Sunday, 4 October 2009

Pavement/Road; Road/Pavement?

When I was a boy back in the 1970s it was clear that the only people allowed to ride a bicycle on the pavement was the postman and even he was not permitted to pedal the bicycle, he had to stand on one pedal and freewheel. Back then you were not allowed to cycle on the road until you had passed your cycling proficiency test which was usually taken around the age of 8-10 years old. So there was a period when you had outgrown the pull-along tricycle of a toddler and were on a 'proper' bicycle and yet could only ride in the park or ironically in car parks. I remember being 10 and having cycled along the canal path to the neighbouring town with some friends. We decided to cycle back through a housing estate, but not having passed my cycling proficiency test yet (I think I did it the following Autumn when I returned to school) I was apprehensive about cycling on the road and so while my more daredevil friends cycled down what were in fact very quiet roads leading simply to housing, I cycled on the pavement. We had barely entered the estate when a man probably in his 30s called us to him and questioned me at length about why I was cycling on the pavement and when I explained about the cycling proficiency test he told us we had to leave the estate and go back along the canal and that I should not think about coming to that town until I had passed my test. Highly embarrassed, we complied with what he said.

The criticism of cyclists daring to cycle on the pavement could even extend to crossing less than a metre of pavement. My parents' house like many in their street stands a metre or so above the level of the road, which for some historic reason is 'sunken' for quite a lot of its length. To access the house, you drive up a ramp about as long as single car, across the pavement and on to their driveway, which again, is about the length of a single car. Of course most people who park their cars in garages or porches or driveways next to their house have to cross the pavement when leaving and entering. Pedestrians can get upset about waiting for the car to get clear but generally make no complaint. For bicycles doing the same, certainly when I was a teenager, it was deemed to be sufficient to shout at the cyclist.

A few years after the above incident when I was a teenager with my cycling proficiency under my belt. I left the garage, got on my bicycle, cycled along the stretch of drive and crossed less than a metre of pavement on to the ramp intending to go on to the road. However, because I cycled across those centimetres of pavement a middle-aged couple a short distance away bellowed at me for cycling on the pavement. They expected me to get off and push my bicycle over that short stretch, in fact less than the length of the bicycle itself. I did not run them down or even cycle near them but they were indignant that I had dared cycle across that small piece of pavement. These days they would probably be terrified that a teenager would knife them, I suppose. My elderly next door neighbour was marginally more tolerant, but sitting in my bedroom (at the front of the house) my reading on summer days would be disrupted by him shouting that he was going to summon the police as pre-teenage children cycled past him on the pavement. While I feel young people should be challenged on their behaviour the target of the criticism seems poorly decided upon.

Even as recent as the mid-1990s I was staying in a town and read in a local newspaper that a man had been fined £25 for cycling across a market place in the evening when the market was closed. I went passed that market on a number of occasions and aside from a few official buildings in the centre there were very few structures there when the market was closed and it was empty of people, a cyclist could proceed without hitting anyone or anything, yet that was not the point, he had broken the law and was fined for it. Of course, the man could have wheeled his bicycle across the market place; going by the road meant going through a four-lane one way system that cars hared around. He must have crossed the market in a matter of seconds and there was no-one there, except I presume the police officer who arrested him (there were no on-the-spot fines in those days). Subsequently on a couple of occasions I rode around the market place at night time almost as a dare for someone to come and arrest me. I have cycled a great deal in my life and wherever I have gone I have taken safety of myself and other road users as the prime concern.

These days things are very different and it seems the dividing line between vehicles on the road and those on the pavements has become muddied. I was almost mowed down by a cyclist, a fully grown man, hurtling down the pavement outside a row of shops this morning, seemingly challenging people to get out the way. Conversely on two occasions I have been driving in a queue of cars tailing elderly people on four-wheeled electric vehicles as they make their way slowly along the road. On the other hand in Milton Keynes in the early 2000s I remember there was uproar from the council (who had the oddest attitudes of any council I have lived under and that is saying something) about 'speeding' electric buggies in the shopping centre. These vehicles can reach a top speed of almost 13kph (8mph), twice the speed most people walk at and apparently the honest shoppers of Milton Keynes felt intimidated by them. These buggies are driven by elderly and disabled people, to me it only seems just that they should have a little power over these indignitaries who power around at dangerous speeds in their 4x4s (especially in Milton Keynes where most main roads have a speed limit of 70mph, the highest of any urban roads in Europe). Speed limits and fines were being introduced for electric buggies when car drivers were hurtling about.

I can understand the challenge for people on bicycles and on electric buggies. With the speeds many people are doing even on residential roads (my road is 30mph, but cars often do 50mph+ with impunity) you can understand why cyclists stay on the pavements. Most car drivers do not understand cyclists' signals and certainly do not understand that on a multi-laned road or at a roundabout, a cyclist should be in the right-hand lane to turn right. Cyclists are hooted and even pushed off by car drivers who resent their presence. Twice on my bicycle I have had people get out of cars and come to attack me because they felt I had got in their way. There is a whole liberal middle class vs. bigoted lower middle/working class thing going on here too. In the old days workers cycled to work but now they tend to drive or take public transport and cycling is seen as simply something that woolly-headed liberals who let in immigrants do. A lot of the abuse you get shouted from cars comes from this, that 'real' men do not cycle it is left to the 'poofs' (i.e. effeminate men) or the 'dykes' (lesbians, particularly butch ones). In these car drivers' views 'proper' people need the biggest car they can afford, to be obese and to drink and drive. Contrast this to neighbouring countries, for example in France where the average truck driver is out with the cycling club on a Sunday and cheers along cyclists he passes, giving them lots of space and warning them of his approach. In London, in contrast, lorry drivers are by far the single largest group of cyclist killers.

Some of the cyclists who have been killed over the past few years include Emma Foa, aged 56, crushed by a lorry, the driver Michael Thorn, aged 54, of Headley Down, Surrey was fined £300 and allowed to keep his licence. Just this month Chrystelle Brown, aged 26, a fitness instructor and cyclist was killed in Whitechapel right near where a motorist attacked me, she was dragged for 100 metres by the vehicle. This August, Harry Wilmers aged 25, was killed on his bicycle in South Manchester. In 2006 18 cyclists were killed in London by motor vehicles. You do not have to search far to find cases of cyclists pushed off and beaten up by people and of fatalities not just in London but smaller towns too. A drink driver, David Mark Chandler, aged 41, from Arthington Lane, Otley, who killed a cyclist in Pool, Yorkshire had 50% more alcohol in his blood stream at the time he killed Stephen Granger, aged 50, in December 2007. Chandler perverted the course of justice by concealing the evidence of his involvement. He was sentenced to 4.5 years for killing Granger, but in February 2009 this was cut to 3.5 years and his driving ban reduced from 10 years to 5 years! He had drunk at least 6 pints of beer before driving into Granger and did not stop and even look for the body. If he had shot or stabbed or punched Granger to death he would be in prison for at least 14 years if not longer. Cars, vans and lorries are the weapons that you can use with hardly any come back. The killing of cyclists ironically takes the healthiest people who are doing least damage to the environment and lets off those who are most dangerous and damaging. How can we promote healthy lifestyles and reduce the impact of carbon dioxide emissions if we allow cyclists to be killed in such numbers and barely punish the killers? Researching this I found that people get fined for cycling across Smithfield Market in London despite there being a clear thorougfare and the roads around being hazardous.

It is no surprise then that cyclists ride on the pavement. The reason why electric buggy riders go on the road. This is because the pavement is so cluttered. Navigating around the wheelie bins, the cars parked up on the kerb, the bumps left by the cable television and other installations and mothers pushing vast pushchairs, it is very difficult to proceed in a buggy as unlike on a bicycle you cannot get off and wheel it along. In addition, with cyclists not on the road you have them on the pavement to rival with the buggies. I admire elderly and disabled people who take their buggies on the road, they take their lives into their hands and I salute them for their courage. As yet I have not heard of electric buggy riders being mown down by lorries or cars, I suppose because unlike with the cyclists, the drivers can envisage their granny in a buggy and so hang back. I like the fact they slow up the traffic in residential areas, as too many people drive too fast through them (another wall has been demolished close to my house by a car tearing into it at speed). It reminds me of 'The Straight Story' (1999), a movie based on a true story about an elderly man driving a garden tractor from Iowa to Wisconsin in the USA to visit his brother. The tractor cannot exceed more than a few miles per hour and naturally he builds up a trail of cars behind him as many buggy riders do around my way.

So, we have bicycles you would have once only found on the road now being forced to be ridden on the paverment and electric buggies you would expect on the pavement out in the road. I will set aside the occasions when I have had people driving up the pavement as a short cut as happened to me when walking along the Mile End Road in East London one day and right by a primary school at that. I simply stood in front of the car, but the driver dodged round me on the pavement and continued where he insisted on going, road or no road. More common is pedestrians walking in the road. I do not mean in rural areas, I mean in urban areas where there is a perfectly good (if cluttered) pavement. No-one seems to be able to tell me whether this is a cultural thing as the people who I see walking down the road are either Korean or Afro-Caribbean and are generally women. Are there some countries where it is hazardous to walk on the pavement? Is it that women are not supposed to? I do not know and would be grateful if someone would tell me. In my neighbourhood, despite the fast driving cars, many women would rather walk along the side of the road down street after street than ever go on the pavement. I am surprised not more of them are hit by these dangerous drivers who seem incapable of avoiding inanimate objects such as lamp posts, walls and railings.

I suppose overall the rules for new vehicles such as the ever larger and more sophisticated electric buggies are ill-defined and in general most people whether drivers, cyclists or pedestrians are ignorant of the Highway Code. Signalling seems to be something that has died out no matter what vehicle you are on or in (the 7-year old from my house, today commented that a woman cyclist was making signals in the 'old fashioned way' that I do). The other thing is the constant bane of any activity on the roads and that is the bulk of road users think they are the only thing that is important and everyone else should get out their way or suffer the consequences; they believe signs and speed limits do not apply to them because they are particularly 'experienced' or 'skilled'. Using roads is not a solitary activity. The moment you go on a road or even just step on to a pavement you become part of a complex machine in which real people are involved, people who can easily be injured or killed. If more road users saw their journeys in that way and reacted accordingly, with tolerance, patience and attention to detail (or as on a road safety award my brother once received 'Care, Courtesy and Consideration') then the news of tragic deaths we read about and witness would not be on hundreds of websites and impacting on scores of people across the UK.

P.P. Having written this posting, I turned to read 'The Guardian'. As regular readers know, that arse of a columnist, Simon Hoggart infuriates me constantly with his stupidity and gives me fuel for this blog. As I have commented before Hoggart seems determined to do all he can to increase pollution and damage the environment, particularly though his idiotic opposition to wind turbines. This week he has turned again on cyclists who seem to be perceived as a legitimate target for liberal (though I would hardly categorise Hoggart as this) and right-wing writers. He spends two paragraph attacking cyclists using a cycle path. He complains one cyclist in Brighton shouted 'cycle path!' at him which he equates with 'psychopath' and he lumps all cyclists together with those who he argues are always 'aiming for - then just missing - old people, mothers with pushchairs, toddlers ...' as if cyclists actually drive around trying to hit people. He observes these who are a minority do not actually hit any pedestrians, unlike car drivers who killed 13 child pedestrians in London alone in 2008; 8 in 2007.

In total in the UK 572 pedestrians (down 11% on 2007) were killed in 2008, the only good news is that the figure is declining, with a decline of 19,000 deaths on the road over what would have been expected 15 years ago. Cyclist injuries rose 1% 2007-8, though deaths were down at 115; child deaths on the road (this includes children who are passengers in cars) rose from 121 in 2007 to 124 in 2008. Effectively fewer car and lorry drivers are killing each other, they are still killing other more vulnerable people. I suppose I should be grateful because the UK has the lowest number of accidents in the EU, alongside Sweden. However, having cycled in continental Europe this surprises me as I have had far fewer 'incidents' in which I have been hit on a bicycle and certainly none of the physical violence I have faced in the UK.

Hoggart should get off the cyclists' case. There are far more dangerous people out there than people cycling legally in Brighton. However, he is constantly indignant at anyone who wants to move away from dirty fuel consumption to a cleaner, more sustainable approach. Maybe he is financially backed by an oil company because I can see no rational explanation for his attitude, particularly when writing in 'The Guardian' which has vehemently supported the 10:10 campaign on climate change recent weeks.

P.P. 09/10/2009: I guess that it is because I am not driving so much now I have become unemployed, clearly there is a new trend in driving cars that I had underestimated. While I had witnessed someone driving a car on the pavement once in the 6.5 years I lived in London, today both on foot and while in a car myself I have seen three motorists driving for between 10-50 metres down a pavement. Generally they have one pair of wheels still on the road, but in all three cases more than three-quarters of the width of the car was on the pavement. The slowest was doing 20mph, the fastest something over 40mph (actually violating the speed limit for the 'road' they were driving down, anyway). When did such behaviour become acceptable? Is this the impact of motor-racing console games or car-based criminal games like 'Grand Theft Auto'? It is hazardous enough being a pedestrian in the UK but now it seems that car drivers are not even going to let you keep to the pavement. I suppose this is the ultimate manifestation of the common expectation among drivers that everyone else should simply disappear.

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