Critical Mass riders promote bicycle use in city

Dan Haugen

After police broke up last month’s Critical Mass bicycle demonstration, Friday’s rush-hour ride through Minneapolis might have been the largest in state history.

Clad with homemade T-shirts and stickers with slogans such as “Turn off your ignition” and “0 gallons per mile,” Friday’s 300-plus participants – including several University students – quadrupled the number of riders in last month’s Critical Mass.

In March, Minneapolis police arrested two bicyclists, cited eleven others with traffic violations and confiscated dozens of bicycles, in the monthly pro-bicycling ride.

The police action prompted a series of meetings at City Hall involving Mayor R.T. Rybak, City Council members, police leadership and many Critical Mass riders.

As a result of those meetings, police took a more hands-off approach Friday. Officers mingled with bicyclists as they gathered in Loring Park, and once the ride began, trailed them in police cars, occasionally pulling ahead to help block automobile traffic. There were no arrests or citations.

“We were really caught by surprise last month,” said Minneapolis police Sgt. Ed Nelson. “This time we’re really trying to open up the lines of communication and make sure it’s a safe ride for everyone.”

Critical Mass began in San Francisco 10 years ago, when a group of cyclists decided to ride home from work together. It now takes place in several major cities. Its objective is to promote bicycling as a legitimate – and sometimes superior – means of transportation.

In Minneapolis, Critical Mass participants gather in Loring Park at 5 p.m. on the last Friday of every month. From there, the group snakes its way through city streets during peak rush-hour traffic.

The mass on Friday extended about two blocks and spread several lanes across as it wound its way through downtown, Dinkytown and Stadium Village neighborhoods.

At one point, as the mass crossed the 10th Ave. Bridge just before 6 p.m., the group claimed all four lanes, leaving nothing but the shoulder for a row of cars to slink along in single file. Some motorists smirked, others stared and a few honked their horns, either as a sign of their support or their impatience.

The increased participation was, in part, a result of last month’s melee with police and the meetings and media coverage that followed.

Eric Stiens, an employee at the University’s Institute on Race and Poverty and a frequent Critical Mass rider, attended one of this month’s City Hall meetings and said both sides were “fairly reasonable.”

“We wanted an assurance from police that it wouldn’t happen again,” Stiens said.

Police eventually agreed to return all the bikes they confiscated in March and discussed logistics for future rides.

“The mayor seemed very interested in facilitating a dialogue between us and the police,” Stiens said.

Rybak initially intended to ride in Friday’s Critical Mass but changed his plans so he could attend his son’s baseball game. Spokeswoman Laura Sether said he still hopes to participate in a ride this summer.

Two City Council members – Robert Lilligren and Dean Zimmermann – did ride on Friday, however.

“Most of us on the council want to make it easier to bike in this town than it is now,” Zimmermann said. “It is my personal goal to make it as easy for people to bike to work as it is to drive a car in this city.”

He said bicycle advocacy isn’t “front-burner” right now, but he’s working on a set of reforms aimed at making life easier for bicyclists.

Zimmermann said there needs to be “an understanding that it is city policy that bikers are good and welcome and an important part of our transportation system.”

From there, he said, he would like to make stop signs the equivalent of yield signs for bicyclists.

“This is how bikes treat them. It’s realistic,” he said. “If a biker rolls through a stop sign, as if it was a yield sign, and there is a problem, the damage happens to the biker, not to his victims.”

Zimmermann said he also wants the city to look at converting a few streets to bike-only thoroughfares, similar to 19th Avenue on the West Bank.

“Make them accessible to homeowners and visitors and so on to park their cars, but otherwise they are exclusively bike lanes,” Zimmermann said. “The street then has the added effect of becoming a place where kids can play free from traffic. It’s an opportunity to expand the amount of green space that we have in the neighborhood.”

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