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.

2 thoughts on Bike Party and the Stupidity of Crowds

  1. The problem isnt organization….bike parties dont grow on trees, but grown from the grassroots. the eternal problem is at any party – who can be accountable for themselves and who doesnt want to? like any good house party….its up to the ones in attendance to police themselves. Ive always found it just as easy to go to another room and let the idiots play by themselves.

    • Thanks for commenting, Jarek. You are, in fact, right that you have described the problem is that people must police themselves, but this has a lot to do with the actual organizational structure of the ride. Please keep in mind that I am not advocating for a reform of EBBP. The big problem with a house party metaphor, though, is that Bike Party isn’t a house party. House parties aren’t held on public infrastructure, they don’t raise the attention of the authorities (unless something goes really wrong), and members of the public don’t converse about them on the websites of local newspapers. Every Bike Party I’ve ridden (San Jose and East Bay) has ended up being discussed by the public, and there is a tone of ambivalence that results from our tearing through neighborhoods, making noise, waking up babies, etc.

      So, this isn’t just about personal safety. This is also about Bike Party keeping a good image, and what I’m starting to notice from a lot of anarchic grassroots groups who operate in public is that they can’t keep a good face indefinitely. Consider the result if that crash had been catastrophic enough that it involved an ambulance, particularly if a couple of more people were hit. I, personally, missed joining the crash by only a few feet.

      But as far as keeping myself safe, my experience with Bike Party tells me that there isn’t necessarily “another room” to go to. I was riding in a loose pack when the crash happened. I had taken up a position that was a couple feet behind someone who appeared to be a BIRD. Except for someone riding on a bike trailer, there was no irresponsible riding. The crash was instigated by someone who came out of nowhere. And that’s pretty common for all the bad things I’ve seen at Bike Party rides. Everything is fine, and then someone does something really dumb and endangers everyone around them. The amount of time it takes to endanger others on a bike is very, very short, which is why pack riding is a set of skills people have to learn to develop. Because of this, the only place I have ever felt safe is when I’m basically far out in the lead.

      Again, I’m not demanding EBBP reform. Even if I wanted that, I don’t have the time to make it a priority for myself. This is mostly a rambling musing on people’s behavior in festival space, its relationship to groups which embrace anarchic formation and facilitation, and the problems that come with it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *