I am a cyclist.
I sometimes ride through red lights.
I do break speed limits. Not all the time, that depends on whether I have good legs or not.
I do wear lycra. I’ve got loads of the stuff.
I sometimes shave my legs, and sometimes I don’t know when to stop. I lost my eyelashes and brows once in a particularly frenzied shaving session.
I’m all for a massive increase in cycle lanes, everywhere…
I believe that far more people on bicycles and far less in cars is probably pointless with regards to saving out planet because we have properly and irrevocably f*cked it up but we have to try, goddammit.
And just because I’ve confessed to all this, no driver (or ‘person in car’) has the right to drive an inch from my beating heart – a move some drivers employ to express dislike of cyclists that is known, rather endearingly, as a punishment pass.
This article came about after I read a line in an article from the journalist Helen Pidd, and it came after an encounter with a man who said that he’d like to see all cyclists culled:
‘If I had my way I’d put all cyclists up against the wall and have them shot,’ said the lovely man…
Right, let’s look into some of these points and discuss whether drivers have a right to be angry with cyclists, whether we deserve to be dragged into the ‘culture wars’ and to be shot, and if, indeed, there is anyway we cam improve a steadily worsening situation.
RED LIGHTS AND SPEED LIMITS
My breaking of the rules on traffic lights and speed limits has caveats. I never ride through red in cities or towns or where pedestrians are crossing the road. I slow down and make sure no cars are approaching and often I do it because it is simply safer for me to do so. On particularly busy roads where motor vehicles are going at 60 km/hr plus, a speed I can only get to downhill, it is a necessity to get up to speed before the cars and scooters do so that I am not caught dawdling in the chaos of vehicles racing off the line.
I’m not endangering anyone’s life in this situation, I am simply trying to be sure I ensure mine.
As a seasoned cyclist, my sense of spatial awareness is high and better than the majority of non-cycling drivers, so these ‘risks’ I am taking are judged competently.
With regards to speed limits, I’ll break them out of the city and towns though I’ll never go haring through a built up area at 50km/hr when it’s a 30km/hr zone, and never ride in such a way that puts pedestrian safety at risk.
Not many of us do either of these things much anyway. This report states that “An average of 16% [of cyclists] violated red lights, whilst the remaining 84% obeyed the traffic signals. Therefore it can be concluded that the majority of cyclists do not ride through red lights.”
This UK YouGov survey found that 27% of London cyclists said they ignored red lights occasionally while another 8% said that they did so often, which is not such a massive number.
This article from Road.cc reports that from ‘2007-2016 no pedestrians were killed by cyclists jumping red, whilst around 5 a year were killed by drivers doing the same. For pedestrians hit by red light jumpers, just 7.6% of those were slightly injured and 5.4% of those seriously injured involved cyclists. The other 92-95% involved motor vehicles.’
LYCRA AND HELMETS
Sone drivers take affront at the clothing cyclists wear.
Sarah Mitchell, chief executive of Cycling UK, believes that our cycling-specific clothing leads some drivers to ‘other’ us.
“People can behave aggressively towards cyclists because they see them as dehumanised,” Mitchell said. “One of the things I feel I have a responsibility to do as a leader of Cycling UK, and as a woman, is to cycle around in ordinary clothes.”
I’ve often wondered if some drivers are secretly envious of slim road cyclists in their lycra and wish they could be out on a bike too, but are too embarrassed to try. Maybe there is an element of that to these things, but actually going to the lengths of wearing non-cycling specific clothing to ride – as an endurance cyclist and not someone who primarily uses the bike to get around town – is not something I would do.
But this goes deeper than lycra. It seems that wearing clothing to make us more visible (hi-vis vests for example) annoys drivers. A memorable study in 2006 concluded that drivers pass closer to cyclists that wear helmets.
Dr Ian Walker used a bike fitted with a computer and an ultrasonic distance sensor and found that drivers were twice as likely to get close to the bicycle if the rider was wearing a hemet, at an average of 8.5m.
The experiment recorded 2,500 overtaking motorists in Salisbury and Bristol and was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
Dr Walker said: “This study shows that when drivers overtake a cyclist, the margin for error they leave is affected by the cyclist’s appearance.
“By leaving the cyclist less room, drivers reduce the safety margin that cyclists need to deal with obstacles in the road, such as drain covers and potholes, as well as the margin for error in their own judgements.
“We know helmets are useful in low-speed falls, and so definitely good for children, but whether they offer any real protection to somebody struck by a car is very controversial.
“Either way, this study suggests wearing a helmet might make a collision more likely in the first place,” he added.
Whether a helmet will dave your life when hit by a car is not really the point here though. What is is that cyclists need to feel safe, and if that means wearing a helmet then so be it. To know hat it means drivers will drive more recklessly as a result is, well, just plain infuriating.
It’s a no-brainer surely? Ease congestion, improve air quality, get more people feeling safe so they can exercise, less people getting obese and in doing so save health care systems millions.
We are all for it yeah?
Well, no. In 2021 there was a big increase in the number of articles blaming bike lanes for increasing congestion in London. It seems maybe to make sense at first – cycle lanes take up valuable road space that should be preserved for cars, or so the theory goes. However this ‘theory’ falls apart on closes inspection.
Traffic works along the lines of the concept of induced demand. Basically, build more roads and more people will want to drive. Change a highway from two lanes to four will induce more to drive as the journey time is shorter – until the capacity of the new road to handle traffic is at its limit. Then what do we do? Build more roads, and we are off on this cycle again.
This video explains this very well:
And what happens when you increase the number of bicycle lanes? Car travel becomes slower as there is less space, and this is good, if more of those in cars leave them at home and ride in the city instead.
A CASUALTY OF THE CULTURE WAR?
Recently, the UK’s Transport Secretary, Grant Schnapps, suggested – as he un-deftly attempted to drag cycling into the culture war that defines the right wing political agenda – that all bicycles should have license plates. He later retreated from this proposal citing the fact that it would be unenforceable, but nonetheless it had support. A whopping 91% of 1,500 drivers polled by motoring campaign group FairFuelUK were for it.
The day after Schnapp’s proposal featured in the rag that is the Daily Mail, Nick Chamberlain, British Cycling’s policy manager, says calls to his office complaining of close calls with drivers kept increasing.
“Six different British Cycling members in different parts of the country told us they had a copy of that Daily Mail held out of a window at them that day, as they were abused,” said Chamberlin. “They were sworn at and in one case a lady was spat at, and there was various incomprehensible abuse of the ‘we’re going to get you’ type, and they had that paper waved at them.” Members also reported an increase in punishment passes.
The proportion of people in the UK saying they cycle at least once a month has fallen to just 13.1%, the lowest since records began back in 2015. Other reports state that though cycling increased through the height of the Covid pandemic, numbers are falling of late. This can be directly correlated to the fact that during the pandemic, the roads were safer as there were less cars on them, due to the increase in people working remotely and therefore not using the car to commute.
SHOULD WE STOP CALLING OURSELVES CYCLISTS?
When Chris Boardman became Manchester’s cycling commissioner in 2017, he decided he would no longer be photographed in lycra or wearing a helmet, and he believes we must work to move away from the idea of a cyclist being some ‘other’ being, and simply as a person on a bicycle.
‘A lot of people in this country – not other countries [debatable, see USA, Canada, Singapore etc] – see cyclists as middle-aged men in Lycra. I want it to be my daughter going to the park, and just moving around without having to drive. That’s an image that I think we need to prioritise,’ said Boardman.
‘Cycling is just lazy walking. That’s how we need to see it. That’s what it is in the Netherlands, where 60% of kids ride to school every day. They don’t do it because they’re cyclists. They don’t think of themselves as disciples. They just go to school and cycling is the easiest way to do it.’
And this is what must be done. Some people will fight any increase in cycling infrastructure, but we cannot please everyone all the time, and the reaction against increasing the number of people using bicycles in our towns and cities flies in the face of reason and facts, because we know the benefits that more people on bicycles and less in cars can and does bring.
HOW TO CHANGE ALL THIS
Only one way I can see. We must rise up, pocket pumps in one hand, bike chain in the other, and destroy all cars.
Or, we could educate. As part of the driving test, have a cycling component to it and and get people out on the roads on bikes to see it from the ‘person on a bicycle’s’ POV. That would be a start. But in truth I don’t see much hope of any significant change in the attitudes of people who hate – and it is hate in some cases – bicycles and people on them.
We can see what is happening to our environment and that we must embrace anything that will give us even the slightest chance in saving our planet – but then we have this tricky thing called human nature to deal with. Don’t hold your breath…
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