While riding his bicycle, Mole Morgan was hit by a cab driver twelve years ago while riding down First Street in the City of Newburgh.
“Then, I got whacked,” he says.
After the car pinned his bicycle against the curb of the street, Morgan flew over the handlebars of his bike and nearly missed a pole.
“When I came down, I hit a big piece of metal,” he explains.
Bloodied and fuming, Morgan tried to take down the car’s license plate, but it sped away.
“My head was bashed up, and so was my elbow,” he says. His shoulder was injured so badly that it required surgery.
Morgan is lucky. Hundreds of cyclists are annually killed by motor vehicles. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 783 traffic fatalities involving cyclists in 2017. It can be estimated that more than 40,000 people are injured every year.
As an act of protest, cyclists began to organize Critical Mass bike rides, informal cycling events that occured on the last Friday of every month. The first event occured in San Francisco, California in September of 1992. Soon after, Critical Mass bike rides spread to every major city in the United States.
A grassroots Critical Mass began in the City of Newburgh last year.
“Critical Mass is a social movement to raise the visibility of bicyclists and to reclaim the streets [in order] to share them with motorists,” said Naomi Hersson-Ringskog, a member of the the Critical Mass in the City Newburgh who also sits on the Transportation Advisory Committee. “We hope that by riding together as a critical mass, we are raising awareness that bicyclists exist and that we want to share the roads,” she said.
It is 6 p.m. on May 31-- the last Friday in May. Due to bad weather, this is Newburgh’s first Critical Mass of 2019. “This is my first time,” Morgan says, outside Downing Park’s Shutter House Cafe, the designated meeting spot for the Critical Mass. Morgan is excited, as he does wheel stands with his bicycle upon arrival to the cafe.
Stephen Sinnot, owner of the café, is another member. “We only use [the cafe] as a place that is centralized. It’s the largest urban greenspace and it’s a passive park, so we use it as a place to meet,” he says before other members begin to trickle into the cafe. According to Sinnot, the goal is to gain awareness for motorists in Newburgh to show them that people are cycling throughout the city as this concerns safety.
“Ultimately, what we’re hoping is that motorists become more aware of people on bikes,” he says.
All other aspects of the Critical Mass are organic: the cycling routes are always different and the group usually varies in size. “Somebody starts pedaling first and says that they want to lead in the beginning. And then, we’ll switch around. I think everybody who comes on the ride is looking out for each other, so we try to stay together,” said Hersson-Ringskog.
The City of Newburgh lies on a grid street plan, which makes public transportation, walking, and cycling accessible. A significant portion of Newburgh residents do not drive, and they must rely on other types of travel.
“A lot of people don’t understand that around 30% of [Newburgh’s] population doesn’t have access to a car. Whatever the reason is, they rely on public transit, walking, or bicycling,” Hersson-Ringskog points out.
City of Newburgh Police Officers Kevin Aguilar and Dellauno Thomas are also first timers. Sitting outside the cafe in his bike patrol uniform, Officer Thomas talks about how he wanted to find a way to bring bike riding and community outreach together. “I thought this would be a perfect way to do both of those things,” he says.
Thomas is a member of the Community Progressive Response Team of the City of Newburgh Police Department.
“My role is to basically bridge that gap between the community and the police,” he says. Thomas hopes to engage with Newburgh residents at Critical Mass rides by answering any questions they have about the department.
Other members of Newburgh’s Critical Mass have even cycled in major U.S. cities. Newburgh resident Karen Cissel was part of a 50 member Critical Mass in New York City that began in 1993. “We’d start at Union Square and then drive toward Columbus Circle during rush hour. It was exhilarating,” she says before the group exited on their bikes. Cissel moved to Newburgh around three years ago and was “really excited to be living in the city again.” She was elated at the prospect of being able to ride her bike to the store or a restaurant.
Membership for Newburgh’s Critical Mass is very fluid. “As a group, we hope to grow the critical mass on a monthly basis, and have that diversity in terms of age, and race, and even location. We welcome people from Beacon, New Windsor, and town of Newburgh,” said Hersson-Ringskog.
According to Sinnot, “it’s more practical to use bicycles than cars [because] it’s more eco-friendly.” He thinks that now is the perfect time to gain awareness for cyclists, as the City of Newburgh begins to change its infrastructure. “As they are redoing the roads, they can provide signage, notifying drivers that there will be cyclists [and] allocated cycle lanes,” he says.
Hersson-Ringskog knows that the group wants to “advocate for bicycle infrastructure, whether that exists as painted lanes or protective lanes.” Members also want to try and get bicycle repair stations and bicycle racks. It would be much safer for cyclists to ride around Newburgh with these measures put in place.
Before the group leaves, Cissel speaks of her belief in the group’s ability to make “cycling fun and acceptable” as the city moves forward in paving the roads. And, promptly at 6:15 p.m., Newburgh’s Critical Mass rode out with their bikes, reclaiming the streets they call home one more time.
The next Critical Mass bike ride will take place on Friday, June 28 at 6 p.m. Meet outside the Shelter House Café.