While ghosts and goblins spooked out-of-the-way haunts and their miniature counterparts rang doorbells on a quest for sweet treats, another set of costumed characters took to their bikes Friday evening for a Halloween ride to reclaim New Haven’s streets.
Approximately 50 cyclists met on the New Haven Green Friday evening to participate in a grassroots movement known as Critical Mass. The movement began in San Francisco 11 years ago and is in its third year in New Haven. Bikers gather the last Friday of every month in more than 200 cities around the globe to repossess the streets for bike transport. The cyclists travel together — often blocking traffic — to make their presence known to the cars on the road.
Each month a different person leads the ride in New Haven, which always ends at a place to eat or drink. For the past several months, that destination has been the house of one of the participants. Since the October ride fell on Halloween, bikers were invited to sport costumes as well.
“It’s sort of a social event — a celebration,” said Elaine Lewinnek GRD ’05, one of the regular participants. “We also make ourselves visible to cars and send the message that New Haven would be better if it were more biker friendly.”
Critical Mass is a unique movement in that it has no leaders or internal structure. One frequent collaborator described Critical Mass as an “organized coincidence.” Lewinnek said this lack of organization makes publicity a challenge, but the size of the group pedaling through the city has grown significantly over the past three years, with over 100 cyclists participating in the September 2003 ride. Most of the participants are members of the New Haven community, but Lewinnek said graduate students as well as staff and faculty often participate in the monthly rides.
In many other cities, Critical Mass has become much like a political demonstration, with bikers completely blocking traffic and engaging in acts of civil disobedience. In New Haven, Critical Mass has evolved into what the cyclists described as a less disruptive community event.
“We’re the kinder, less critical mass,” said Matthew Feiner, the owner of The Devil’s Gear Bike Shop and a frequent participant. “We go out and ride as traffic because we are traffic.”
Another regular rider, Eric Staats, said the reaction the cyclists receive from the other people on the roads is mixed. He said some people cheer and honk in support of the cyclists while others act annoyed when Critical Mass blocks their path. He also said the city of New Haven has made improvements for bikers since Critical Mass began.
“I’ve seen more bikes, bike lanes — [New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.] on a bike,” Staats said. “I think it’s just progress. People are moving away from cars and back to bikes. It’s just a matter of time before people realize bikes are better.”
Lewinnek said biking is good for the city, the community and the environment. Other regular participants echoed her sentiments and said Critical Mass was important for improving the relationship between the city of New Haven and its resident bikers as well as fostering a sense of community.
“The bike is overlooked as serious transportation. Biker rights are always being encroached upon,” Feiner said. “We’re a barbeque waiting to happen and at the same time we’re pushing home an important sociopolitical message.”