Courteous Mass riders spread "civility" on Boston streets

By Patrick Kelleher-Calnan

A group of around 50 cyclists set off on a short ride Downtown last Friday in an effort to “mobilize civility, respect, and tolerance among road users.”  It was Courteous Mass, a group ride that contrasts with the city’s monthly Critical Mass rides by emphasizing riding within the law and courteous behavior.

Boston has not seen a Courteous Mass ride in a few years, but many organizers felt it was high time to add a dose of civility to the city’s streets. This summer has seen The Boston Herald try to invent a “war” between cyclists and drivers, and a Critical Mass ride in July that was marred by cyclists deliberately tying up traffic by circling in a major intersection and a resulting case of road rage by an angry motorist.

Courteous Mass reportedly involved quite a bit of waiting for cyclists caught by red lights, as following the law to the letter made keeping the group together difficult.

Before taking off, ride leader Laura Smeaton introduced the group to the guidelines, emphasizing riding within the law and “causing the least disruption to traffic.”  She led the group in a pledge to act in a courteous manner and ride within the law and then, just as daylight began to fade, the crowd rolled out of Boston Common onto Charles Street.

The route led down Beacon Street to Charlesgate and back along Boylston to the Common.  The distance covered was minimal and the group moved slowly. The pace reflected both a deliberate effort to cater to less experienced riders and the fact that a significant amount of time was spent waiting for riders who had been caught in red lights.
“Corking isn’t courteous,” as one ride guide put it, referring to the common practice of having one rider stop and “cork” an intersection to ensure that large rides stay together-generally as a safety measure for less experienced riders who are better protected in a large group of riders. But organizers agreed that sacrificing speed in order to ride completely within the law was consistent with the event’s mission.

Ride organizer Chris Ditunno insisted that the ride was not a knee-jerk reaction to the incidents at Critical Mass, but said it is always important to address hostility on the streets.

“In psychological theories about group behavior change, you start with changes in attitude and end with changes in behavior,” she explains.  “I believe that a significant portion of cycling accidents are just plain old rage. And the only way to get people to change their behavior is to get them to see through a different lens how dangerous, inappropriate, and just not right that behavior is. [But to do that] you have to appeal to their humanistic side, you have to say, ‘There’s a human being on that bicycle who has children, who has parents.'”

While no study or data has pointed to a significant amount of bike accidents caused by any form of road rage, it’s certainly true that motorists can be hostile and threatening to cyclists from time to time. A law passed recently in Los Angeles took this into account by prohibiting verbal or other harassment of cyclists, and a similar law is now being proposed in Washington D.C.

The riders I met at Courteous Mass – a mixed group of experienced riders, new bikers on Hubway bikes, long-time bike advocates, and several folks wearing their Boston Cyclists Union colors – had nuanced views on Critical Mass, advocacy, and the role of civility on city streets.

“I have high hopes that this ride will help to encourage courteous behavior on the road – especially after I almost died three times today!” said attorney and union member Paola Ferrer.

“It’s a good time to have some education like this with the college students returning,” said Baylor Bennett.

“I think it’s important for us to take on civil behavior as a core value,” said Steve Miller of Hub On Wheels and the Livable Streets Alliance. “Because cyclists are singled out – unfairly in my opinion – for breaking the law, we can influence the tone of the conversation.”

Back at the Parkman Bandstand after the ride, the cyclists debriefed. The red light issue was a big topic, and several people commented on ways to minimize time spent waiting for the group to reunite after red lights, with suggestions ranging from maximizing right turns on the route, to putting slower riders at the front of the pack, to breaking the ride into smaller groups.

“The main challenge we faced was having such a positive response,” said Ditunno. “It can be a little difficult managing so many people without stopping traffic. But this ride is more about messaging and coexistence between road users than going fast.”

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