There’s a terrible group of people who at regular intervals choke the streets of London, bringing traffic to a standstill and causing much frustration, blowing of horns and inconvenience to others. Yes, car drivers are a terrible, antisocial, pain, aren’t they?
Only once a month can you get a sense of what London’s streets could be. For on the last Friday of each month, many of the city’s cyclists happen to choose to take a ride, to celebrate the possibility of safe, unharassed cycling. It has a name – Critical Mass – but no organised hierarchy, or even an organised route. It just happens.
What a pleasure it is to spin up Regent Street without having to be on high alert for the impatient drivers of those ridiculously large Mercedes that are too wide to fit in a lane. What fun to zip along Park Lane without worrying about Range Rover drivers who have yet to be introduced to their indicators or rear-view mirrors.
And last Friday, watching the escort of police cyclists, the pleasure must have been even greater than usual. They were very quiet and unobtrusive after those lovely High Court judges – the vital defenders of the centuries-old liberties the government seems so determined to wipe out – told them they could not ban a few cyclists from taking to the road. Just a couple of days previously, Lord Justice Sedley and Mr Justice Gray had ruled that Critical Mass was “commonly and customarily” held and therefore not a notifiable procession under the Public Order Act, as police had tried to assert in letters handed out to participants last September.
This was my first Critical Mass. It was something I had been meaning to do for ages, and this seemed a great evening to participate in a celebration. (Even the weather was joining the party; golden Victory on the Queen Victoria memorial was beaming sunny approval as we circled in front of Buckinham Palace to give our current monarch a wave.) But regulars told me a festive mood is normal when this diverse group of people gets together to celebrate what it has common – a non-polluting, health-promoting, sane form of transport – and have lots of fun in the process.
There were cycle couriers, their whip-thin calves matched by the frames of their machines; there were the lifelong defenders of causes, from the man with the “Free Tibet” flag fluttering from his rear carrier to the “no animal cruelty” banner lady. But there were also large numbers of “ordinary” cyclists, many of whom had, like me, come straight from the office. Some may even have been there for ulterior motives. I heard one woman in a halter-neck dress say to a similarly dressed friend: “Yeah, I met this guy last month and I gave him my email and …” The sweep of the road took me away before I heard the end of the tale.
Of course, some car drivers along the route lost their cool at the thought of not being able to race to the next red light. Those who decided that a bit of noise pollution from a continuously blown horn might change their situation were greeted with cheery waves and a chorus of wolf-whistles. Those who got more dangerously angry and decided to drive through the middle of the pack were quickly surrounded by a forest of stationary bicycles and held there, out of harm’s way: cooperative community policing, by the community.
I peeled off at 9.30pm, in the shadow of Centrepoint, two hours and about 10 miles after we had started out from Waterloo Bridge. Heading up Tottenham Court Road, with the Critical Mass flow still streaming across the Oxford Street intersection, there was a surprising little oasis of peace and quiet, an all-too-rare chance to move out of the left-turn lane without having to resort to a glare and a forceful occupation of road space. Just imagine: ban most private cars from central London and what a wonderful place it could be.
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