At least 10 officers, eight on motorcycles and two in patrol cars, followed more than 300 bicyclists through downtown Atlanta, Little Five Points and Virginia-Highland on June 27 from about 6:30 to 8 p.m. Most of the bicyclists stopped for red lights they normally would have ignored. At least two bicyclists were ticketed for disobeying traffic laws.
Atlanta police Officer Ron Campbell said the police targeted the bicyclists because they did not have a permit to stop traffic.
"When you don't have the permit, you have to obey the traffic laws," Campbell said. "If bikers are out there and they're not obeying the traffic laws, we will ticket them."
The bicyclists were participating in Critical Mass, an international bike movement that arrived in Atlanta in 1999. On the last Friday of every month, they take over streets. They ride four and five abreast and "cork" intersections to block cars and allow the mass to stay together through red lights.
It can take several light changes for the entire group to roll through an intersection. Cars also get jammed up behind the mass, traveling at the pedaling speed of about 10 miles per hour. In the past, some motorists have honked angrily at the bicyclists while others yelled at them to get out of the way. Many more quietly waited it out.
The in-your-face message to drivers is that bicyclists also have a right to the road. When there are enough bicyclists - a critical mass - it also shows drivers what it feels like to be the second-class vehicle.
Atlanta police generally have taken a see-no-evil approach to the loosely organized monthly event that starts in downtown Atlanta's Woodruff Park, although occasionally bicyclists have been ticketed. During the April ride, a police officer directing traffic for the Bruce Springsteen concert at Philips Arena stopped cars to let the bicyclists through.
Last month's show of force was a departure from past practice and amounted to a crackdown. It came one month after an article about the event appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, publicity that bicyclist Shelby Highsmith said police could not ignore. The rides also have grown much larger, from fewer than 30 riders a month to groups that approach 400.
Police in other cities, where riders number in the thousands, also have tried to control Critical Mass. In Chicago last August, police took control of a ride and forbade bicyclists to complete the route.
Highsmith, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, said Critical Mass would not be the same if the bicyclists followed the rules.
"The little bit of disruptiveness and the civil disobedience is a part of raising awareness [about bicycles] in a more conspicuous way," he said.
The group wants both better infrastructure for bicycles, including bike racks and lanes, and to show drivers that they, too, can hop out of the car and onto a bike.
Even within the bicycling community, Critical Mass is controversial. The split is over whether the monthly rides create more enemies than allies, and whether breaking traffic laws is ever OK.
In response to Critical Mass, a group of bicyclists is starting an event called Courteous Mass at 6:30 p.m. on July 11. It also starts at Woodruff Park, but these bikers will be obeying the rules. According to the blog publicizing the event, "this ride isn't intended as a protest ... it's simply an experiment. And, of course, another chance to ride bikes!"
Copyright© 2008 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution