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Clearing the Air

October 18, 1998|Danny Feingold

"Imagine a car-free L.A.!" yells Noa Jones as we bicycle past two men standing outside the Actor's Gang Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard.

It's rush hour in Hollywood on this smog-drenched day, and the demise of the automotive-industrial complex seems more the theme of an absurdist play than it does a distant possibility. No matter. Jones and her cohorts in Critical Mass, a loosely structured group of bicycling advocates, are on a roll.

Well known in the Bay Area, where its rides draw thousands and wreak havoc with traffic, Critical Mass has established a beachhead in Los Angeles, the country's most sprawling metropolis. On the last Friday of every month, cyclists gather at three spots--Riverside Drive and Los Feliz Boulevard (5:30 p.m.), Westwood Boulevard and LeConte Avenue (5:30 p.m.) and Robertson and Santa Monica boulevards (4:30 p.m.)--and take their message to the streets.

"Pass the Gas, Critical Mass," chants Shawn McDougal as a clot of 27 bikers, some in Lycra, others in civvies, commandeer a congested lane. The mood is festive, a heady mix of camaraderie and defiance. Spirits spiral higher when pedestrians, and even several drivers, wave and cheer at what they must assume is a two-wheeled charity event.

In fact, Critical Mass is many things to many people. (Though largely disorganized, the group does keep a Web site:

/lacritmass.) Some join simply for fun. Others see the rides as both a social activity and a political statement. "This planet is on its way out," says Michael Reinsborough, a red-bearded rider wearing only cutoffs and a metal neck chain. "It's crazy not to think about it."

Minutes later, a militant faction of the group sounds off, denouncing variously Chevron, the MTA and SUVs in expletive-laced chants. "Let's keep it civil," pleads one genial rider when someone launches into "Bikers Kick Ass, Critical Mass."

Any internal friction is overshadowed by triumphal kinship as the Los Feliz chapter converges with the other contingents near Plummer Park in West Hollywood. Even with 50-plus cyclists, no one can quite glimpse that car-free horizon. But there's a feeling that L.A.'s asphalt jungle is primed for a revolution.

"There's this mass delusion that you can't ride a bike in L.A.," says Critical Mass organizer Charlie Angel. "With all the transportation politics in Los Angeles, this is the front line of social change."

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