

But then half a dozen police cars pulled over Critical Mass. They wrote tickets for not having handlebar bells, and not having bike licenses.

Tickets were also written for “reckless operation.” We've all seen the athletic grace and linear beauty of a bike messenger breaking pages of law by flowing across lanes without regard for the direction of traffic. We've seen the wrong way trips down one-way streets, the seamless up-and-down traversal of curbs and sidewalks, the quick turns without signals, the dodging between cars, the unshakeable faith in inertia, the defiance of stop signs. All of that happens, yes, and almost always without accident or police incident. But the Critical Mass riders who got pulled over were always right of center, traveling less than 10 miles per hour, signaling turns, and even stopping at traffic lights. That was not reckless operation.

This was definitely a black eye on our bike friendly initiatives,” Cader said.”

Campbell's spokesperson Celeste Glasgow says police handled the Critical Mass ride as a demonstration. But isn't this kind of activity—people enjoying life downtown—exactly what the Mayor wants to demonstrate?

City Planning Director Chris Ronayne says the situation went south when the cyclists occupied all the lanes right of center, which impeded automotive traffic. But no one we can locate was cited for impeding automotive traffic. It was all about bells, vanity plates, and alleged recklessness.

I wrapped the whole thing up with this bit of math, speculation, and rhetoric:

Ultimately we hope our laws will make the city a better place. If 15 bicyclists each got tickets that will cost them $175, the city will take in $2,625 dollars as result. I will not do the math to figure out what it cost in salaries alone to have half a dozen police cars and their drivers converge to write those tickets, and for the court to hear those cases.

But I have a theory about what we get for that money. We get a group of students, environmentalists, downtown professionals, and even a Cleveland Fire Fighter who may get handlebar bells and bike licenses, but who also may have that much less trust and respect for the police. How does that help the city?


Back then, with about 40 riders in a good month, Critical Mass felt like rebellion. These days, it feels like positive force. Even with a glitch now and then, as we saw in August, cyclists in Northeast Ohio have come a long way in their relations with the city. As most people reading this know, thanks to the work of Bike Cleveland, Cleveland recently passed legislation to protect cyclists on the roads.

These days, neighborhoods like Central, Fairfax. Slavic Village, and Kamm's Corners roll out a welcome mat for Critical Mass. In May, residents of Central ran to the curb to wave, high-five, and cheer as the ride went by. In June a group of riders returned to the neighborhood to join its parade. For the June Critical Mass, the Kamms Corners Community Development Corporation sponsored bike parking and communicated with local businesses that could sell such things as donuts, sandwiches, and beer. The July ride helped Slavic Village celebrate the completion of the Cleveland Velodrome, and the Street Repair music festival. In advance of the ride, cyclists promoted neighborhood businesses that could sell them food and drinks.

We have indeed come a long way since 2003. Remember that old line about how cyclists aren't holding up traffic, we are traffic? In 2012, we could add a few more words to it. We're not just traffic: we're your neighbors. 

Volume 1, Issue 5, Posted 10:30 AM, 09.24.2012