Tuesday, 15 April 2008

The Hazards of Cycling in British Society

I suppose one of the benefits of driving through an area with a bigoted radio presenter spouting out his views as if he was a talk radio 'shock jock' is that it stimulates me to comment in a way that probably would not happen if the man just got on with his job and played tunes and reported on the traffic. Yes, I am back in the area with that man again and today he was slagging off cyclists. Probably quite a safe thing for him to do on morning radio as the bulk of his listeners will be in cars or the kitchen and not on their bicycles. I was going to email the man directly but I guess there is little point, he is so mired in his prejudices that it would take a miracle to excavate him from them.

Now, it is interesting how much difference 3-4 years makes. If I had started this blog in 2003 or 1999 you probably would see lots of postings about my latest cycling trip around London or Buckinghamshire probably illustrated by photographs scanned in of where I had been. In those days cycling was one of my keen hobbies. I was never one of these people who got out to do his 50 miles no matter what the weather was. I preferred to cycle in good weather if I could help it and I always had a target something like a stately home or a beauty spot or at least a pub for a nice lunch. I would do 25-40 miles on a Sunday and enjoy not only getting out on quiet roads (yes they do exist in Britain) but also a sense of achievement at a time when I felt I was achieving little. I was not fast enough to be a member of a club (in my town of the 2000s you had to be able to sustain 15mph (24kph) for 50 miles (80km) and I could not achieve much beyond 10-11mph average. However, that did not matter, what I did do, I enjoyed. I would spend two weeks in June cycling in northern France, seeing really beautiful landscapes and eating very well too. It could be tough and got harder as my health got screwed up but looking back, as with most things, I see the good points. Having failed with a different type of holiday this year, I am going to revert to that kind of holiday in 2009 and am thinking of the Champagne or Burgundy regions, parts of France I have never visited as yet.

Anyway, it is that context that I write this posting. Drivers hate cyclists but a lot of the time it is on the same basis that they hate small car drivers. Most drivers feel they are the best on the road and think everyone should get out their way. They do feel a twinge of guilt when they see a cyclist because they know actually they are polluting the environment far more than a cyclist. They also feel guilty because they know that that man (and sometimes woman) is far fitter than them and likely to live longer. Drivers always fall back on tarring all cyclists with the same brush as the worst (and yet get upset if we tar all drivers the same way). There are cyclists who jump red lights and who do not have lights on their bicycles at night-time; yet who is it that comes off worse in any such encounter between a cyclist and vehicle. I know to most car drivers that a scratch on their paintwork is more important to them than the life of another human, but I have yet to hear a case in which a cyclist killed a car driver in an accident where as the reverse is extremely common (I remember a poster which stood out showing a cyclist's teeshirt with 'soft vehicle' in the style of those 'long vehicle' signs on lorries, on it. In that case recently of a drive who killed a cyclist whilst she was texting while driving a lot of the commentary was how hazardously the cyclist was supposed to be travelling, not that the woman was behaving so dangerously that she killed someone without noticing! Getting on a bicycle automatically makes you a focus of blame; getting in a car somehow excuses you even from murderous behaviour. Cyclists who ignore the issues of safety and the basics of the Highway Code put themselves and others at risk and should be condemned by all road users. However, the foolish actions of a few should not then provide a carte blanche for attacking all cyclists.

People say that why do cyclists not use cyclepaths where they exist (by these I mean separate routes rather than painted off sections along the side of the road), well it is because they are always covered in broken glass and most of them going in ridiculous, time wasting directions. Milton Keynes has loads of cycle paths, but they were drawn on a map by someone who wanted pretty spiral patterns not to provide an effective way to reach somewhere. They contrast sharply with grid road system in the city. I only found one cycle path that actually saved a cyclist time compared to going on the roads (which as hazardous in Milton Keynes as the in-city speed limit bar on one road and in the real city core is 70 mph (112kph) which madly is the same as a motorway) because randomly it went diagonally across a block. Most of the cyclepaths took longer and were often over hillier terrain than taking the road. I took the cyclepaths from South Milton Keynes to an area near the North end (about 8 miles (12.8 kph)in distance) and did the same journey via the roads and on the roads it was 25 minutes quicker and far less tiring as the road cut through the long hills rather than going right up the side of them. Cyclepaths are fine if you just want to tour around, they are no good if you actually want to get somewhere.

People complain about how cyclists signal, i.e. by putting their arms out. Well, to me this is far clearer than a pale blinking light on a car. You can always see where a cyclist who is behaving properly wants to go. In fact what the car drivers are complaining about is that they want the cyclist to be simply out of the way. Most drivers I meet do not realise a cyclist has the right to go into a right-hand lane at a roundabout if they want to go right (if you are reading this outside the UK, Japan or Australia, think left-hand lane to go left) and they will hoot and shout at you, when in fact you are simply obeying the Highway Code. Like a car or van or motorcycle, as a cyclist you are another road user. Car drivers want you to use lights and stop at traffic lights in line with the law, but then they do not want you actually to get into the proper lane for the manoeuvre you want to do. It is frightening enough trying to navigate around a large roundabout without ill-informed, arrogant people bellowing at you. Of course, many car drivers never signal at all whether going round a roundabout or changing lanes on the motorway or turning into a side road, they just do it and seem to think it is alright.

Drivers complain about cyclists travelling two abreast. Well, I think the only reason why they despise this is because it makes it far harder to push the cyclists into the gutter. Two cyclists abreast is still narrower than the average car let alone a 4x4, so just overtake. One noticeable thing in the UK which is in sharp contrast to cycling in France or elsewhere across Europe, especially Belgium and the Netherlands, is how much space car drivers give cyclists. Many British drivers wobble all over their lanes anyway, but they think a reasonable amount of space to leave a cyclist when overtaking them is nothing (and they only think about the physical space, not how much their passing sucks up the cyclist with its wind and so complain about this reflective bars protruding from bicycles, less popular now than in the 1980s). They resent turning the steering wheel that miniscule amount to move a decent distance around a cyclist. French, Belgian, Dutch drivers all pull out as if they were overtaking another car, British drivers do not. I once cycled, one glorious sunny day along the road from Bolougne to Calais in northern France. This was on the coast road so pretty quiet as most people stick to the motorway in land if they want to get somewhere. However, some people take this route for the stunning views and by the time I reached Calais I could tell you the nationality of the driver approaching me from behind before they had even passed me. The British all seemed to want to strip my panniers off my bicycle they came so close, even though there was never a car coming in the other direction. No British driver will give a cyclist the width of their body let alone a safe distance, and again it stems from British drivers seeing others unlike themselves as scum that it is fine to kill.

This issue of space on the roads even occurs when there are cycle lanes marked out along the side of roads. These are very common in many UK towns and I naturally stick to them, because they go along the way the road is going and get you where you want to be in reasonable time. Many have boxes marked out at traffic lights which allow cyclists to get in the correct position to turn right (i.e. in the UK across the flow of traffic). Once in Whitechapel, east London I was waiting at a traffic light, sitting in one of these boxes. I wanted just to go straight on so was on the side by the pavement. As the cyclist box was ahead of the cars I was peripherally aware of a large car behind me. I set off heading straight on as intended. Suddenly a short way up the road a 4x4 pulls across in front of me, blocking the cycle lane and mounting the pavement. The driver leaps from it swearing at me, trying to snatch my bicycle and trying to punch me. My 'crime' had been to go straight on when he wanted to turn left, somehow I had 'blocked' him from powering away down the side road and so was deserving of being beaten up. Of course I powered away from him leaving him away from his car and unable to get back to it to catch up. I just hoped it had all been caught on CCTV. This incredible arrogance, this assumption that somehow I was out to ruin his day by him having to slow up for a few seconds and that needed me to be punished by violence shows how distorted the world has become. (That was not the first time I was threatened on my bicycle, the first time a man almost reversed into me from his driveway and when I shouted at him to be more careful, he also blocked the road leapt out and started trying to punch me.) Cyclists, to the average driver, we are scum worthy of a beating (just this week someone reached out of a passing car and pushed a 42-year old man off his bicycle: Why? What offence was he causing? He is just a human), not humans just trying, like them, to simply get somewhere. Most drivers clearly only read tiny bits of the Highway Code and have no recognition that actually it is about all road users. I have never ridden a horse, but I am sure many horseriders would simply echo these sentiments. (My favourite joke when passing a group of horseriders when on my bicycle, especially climbing a hill was to say 'I know how they feel').

Another criticism of cyclists is that they look ugly and should not be in lycra shorts. Well there is a simple riposte to that, have you seen the average car driver? At least a cyclist is using their body and even if going aty the slowest speed is getting a lot more exercise than a car driver and at less cost to the world. People disparage cyclists who dress up in team colours, but somehow fat men in football shirts and drivers with Ferrari stickers or baseball caps are exempt from such negativity. People like to associate with a team, cyclists no less than anyone else. Why is there one rule for one set of people and another for a different set?

The dangers that cyclists face stem from an endemic problem in Britain. The boorish, arrogant, consumerist and self-centred section of the population are the ones who define our culture. They kill. They kill cyclists and pedestrians because they are so wrapped up in their egos. Cyclists do not stand around car parks ridiculing the obese as they cram themselves into their cars, they get on with their lives and let other people live theirs. If British culture was more defined by the cyclists (and walkers) of this country not only would it be safer and healthier, but finally we might begin to reduce the level of hatred that the average Briton has for the ordinary people they encounter every day. When radio presenters try to stir up even more hatred against cyclists they simply damage British society (which they profess to love) even further.

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