A lot of cyclists seem to enjoy riding in large groups for fun and to support good causes. It seems only benign. If one cyclists is a step in the right direction, a large number should be a huge leap that way, right?
Critical Mass took the concept much farther to demonstrate the numbers of cyclists and their power to take over the streets. CM is overtly political, so controversy arising from it is not surprising. But every large gathering of cyclists spawns complaints and conflicts.
I'm sure this has been exhaustively discussed by the Experts in Cycling. I was simply inspired by a piece I read this morning about a petition in England to shut down a ride due to the objections of residents and businesses along the route. It reminded me of what a Gilford, NH, resident told me about how the residents along a certain stretch of road feel when they're penned up in their neighborhoods during the weekend of an annual triathlon. He actually found this picture amusing.
Motorists might agree in theory that bicyclists have a right to use the roads, but they would all prefer if we could do it without actually seeming to be there at all. An individual cyclist can maneuver freely to try to manage the traffic flow as necessary, whereas a group of riders may have trouble getting drivers to pass in a timely fashion when it's safe. And those places of safety need to be longer and clearer to get motorists past a string of riders on a constricted road. Most of the time, riders and drivers take their chances and hope they get away with it.
When motorists gather in large numbers they create congestion as well. But "group drives" seem a lot less common than group rides. If it's an event like New Hampshire's Motorcycle Week, the sheer excess does lead to friction, frayed tempers and many accidents. But the motorized cycles can travel at traffic speed (when they're not blatantly exceeding it), so they increase volume and may cause decreased speeds, but only in places where any large number of vehicles would slow things down. The upper limit of the speed range requires no accommodation from other motorists. Bicyclists can't claim that. Our cruising speed only fits with motorist speeds where the motorists are held back by imposed limitations.
I like to imagine what popular perception of other sports would be like if they were conducted on the roadway. "Oh no! Another goddam football game! I won't get out of here until half time!" "Augh! I hate basketball! All those idiots dribbling frantically down the street, chasing a hoop hung off the back of a truck!" "Oh for ---! Not Centerline Tennis again!"
I know. It's absurd. But what other sport besides competitive cycling holds its official events out in the road? What began before the dawn of the motoring era as crazy challenges to human strength and endurance have evolved to the modern sport on roadways vastly more crowded with other people living their routine lives. Cycling fans love the spectacle. People who are not cycling fans have to wonder how the road to work, school and the grocery store became a sports arena.
Non-competitive rides can generate more congestion than races. They can also generate a lot of business along the route. What seems to happen a lot of the time is that the complainers complain, the defenders defend and the event goes on. So what's the harm?
Institutionally the harm might settle in the minds of decision makers who individually don't care for cyclists on the road. If enough of them collect in one place they may start to change the rules. In the general population, drivers who dislike cyclists will collect their grudges generated by frustrating encounters with groups and take it out on lone cyclists they see as targets of opportunity on unwitnessed stretches of highway.
Technically we have as much right to hold a group ride as the motorists do to hold a poker run, a rally, a scavenger hunt or just take out their favorite machines on a group joyride. Only the difference in horsepower calls our right into question. But it's a critical question. Not only must we continually explain ourselves to the lawmakers and regulators, we have to deal with the emotional issues of throttle-pushers who won't give us a fraction of a second to explain anything when they finally decide they've had enough.
If humans were truly a violent species there would be a lot fewer of us and I doubt anyone would travel on a two-wheeled vehicle of any kind. We would probably all drive real tanks on the rare occasions we left our fortress homes. I guess in some parts of the world it's more than a bit like that. But I like to think that the momentum is on the side of peaceful pedalers.