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Taking back the streets

11 September 2012 - 02:15 By Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver

Last Friday I joined the Critical Mass night-time ride through Johannesburg's streets. It was just off the full moon and the streets had an eerie glow about them as the beautifully lit up cycle parade glided past.

Clearly, lighting on your bike was the thing to do. The lighting apparel on display ranged from the weird to the wonderful, one cyclist even sporting a lampshade on top of his helmet.

But what was more inspiring was to be part of this largely young, vibrant movement of people, taking over the streets and celebrating the joy of cycling.

Critical Mass is self-organised, There are no road closures or traffic police protection. In Johannesburg, it started out as a small group of people but has rapidly mushroomed - on Friday there were about 2000 of us on the road. Cape Town has built up a similar momentum and there are growing movements in other cities.

The event relies solely on the power of the group - once the group is large enough, you don't need law enforcement to take over the streets - hence the title "Critical Mass".

Critical Mass is a global phenomenon. With its origins in social movements and civil-society protest, with some nod to the "occupy" movement, it has a powerful anti-establishment feel about it.

The message is in the action: give us back our streets and make them safe for cyclists.

On the way to join the group, I was struck by how vulnerable I felt cycling at night on busy roads, and how dramatically this feeling changed as the mass of cyclists gathered and slowly took over the street.

The event is a lesson to our civic leaders. Cycling is a dangerous pastime. Every year large numbers of cyclists are run down and injured by careless motorists. We are a car-obsessed society and our streets are built for vehicles, not for walking or cycling.

We will never turn our cities into accessible "people spaces" with this mindset, let alone build the ambitious low-carbon future that we have committed ourselves to. So here's the challenge: on the last Friday of this month, join the Critical Mass ride taking place in your city.