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Critical Mass celebrates urban cycling

No conflict despite police presence

Critical Mass, a collective bike ride held in cities around the world, took to the rainy streets this past Friday for its monthly “rolling celebration of urban cycling.” Tensions were high due to both the arrests and fines at July’s Critical Mass event, and the heavy police presence at this month’s event.

The ride was declared illegal by the Service de police de la ville de Montréal (SPVM) at 6 p.m., as soon as cyclists took off from Square Phillips. Cyclists moved through the downtown area heading east before finally dispersing at the Fullum and Hochelaga intersection. Despite police tailing the cyclists on motorbikes and in cars, no arrests were made, and the ride remained peaceful.

Critical Mass aims to make a statement in favour of sustainable transportation, but reasons for individual participation vary. “I think it’s really bad what’s happening in the city right now with the police,” Nellie Briar told The Daily. “I am here to send the message that police intimidation should not work.”

Participant Fannie Dulude offered a similar sentiment. “The more people there are, the more festive it is and the safer people feel. There’s the idea that we are looking out for each other.”

Last month’s Critical Mass sparked an outcry in the media and among cyclists after an unexpected police crackdown landed some participants with a $500 fine, while 23 others were arrested.

Cyclists were ticketed under article 500.1 of the Highway Safety Code of Quebec, which prohibits the obstruction of vehicles on a public road without authorization of, and control by, the police.

Ian Lafrenière, Commander of the SPVM, told Le Devoir that cyclists were arrested in July for zig-zagging between cars, cycling against traffic, running through red lights, and, in two cases, trying to bike on the Jacques-Cartier bridge.

Darren Becker, Director of Communications for the city of Montreal, told Le Devoir that the city supported the intervention of the SPVM at the Critical Mass in July.

“I have the impression that police were profiling some of the participants last month because they thought they might have been involved in the student strikes. They don’t have a tolerance and I don’t think it is a good enough reason for their intervention,” Briar told The Daily.

The police crackdown on Critical Mass is part of a larger picture: the SPVM has been paying special attention to enforcing highway safety code provisions more strictly as part of a summer-long cyclist safety campaign.

“The issue is that we gave privilege to a police force and they’re abusing it,” participant Katie Nelson told The Daily at July’s Critical Mass. “At some point this isn’t just a cyclist issue, its an issue for everyone.”

News sources and Montrealers have taken very different stances on the crackdown. In an editorial, the Montreal Gazette supported the police crackdown, concluding, “Rather than seeing injustice in police enforcement of rules of the road for cyclists, or trying to frustrate it, cyclists would best be served by strictly obeying reasonable rules enforced in a reasonable manner.”

In contrast, the Link’s managing editor Erin Sparks published an opinion piece in June decrying the “outdated laws” for cycling in Montreal. In the Gazette’s editorial, they referred to Sparks’s piece as “the cycling lobby complaining bitterly about the crackdown.”

“The majority [of tickets] appear to be misguided attempts to criminalize cycling in a city oriented towards car travel,” Sparks wrote, adding, “Considering the increase in cyclists in the city, as well as how easy it is becoming to travel by bike around the city, the law should be adjusted to reflect these changing realities.”

A crowd-sourced Google Map created by Montrealer Dominik Richard has also garnered significant attention; it allows Montreal cyclists to mark locations where police have been seen ticketing cyclists.

Those critical of the crackdown have pointed out that many of the offenses are petty and obscure, such as $37 fines for missing pedal reflectors. In response, police promised in mid-June to focus on more severe offenses such as running red lights, and promised to meet with Vélo Québec.

To avoid being hit with these potential fines, participants of this month’s Critical Mass came prepared with extra reflectors to give out to fellow cyclists.

Statistics from both the city of Montreal and the SPVM show that accidents are not increasing, but instead decreasing, even with more cyclists on the road. In recent years, according to statistics provided by the SPVM on their cyclist safety campaign page, the total number of injuries (both minor and serious) as well as deaths has fallen from 733 in 2009 to 641 in 2011. According to Le Devoir, the number of cyclists has increased by 10 to 20 per cent each year.