Contending that the monthly, unsanctioned and hugely popular Critical Mass bicycle ride has become a traffic-snarling “mess,’’ Miami’s police chief held a news conference Wednesday to ask “organizers” for help reining it in — or face possible fines.
But Chief Manuel Orosa quickly confronted a reality that other cities trying to exert control over Critical Mass rides have run into: The movement, which started in San Francisco as a way for cyclists to assert their legal right to use public streets, by definition has no leaders or organization.
Orosa asked a locally well known bike blogger whom he identified as the “de facto organizer” to meet with police to devise ways to better control the Miami ride, which draws thousands of cyclists pedaling en masse through city streets on the last Friday evening of every month — including on occasion Miami Heat stars Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
Orosa also sent the blogger, Raydel Baluja-Herrera, a letter putting him “on notice” that he could be held liable for “the chaos” caused by the ride. As the number of participants, including parents with kids, has ballooned into the low thousands, the city has received complaints from motorists stranded at intersections for long periods by the continuous stream of red-light-running cyclists.
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Miami’s Critical Mass, unlike the protest-like rides in other U.S. cities, has been characterized by a friendly, festive atmosphere. As it’s grown, though, it has also been marred at times by rowdy cyclists, some of them intoxicated, who have aggressively confronted frustrated motorists and even other riders. Orosa called those misbehaving cyclists “anarchists” bent on creating havoc.
But Herrera, who goes by the nom-de-blog Rydel Deed, says he has no role in directing Critical Mass beyond posting monthly notices and a route map on his blog, The Miami Bike Scene, which also publicizes dozens of other bike rides and events. The Critical Mass maps are also published on several other websites and social media outlets, including a Facebook page, he noted.
Herrera said he resented being singled out publicly by Orosa, speculating that the chief did so because police had no other names to link to the ride.
“Critical Mass was around before me and it would still be around even if I posted tomorrow that it’s canceled,” Herrera said. “I’m not the organizer. I’ve never been the organizer.”
Critical Mass rides take place on the last Friday of every month in hundreds of cities around the world. Some cyclists have criticized the aggressive character of the rides in other cities as counterproductive, leading to greater motorist resentment of bikes. Official efforts to stop or crack down on riders, meanwhile, have been largely unsuccessful given the large numbers of participants. In some cities, police bike patrols accompany Critical Mass rides to curb improper behavior and ensure safety.
Mainstream cycling organizations have been supportive of Miami’s version, which they say has played an important role in promoting cycling in the city. The fact that it’s gotten so big, they say, demonstrates pent-up demand for safe opportunities to cycle in streets that many people otherwise regard as hostile to people on bikes.
But they concede the rides present a fundamental conundrum: To stay safe, riders must stay together, so some cyclists block intersections to allow the others to get through.
Instead of targeting Herrera or ride participants, some say, Miami police should invite the city’s cycling organizations to brainstorm ideas for improving the ride — and ride along to better familiarize themselves with it and the diverse range of ages and backgrounds of the participants.
“We should get together to keep the ride safe,” said Anthony Garcia, an urban planner and chairman of Green Mobility Network, which promotes walking and cycling. “Critical Mass rides in Miami are a fun event and they’ve done a lot to introduce the population to what a good thing bicycling is. There are people who act foolish. But this idea that it’s some kind of an anarchistic ride is out of touch.”
Herrera was an early promoter of Miami’s Critical Mass ride at a time when it drew a mere handful of riders some five years ago, but he said no one controls who shows up or governs the behavior of thousands of participants. The blogger, who last year posted a frustrated note asking unruly cyclists to stay away from Critical Mass, said he does not object to police detaining or ticketing cyclists who break the law.
“It all comes down to individuals policing themselves and behaving and not being misfits,” he said.
Herrera’s attorney, Eli Stiers, said in a response letter to Orosa that his client is willing to sit down with police. But Stiers said that merely posting information about Critical Mass in no way makes the blogger liable or responsible for issues that arise during the rides.
Stiers also said that posting the route maps, which vary every month but usually take riders on a 12-mile loop from downtown Miami through Little Havana to Coral Gables and back, helps motorists and police know where the cyclists will be. In the Gables and Miami Beach, for instance, police often wait for Critical Mass riders and shepherd them through intersections to clear them out of their jurisdictions as quickly as possible.
In other cities, routes are not publicized ahead of time or are decided on the spur of the moment, leading to greater unpredictability and frustration, Stiers said.
Orosa stressed that he’s not looking to stop the ride, which starts every month from Miami-Dade County Hall in downtown Miami. The ride start has become such a Miami social fixture that Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez once campaigned there for re-election.
But Orosa hinted police might have a “surprise” in store for participants in Friday’s ride, and did not rule out issuing tickets to cyclists for running red lights and other traffic violations.
Orosa said he was concerned about riders’ safety as they ride through red lights, particularly by the possibility of a road rage incident triggered by a frustrated motorist riding through the group — as happened in Brazil during a Critical Mass ride recently.
“Everybody has to come to the table and everybody has to make this event safe,” he said.
But he also seemed to concede Herrera’s point over the lack of formal organization.
“The true intent of sharing the road, unfortunately, has turned into taking over the road,” Orosa said at police headquarters. “This is why Critical Mass has turned into critical mess — there’s no order and no one is in charge.”