I thought I had a breakthrough last night. We headed to our new local, a lovely big pub with artfully tatty decorations, mis-matched furniture and an excellent drink selection. Looking at the available options I realised they had my favourite beer (I am not generally a beer drinker but this one tastes like a Piña colada) and really wanted one. Not to get drunk, but just to drink it. That was a new experience. My breakthrough was short-lived however. It’s a popular pub so we managed to get a table only by hovering nearby people who looked like they were leaving. As they left and we sat down I saw the drink they’d left behind – a bottle of wine and two glasses and I felt that familar pang; the desire to get completely ratted. The desire was so strong it shocked me.
I have been cycling to work since around 2006. It started as a vague attempt to get fitter and save money, but ended up becoming something I genuinely enjoyed. Nowadays I only commute by public transport if I really have to and it makes me so grumpy and irritable that’s it’s best all round for everyone if I just get on my bike. The biggest unexpected benefit of cycling to work was far fewer illnesses – not just because you are a little fitter and healthier but because you are not in the plague pits of the tube or a London bus during rush hour. One zombie-lurgy ridden commuter sneezing on the tube can infect the entire carriage. I try not to think too hard about what sort of gross things that might be living on the seats or handrails.
I took the cycling proficiency test as a child, and cycled pretty much everywhere up until my bike was stolen shortly after graduating from University. With my massive graduate debt and having got a job far from where I was living I didn’t bother to replace it. Therefore before I took the plunge into full time cycle commuting six years later I dusted off my copy of the highway code and re-familiarised myself with the rules of the road.
Full Disclosure: I don’t drive. In fact, I can’t drive. I owned a copy of the highway code from taking driving lessons in my early twenties. I struggled a great deal with the driving lessons. An hour into my second lesson my driving instructor said, “It’s ok, some people just aren’t meant to drive” which in retrospect was not as reassuring as he probably intended it to be. My problem with driving wasn’t about using the road so much as using the car. I couldn’t understand the gears. I couldn’t get a sense of how much space on the road I took up. I didn’t like not being able to feel or see where I was on the road, or be able to judge or control my speed. Reversing was completely unfathomable. I particularly didn’t like the way I couldn’t trust any other bugger on the road.
Cycling is completely different – you know where you are and how much space you take up because you can see it, you don’t have to sense it. You know exactly how fast you’re going because you can feel it, and you can control your speed with your own body. Cycling feels so natural to me, and every bike I’ve owned that I’ve truly loved has felt like an extension of my own body. Having a bike you love stolen almost feels like someone has stolen a part of you.
I enjoyed commuting by bicycle from my very fist week – discovering new parts of London by accident when getting lost, exploring different routes (fast ones by main road, longer but safer back streets, pretty but muddy off-the-beaten-track routes…) and was never without my battered A-Z in my bike bag (this has been replaced with a smartphone with GPS navigation app – because we LIVE IN THE FUTURE). It amused and irritated me in equal measure when people said “Oh you’re so BRAVE cycling in London. I wouldn’t dare!” or “Isn’t cycling very dangerous?”. I always reassured those people that it was wonderful – as long as you knew what you were doing and cycled safely it was no more dangerous than walking to work. I had a few near misses over the years – a few car doors nearly opened into my face; a few incidents where I was run off the road by boy racers or white van men; one nasty incident where I was actually groped by a man in a van while trying to turn right off a main road. But the near misses were occasional and the benefits of cycling to work far outweighed the downsides.
Things have started to change though, which is strange because over the last couple of years cycling has become hugely more popular – particularly in London and in the area in which I live/work in East London.
While cycling has become more popular over the last few years it also feels like it’s become far more dangerous. I am having near misses regularly, and experience considerably more aggression from motorists. I am regularly run off the road by irritated, angry or oblivious drivers and am frequently verbally abused, often being told that I ‘don’t belong on the road’.
I’ve thought a lot about why this might be. There’s been much discussion over the last few months about cyclist safety, following a series of tragic accidents where 6 cyclists were killed in London within a fortnight. Every article, be it pro-cyclist or pro-car ended up the same – with a big debate in the comments section full of the same complaints. Motorists don’t look. They don’t indicate. Cyclists run red lights and don’t stop for pedestrians. Cyclists are too slow and get in the way. Motorists drive in bike lanes. Cyclists ride on pavements. Motorists kill baby seals. Cyclists steal the souls of first born sons. And so on.
I personally feel that part of the problem is this increasing media and Government rhetoric that pitches the cyclist in opposition to the motorist which actually creates conflict and defensiveness on both sides. Setting up cyclists and motorists against each other in to some sort of War of the Road is only going to exacerbate the problem and prevents meaningful change.
Personally I am a law abiding cyclist who obeys road signs and crossings and rides to the highway code. I find cyclists who run red lights and have no regard for other road users hugely frustrating. I also find pedestrians who run out in front of me on a red pedestrian light, and drivers who run red lights hugely frustrating. I don’t dislike ALL car drivers, or ALL pedestrians, or ALL cyclists simply because I witness SOME of them doing Really Stupid Annoying Shit. A rhetoric which encourages Group A to hate Group B (and vice versa) because some of the Other Group occasionally do Really Stupid Annoying Shit is unhelpful and ultimately dangerous. It has the effect that people can feel justified in shitty behaviour towards each other. A motorist feels it’s ok to cut in front of a cyclist or pass by too fast or too close because “fucking cyclists go through red lights bastards” and a cyclist feels it’s ok to scrape the side of a car or shout WANKER at someone because “fucking motorists never look and they all hate cyclists”. Don’t even get me started on the motorists who feel I shouldn’t be on the road because they “pay road tax”.
As a law abiding road user, I try to share the roads, and would like all road users to do the same, be they cyclists, motorists or pedestrians. I am fed up to the back teeth of every discussion – both in real life and online – of how to increase safety for cyclists being derailed by circular debates on who is the worst road user. Poor road use by some cyclists should not be an argument against putting in safer cycle routes or improving existing dangerous ones. Poor road use by some motorists should not be an argument for banning cars from certain areas. To be effective it is vital that changes to the transport infrastructure in London are made holistically; taking into account the needs of the most vulnerable road users (pedestrians and cyclists) as well as those of the majority of road users (car drivers) and the needs of London’s economy (public transport, delivery vehicles, HGVs). And I say that as a cyclist. A fully integrated transport system is possible, but to truly visualise what that could be like we have to drop the Them vs Us/Road Entitlement mentality.
Having said all that I am going to be a massive hypocrite, but this is my blog and I’ll do what I like, YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME. I have a few requests to make of my fellow road users, and to try to lessen the hypocrisy slightly I will make three requests from each group.
- It’s Stop, Look, Listen. Not Listen, I Can’t Hear Anything So I’ll Suddenly Step Off The Kerb With No Warning While Texting Oh Shit I’ve Just Been Hit By A Cyclist.
- Your child is not a canary. Please look before shoving your pushchair out into the road.
- A cyclepath is a CYCLEpath. The clue is in the name. No, I am not cycling on the pavement, and it’s not called Smallchildonascooterpath.
- They are called INDICATORS because they INDICATE. If you don’t INDICATE how is anyone to know where you’re going? Magical unicorn mind reading powers?
- Please learn what this sign means and stop making rude gestures at me for cycling down this street the opposite way to you.
- This is rule 163 of the highway code and it’s a good one. Please to be following.
- If you see this sign, GET OFF YOUR SODDING BIKE YOU BASTARD.
- Look behind you regularly, especially if you are planning to move to the right. It is possible that someone is trying to overtake you, and if it’s a cyclist you won’t hear them. If you’re listening to music on headphones you won’t hear anything at all, so how about you especially look behind you if you’re wearing headphones. Or just don’t wear them.
- Don’t go through red lights. They are either red to allow pedestrians to cross or to allow traffic to pass in the other direction. Also, it’s stupid and dangerous. Oh, and ILLEGAL.
I could go on, but I’d be here all night. And really, all of my bug bears and annoyances of other people on the road could be resolved thusly:
All road users:
- Obey the highway code
- Share the road
- Use some common sense.
Actually, I could boil that down to one rule, which I try to obey every time I am out on my bike:
- Don’t be a dickhead.
Thanks to Mr RPD for the punny title.