Whenever a cyclist dies, and there have been 5 deaths in London in the past 10 days, there’s always a chorus of voices saying “yes, but they run red lights”. The word “They” is always a handy combat indicator of sloppy thinking. When you lump everyone who shares a characteristic, in this case people who use bicycles, together, you’re rarely expressing much more than brute prejudice.
I’ve explained in some detail why cyclists generate such ire in some drivers. But it’s the term “cyclist” which is problematic. There are many people on bikes. Few would self describe as “cyclists”, any more than most people driving cars would consider themselves “motorists” or even “drivers”. They’re just people listening to the radio while they get to work.
There are many tribes of cyclist. Just as there are many tribes of car-driver. Just as not everyone in a car is the kind of sub-human who chooses to drive a BMW twat-panzer right up your trumpet, not everyone on a bike is Lucas Brunelle.
Ignorning cycle lanes – The people who died in London seem to be disproportionately female, young, and they’re being killed in the bike lane, usually by large, left-turning vehicles. The dead cyclists aren’t by and large running red lights, over pedestrians, and into traffic. Those people aren’t the ones being killed. I can’t repeat that enough. The cyclists being killed are the ones behaving as the pedestrian and motorist think they ought. Cyclists are dying, not because they are taking risks, but because the infrastructure, such as it is, is badly designed and putting people in conflict with vehicles. The “filter lanes” at many junctions for example put cyclists on the left of left-turning lorries with tragic results. Many “cycle lanes” are full of parked cars which require a cyclist to repeatedly enter a stream of traffic. Each manoeuvre is a source of conflict. Many more cycle lanes take a cyclist into the “door-zone”.
The experienced “lycra lout” is well out of the way of these hazards by ignoring the “perfectly good cycle lane” and instead can be found “riding down the middle of the road”, a position known as “primary” to cyclists but “in my way” to motorists. Cyclists have a right to use the road, do not have to use a cycle lane, especially when it’s unsafe to use it. Motorists have no right to pass, nor do cyclists have an obligation to let them. It is unlikely in London, any delay can be attributed to a cyclist as the motorist will only overtake to the back of the next queue. Motorists should understand a cycle lane you can park in or drive into, isn’t a cycle lane at all.
Pavement riding – is anti-social. But anyone riding a bicycle on a pavement is almost by definition not a cyclist. They are people scared off the roads by vehicles. It is not something anyone self-describing as a cyclist would do. While I don’t cycle on pavements, I understand why some feel they have little choice. Roads are scary, cycle lanes inadequate and councils do cycle infrastructure on the cheap with “shared use” paths bringing cyclists and pedestrains into conflict. Whatever the prevalence of this problem, the risk to pedestrians is so grotesquely over-stated by anti-cycling dick-heads as to be ridiculous. The solution to pavement riding is to make the roads safe-enough so that the people who currently ride on the pavement feels safe enough to get back where (s)he belongs.
Smug and Self-Righteous, thinking they own the road – This is a staple of the journalistic cycle-hate piece. Apparently we’re “smug” and “self-righteous” for pointing out that the more confident and aggressive a cyclist is, the safer he is. Being meekly tucked up on the left, in the gutter, where the motorist wants us is by far the most dangerous place. It’s not “smug” or “self-righteous” to demand better behaviour from people who pose a mortal threat to me. The fact remains that a motorist annoyed by a cyclist “in the way” has at least seen me, and if his irritation stems from an inability to pass, then he’s not attempting a dangerous pass, so I am safer. Were I “out the way” in the gutter, amongst the potholes and broken glass, that motorist might be tempted to squeeze through, with potentially fatal results. Don’t blame the cyclist for doing what is necessary to stay alive. Blame the road engineer for building in conflict.
Red Light Jumping – yes. I occasionally run the red light. Generally when the pedestrians have gone, I go before the traffic to get a head start. If there are no pedestrians, I’ll judiciously roll over, if it is safe to do so. At large, complex junctions, or ones with multiple traffic phases, I’ll wait. Basically, I regard Red lights as advisory. I don’t care two hoots about “the law” which comes a distant second to my safety. Where the infrastructure is good, and the design clear, I’ll obey the rules. Where the infrastructure has been designed without thought to my safety or comfort, I’ll make my own way, thanks. It’s not as if motorists don’t break the rules. “Amber Gambling” is red-light jumping by another name, and everyone does it. Speed limits are not (to put it mildly) rigorously observed. I’ll obey every red light, when every car overtaking me slows down and passes with at least 1-2m. The fact is jumping a red light is nowhere near as dangerous to the cyclist as it appears to the motorist. I’ll say again, the red-light jumping lycra-nazi is NOT the cyclist dying on London’s roads. Feel like making a comment here? I’m not interested in your anecdotes about “a cyclist you saw…”. Any such comments will be deleted.
They wear black/don’t use lights – riding without lights after dark is illegal and rightly so. But any requirement on cyclists to wear high-viz clothing must be resisted, for the same reasons as mandatory helmets must be resisted. Demanding cyclists wear unsightly high-viz clothing denormalises cycling and makes cyclists an outgroup. Some motorists don’t see a person on a bike, but a “cyclist” and are tempted to “punish” that member of the out-group for the perceived transgression of another with a close pass. People should be able to cycle in normal clothes as they do on much of the continent which will improve motorist behaviour. There is evidence that cyclists (especially female cyclists) on upright bikes, dressed in street clothes and without helmets are treated better by motorists probably for this subliminal reason.
They think they’re saving the world – This is just pure projection. I’ve never met a cyclist for whom environmental concerns outweigh the financial, health and fun (yes, most of us ENJOY cycling to work) elements of cycling. It’s undeniable though. A cyclist isn’t contributing to road wear, pollution, congestion, noise or taking up much parking space. A town in which there are lots of cyclists, and few cars is happier, healthier, wealthier, and simply a nicer place to be. Houses next to an upgraded bicycle lane rise in value, those next to an upgraded road, fall. Bicycles are undeniably better urban vehicles than cars.
I am sure there are some cyclists killed will have in some way, through recklessness or intoxication contributed to the situation in which they died. But they will be a small minority, and certainly far fewer than incidents where motorist recklessness, aggression or intoxication contributed to the fatality. Most of these people would have been calmly riding to or from work, and simply been crushed by a big vehicle as they meekly took what they thought was supposed to be a “cycle superhighway”. The road shouldn’t guide people into lethal road positioning. Inexperience shouldn’t be lethal. Addressing driver inattention or misbehaviour and poorly designed roads are whole orders of magnitude more important in saving cyclists lives than addressing cyclist misbehaviour, a problem which exist mainly in the minds of angry, stressed motorists.
Yet every death ends up with a debate with motorists about red-light jumping; mere ‘whataboutery’ to deflect debate away from the elephants in the room – rubbish infrastructure and the attitudes of some drivers. Even more disappointing to hear Boris Johnson give air time to the trope that it’s beholden upon cyclists to obey the rules, when in many cases, it’s the rules that’s killing them. The fact remains the consequences of bad behaviour in 2 tons of steel capable of 100mph is vastly greater than the consequences of bad behaviour on 15lbs of steel at 30mph. There is no moral equivalence between cyclist’s bad behaviour and motorists bad behaviour, because the former is largely borne by the perpetrator, whereas the consequences of the latter are not borne by the motorist.
Proper infrastructure, which does involve taking space away from the motor vehicle, will make cyclists safer, and reduce conflict to everyone’s benefit. 25% of rush-hour traffic in some areas of London is now bicycles. By numbers alone, cyclists now deserve proper safe infrastructure.
Update: As I wrote this, a further cyclist has been killed in London, bringing the total to 6 in 11 days.