If I’d gone out looking for evidence of how differently people regard cyclists from how I regard myself, I could scarcely have done better than my experience this Saturday. In the afternoon, as I rode with my wife and my son along the Embankment in Central London, we encountered a crowd of pedestrians crossing the cycle track against the signal. “Watch out in the cycle track, please!” I shouted.
|The East-West Cycle Superhighway near Parliament Square:
site of the Invisible Visible Man's contretemps with
a group of pedestrians
Then, in the evening, I came across a trailer for Trigger Happy, a new series of Channel 4 comedy shorts. The first - Angry Cyclist - features helmet camera footage of the eponymous cyclist riding around streets. “Cycle lane!” he shouts at pedestrians, in imitation of precisely the tone I’d taken than afternoon. He then rides onto a section of pavement that is not, in fact, a cycle lane.
The video was only the latest evidence I’ve seen in recent weeks of how cyclists continue to be regarded in the UK - and possibly even more in the US - as a strange, fringe out-group whose behaviour is baffling and infuriating to others. Earlier in the week, I’d felt a similar sinking feeling when I saw Tweets by Mark Dennison, a presenter on BBC Nottingham, a local radio station, encouraging people to call his show. “Cyclists… what do they do that winds you up?” he asked. He later defended the transparently tendentious tweet as merely a way of encouraging a “balanced” debate.
The comedy short and Mark Dennison’s tweet both came across as belittling a group of people who, at least when sharing the roads with motor vehicles, are vulnerable and relatively powerless. They showed the depth of the chasm of misunderstanding between cyclists and others. While my request to the pedestrians on the Embankment would have seemed self-righteous or priggish to the makers of Trigger Happy, it was in fact motivated by fear. I was worried that, unless they got out of the way, my nine-year-old would be marooned in the roadway when motor vehicles restarted.
|The Invisible Visible Boy on his bike
in central London: a reason for concern I hope
even the haters can understand
The incidents have led me to query why so many people continue to find me and other cyclists so bafflingly alienating. It strikes me as an especially important question given that many cyclists, like me, believe their countries’ transport systems would work better if more people joined them by starting cycling. Current attitudes appear to be both a symptom and a cause of cycling’s remaining a niche activity, practised by a relatively small group of people.
I should say, first of all, that I understand at least a little bit of why Trigger Happy finds some cyclist behaviour funny. There is an underlying similarity to a lot of helmet camera video footage that cyclists post on YouTube. The cyclist is riding along a road - often at some speed - when a motorist does something stupid, dangerous and possibly malevolent. The driver’s behaviour is then held up for general condemnation in a tone that generally suggests the poster is standing, hands-on-hips shaking his head in shocked but unsurprised disbelief. I am sure that, while I don’t use a camera, my complaints about bad driver behaviour have a similar, rather priggish tone. I can see how someone might find it so predictable that it starts to seem a little ridiculous.
But the jokes become far less funny, it seems to me, the moment one starts to think about what shapes the culture that Trigger Happy and others hold up to ridicule. I’m surrounded by fast, aggressive cyclists on my morning commute down Clapham Road not because Londoners are by nature fast and aggressive when cycling but because the conditions have selected both who rides and how they do it. People who don’t feel capable of maintaining a steady 20mph are unlikely to feel comfortable riding down a wide, straight road in close proximity to drivers driving at 30mph and faster.
|Cyclists at the Oval on my route to work:
some clichés about London cyclists persist
because they're partly true.
The cyclists I see around me have been as surely shaped by their environment as giraffes have been by conditions on the savanna or the American bison by the high plains. People wear bright clothing and helmets because they hope they’ll help to prevent or ameliorate collisions with fast-moving motor vehicles. It takes both the skills of racing cycling and a road-racer’s appetite for risk truly to embrace this style of commuting. That point came home to me forcibly on Friday when a fellow cyclist, to my astonishment, slipped through the gap - of barely a metre - that I’d allowed myself when overtaking a bus. One especially stressful recent morning, I witnessed a blazing row between two fellow cyclists over an apparent near-collision caused, as far as I could tell, by excessive risk-taking by one of them. The argument continued over a considerable distance, being resumed as both stopped at successive junctions.
This environment explains one of the most frequently remarked upon issues about the demographics of London cycling - that cyclists disproportionately tend to be better off, whiter and more male than the city as a whole. In a car-centric city where people feel skill, knowledge and equipment are necessary to cycle commuting, it's hardly surprising that cycle commuters often come from the class of people who have the leisure and finance to develop the requisite cycling skills recreationally.
|A fairly typical bike path in London's
Docklands: experts can't work out why
cycling hasn't taken off here.
I’ve been struck recently by how even I, someone who’s cycled an average of nearly 4,000 miles a year for the last 13 years, feel a little spooked by conditions on much of my commute. I’ve had so many close passes from drivers after pulling out round stopped buses that I find myself increasingly stopping to let buses pull away. On Friday morning, a beautiful morning with nearly ideal conditions, I remembered well over half-way into my commute that I’d forgotten my security pass. I felt a frisson of fear as well as excitement when I realised I’d have to turn around and head home for it, even though I’d normally welcome the excuse to put in some extra miles.
There have, undoubtedly, been efforts to widen cycling’s appeal, both in London and New York, where I lived for four years until July. But Trigger Happy’s scoffing at cyclists’ tendency to shout at other road users about their rights highlights the big problem with many of them. Inadequate on-road cycle lanes, areas where cyclists and pedestrians share space and some quiet routes down parking-clogged back streets build in a significant level of conflict between cyclists and others. It might seem irritating to pedestrians to be asked please not to walk in a bike lane. But it is profoundly frustrating regularly to have to use spaces whose use is so unclear that other users obstruct cyclists unless specifically asked not to do so.
It should certainly surprise no-one that, in existing conditions, some cyclists are apt to break the road rules. If one knows, after all, that the traffic lights on a certain road are timed to suit drivers, not cyclists, and that a phalanx of drivers will chase after one the moment the lights change, the temptation to ride off through a red light and get away in peace can be very strong.
|Helmetless, relaxed tourists on the east-west cycle
superhighway: evidence of how conditions dictate who rides.
The way to shape this culture is not, it seems to me, to berate existing cyclists for being as they are but to create conditions that will encourage a different kind of cycling. I certainly feel very different during the brief period each day when I cycle on the protected north-south cycle superhighway from when I’m in a 20mph pack racing down a bus lane. Even small changes can have a big effect. While I still jostle drivers for most of my commute, there are now segregated bike lanes through Stockwell Cross and past Kennington Park, previously the riskiest parts of the route I take. It’s no coincidence, I think, that, since those improvements, I see the occasional couple cycling to work and holding hands at traffic lights. While lycra-clad men still predominate, I find my heart lifting over such normal, human moments.
Better conditions are even, I think, starting to generate different types of cyclists. For four weeks in July and August, when we first returned from New York, I rode each day from our temporary apartment down the Cable Street protected bike path in the East End and onto the east-west cycle superhighway. I couldn’t help noticing that, in a deprived area with such good facilities, I’d see some families of eastern European immigrants out getting about by bike. On Prudential Ride London weekend, when many streets in the capital were closed to motor vehicles, I vividly recall the sight that most raised my hopes for the future. Near Blackfriars Bridge, a Bangladeshi woman in Salwar Kameez clothes paused on her hire bike as she waited for her son to make his way up the hill from the Blackfriars underpass.
|The East-West Cycle Superhighway in
Parliament Square: politicians will be slow
to build more such facilities while
cyclists remain alien
Yet the challenge remains that, for the moment, many existing cyclists fit into the kind of stereotypical pattern that can prompt others to label us as “them”. That makes politicians reluctant to provide the kinds of facilities that would produce more obviously non-alien cyclists. It is certainly not surprising that London’s new, left-wing mayor is back-pedalling on his predecessor’s plans to encourage cycling. It is easy to understand his concern that his natural constituency of poorer voters will find themselves stuck on the bus while middle-class cyclists such as I zip by on new facilities and vote for his rivals.
Until that impasse is broken, however, London and other big cities will find that most of its cyclists are people prepared to face down sometimes naked aggression from motorists and even, sometimes, from frustrated pedestrians.