Taking Back the Streets

One of the Founding Slogans of Cycling: “We Don’t Block Traffic, We Are the Traffic!”

Christian Cummins | February 2007

A Critical Mass Meeting in Vienna: “We don‘t block traffic. We are the traffic.“ (Photo: Critical Mass)

I’m a confirmed cyclist. Every day - wind, rain or storm - I pedal my way from Vienna’s 16th district to the 4th. It’s quick, it’s cheap, it’s clean and it keeps me fit, of course, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because, let’s be honest, cycling through a European city rocks. Or so it should.

Frequently I have to slam on the brakes to avoid a car parked across a bike path. On the narrower city streets, cars whistle tightly past my elbows forcing me into the curb. At crossings, cyclists may have a green light, but no-one seems to care.

Do you ever feel you are not respected? Every day I have to exercise all my English reserve to keep my stinky finger on the handlebars where it belongs. At rush hour, it’s the law of the jungle out there and drivers know that, when push comes to shove, a little two-wheeler is going to give way to a big old 4-wheeler. It’s a simple law of nature that I have come to accept.

Others, however, are not as resigned to their fate. Indeed a collection of cyclists who call themselves Critical Mass aim to redress the balance. In a flyer dramatically entitled "Reclaim the Streets!" they state their mission: "Bicycles deserve both more official recognition and support. After all, the bike is the healthiest and most sustainable mode of transport we have."

Every third Friday of the month the group gathers on the Margarethen Platz in Vienna’s 5th district, armed with flags, slogan-loaded T-shirts and a cycle-trailer containing an impressive sound system, before launching on a cycle ride around the cities streets looking for what they call a "peaceful dialogue on the streets."

Not all motorists would agree with Critical Mass’ definition of peaceful. On its way around Vienna the group often spreads itself across the width of the roads it uses. If there is more than one lane, they leave one lane free for the cars to pass. But inevitably the traffic is held up. The riders seem to welcome provocation. Indeed, the more the drivers honk their horns, the more one cyclist dresses in blue grins.  His T-Shirt reads "Honk your horn if you love cyclists!"

When I spoke to the rider in blue, a man called Alec, and asked him why he wanted to block the traffic; he repeated one of the founding slogans of the movement: "We don’t block the traffic, we are the traffic." The riders feel they are just claiming their rightful place as users of the city’s roads, equal to but not below the cars.

The law, however, disagrees with this definition. What I had never previously realised is that the cycle paths are not just a service for cyclists, they are also an obligation. If there is a bike path available, the cyclists must use it even if they are dissatisfied with its condition. If there is no cycle path, the cyclists are obliged by law to keep more or less to single file. According to Peter Goldgruber from the traffic section of the Vienna police, only a group of training race cyclists may use the city’s streets in a bunched group; otherwise, whether you are deliberately blocking the traffic or not, you are technically breaking the law.

It is precisely these laws that Critical Mass aims to challenge. The movement was born in San Francisco in 1992 and the rides are now held in some 500 cities world-wide on all 6 inhabited continents. One of the riders at the Margarathenplatz had just arrived in Vienna from Glasgow and immediately looked up the local group: She told me: "I think it is a great thing to ride with so many people and promote cycling."

Such internationalism seems to speak of formal organisation, but this is something the riders deny. Primarily for legal reasons, the international homepage states that Critical Mass is not an organization, but rather "an unorganised coincidence." The cyclists I spoke to told me the group functioned on the same principles as Wikipedia. Anyone who wants to help spread the message can do so, by handing out flyers and printing shirts for example, but there are no organisational structures as such.

Apart from calls for drivers to show more respect to cyclists, the Critical Mass riders are calling on the local government to improve the city’s infrastructure. Although Alec recognises there are some good quality paths in Vienna, he complains that many bike paths are too narrow, while others, just a faint dotted line on a main road, don’t even the deserve the name.

Away from the legalities, I suppose there has to be some self-criticism too among bike users in Vienna. There are some pretty aggressive cyclists out there, rattling uncompromisingly down the narrow paths and roads, heads down in that sour grimace so popular in the capital, cursing out the sort of languages that would make a sailor blush. Motorists complain of cyclists jumping red-lights, pedestrians complain of them pedaling up the pavements. Surely that’s not fair either, is it?

The Critical Mass flyer states unequivocally that they are against any war of the roads. It reads "Better with each other than against each other."  It urges cyclists to avoid conflicts by cycling calmly and using hand signals. Alec says that the daily annoyances can lead to a climate of aggression and that is to be avoided, although he adds:

"You’ve got to keep reminding yourself not to be so aggressive, but at the same time you have to remind yourself not to give in, just because as a cyclist you are weaker."  Not everyone is prepared to bow to the law of the jungle.

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