Bike Party and the Stupidity of Crowds

Tonight, I had the pleasure of attending the 90s Dance Party Ride, the February ride organized by East Bay Bike Party.  This is the first Bike Party ride I’ve attended since I moved to Oakland, and, to be honest, I wasn’t a frequent rider at its South Bay sister, though South Bay Bike Party did sponsor a number of events that were incredibly helpful to my training in 2009.

There’s so much I want to like about the Bike Party concept.  Large, visible rides…even those that slightly inconvenience automobile traffic…are a critical aspect of bicycle awareness.  Bike Party achieves these rides without resorting to the aggressive “biketivism” that has become associated with Critical Mass.  Rather than being out to change the world, Bike Party is out to have a party.  I think there’s a great demonstration made in a bunch of cyclists (who have a right to the road) getting out, going on a ride like they belong there, and using various public and semi-public places to stage short parties.  I think it not only emboldens cyclists to take the road and to remember that public spaces belong to them, it also sends a message to those who watch Bike Party that you don’t need permission to organize, move, and assemble.  These are noble goals in social consciousness and they center around promoting a mode of transport that more people should adopt.

So, why am I not out there every month?  Well, it’s because somehow Bike Party attracts a kind of stupidity that I can only consider to be a little dangerous, and it always leaves me feeling a bit ambivalent.  Every Bike Party ride I’ve ever attended has seen some good contenders for a Darwin Award.  On one occasion, it was someone showing off his bike’s suspension by seeing how long he could ride in the middle of the Caltrain tracks (answer– 30 yards before flipping).  On another, it was someone trying to grab a lost bike chain off the ground…while in motion…while turning left…in a busy intersection.  On another, it was a fixie rider blowing through a stop sign.  Tonight was a particularly spectacular case because it involved bad ideas from multiple parties.

The first player in this ballet of bad ideas was actually a duo.  Someone had rigged a long-base trailer to his bike, but instead of hauling cargo on it, he was hauling a passenger.  I actually thought it was kinda clever at first…seeing some guy sitting down backwards on a bike trailer.  I hadn’t considered that being physically unprotected only inches from the road might be a bad idea.  Like a chemical reaction screaming for a catalyst, the bike and passenger were themselves perfectly fine and safe on their own.  But, of course, this is Bike Party.  Ask, and you shall receive…

And, in fact, someone came tearing down the oncoming traffic lane on his BMX bike, attempted to pull a tight turn into the moving pack of bikes, and crashed sideways into the bike right at its trailer hitch.  The riders of both bikes took nasty spills, as did the trailer passenger.  The trailer’s frame cracked apart from the stress of the impact.  The instigator of the crash (the guy on the BMX bike) was trying to play this off as “shit happens,” and the guy on the trailer bike was having none of that.  Things were close to coming to blows.  I helped the trailer passenger to the side of the road and tried to find out his condition, but he was strangely slow and confused in his responses.  I don’t suspect a head injury, because I’d yelled to him several times while he was on the bike and was also not responsive.  So, honestly, I suspect he was either very drunk or very high.  I also suspect the BMX rider might not have been wholly sober, but I base that only on reckless behavior and the tendency of many Bike Party riders to have a beer before they hit the road.

This makes me really wonder about the effect of a crowd and a seemingly liberated environment on people.  Part of the group ride experience is the sense that you’re in a pack of bikes large enough that you can feel safe and even feel empowered on the streets.  One bike has to dodge cars.  Twenty bikes is something for the car to deal with instead.  And so, despite the fact that Bike Party posts, and desperately tries to enforce, rules for a safe ride, I see them casually broken.  Bikes filling all the lanes.  Bikes in oncoming lanes.  Bikes running through lights.  Texting while riding.  Drinking while riding.  Riding drunk.  Riding high.  Riding dangerous or with dangerous equipment.  Pulling tricks in traffic or crowds.  I’ve seen all these things, and I’ve been at a total of four Bike Party rides.  The power of festival is that it suspends the rules temporarily, letting people explore an environment from a new, and sometimes forbidden, perspective.  But some of those rules exist so that you don’t break your ribs, and sadly, in these leaderless or semi-leaderless festival spaces, the poor choices of some end up injuring others or breaking property.

Worse than the sense of safety and liberation is likely the “he did it first” mentality.  You see this sort of thing often at red lights.  Rather than wait through a red light, someone plows through it and safely crosses.  This causes some others to try, and since they’re now in the intersection, several more people will believe they’re “running blocking” for them and also go.  Soon, an entire pack is crossing against the light because it becomes less safe to stop in the middle of the pack than to cross against the light.  In this way, bad thinking spreads until a much larger group is now doing it.

What’s unfortunate is that there is no effective solution to this problem.  The “leaders” of a Bike Party can’t really sanction anyone.  They desperately encourage others to be responsible and follow the rules of the road, but they aren’t listened to.  This isn’t a formal group…it’s just a spontaneous gathering of people…and so there’s no way that anyone can do anything about bad behavior other than to take matters in their own hands.  This property of spontaneously arising rather than being organized is simultaneously the group’s biggest strength and its biggest weakness.

And, indeed, this is a metaphor that can be applied to groups with roughly similar structures.  This includes Anonymous and Occupy Oakland.