Perhaps it’s the congestion charge or the increased provision of cycling lanes, or maybe we’re inspired by high profile cyclists Boris Johnson and David Cameron, but cycling in London has risen by a staggering 70 per cent since the year 2000. Corresponding with this newfound popularity, the profile of London cycling has risen dramatically and, previously, a pursuit for the foolhardy, the joys and tribulations of a daily bicycle commute are now a favorite dinner party conversation topics for the chattering classes.
One feels that the British capital’s roads would sport even more cyclists were it not for lingering concerns over safety. There has been a recent upsurge in cycle related injuries as well as collisions with pedestrians. Stark reminders of the vulnerability of cyclists are the ‘ghost bikes’ which can be seen chained to railings at several major junctions across the city. If the amount of copy in national newspapers such as the Guardian is anything to go by, the lobbying power of cyclists is increasing and most of this is focussed on increasing safety. The majority of concerns are about careless driving and cycling organizations such as the CTC, the organisation formerly known by the rather quaint name of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, like to paint a picture of cyclists as a saintly breed, innocent victims of the negligence of others. A website has recently been launched to address this issue, its title drawn from the allegedly popular excuse for a near miss: “Sorry mate I didn’t see you”.
Users of the site are invited to document instances of bad driving. And yet, individual cases aside, anyone who uses London’s roads knows that this vision of cyclists as entirely innocent does not bear scrutiny. Occupying as they do a dim and ill-defined hinterland somewhere between motorised vehicles and pedestrians, strict adherence to the Highway Code seems not to have caught on. High visibility clothing and lights at night are eschewed. The conscience of the average London cyclist appears untroubled by flouting traffic lights and any visiting pedestrian will quickly learn, as residents already have, that many cyclists have no intention of stopping for crossings. One feels that the true motivation for some bike commuters are not those of pursuing alternative modes of transport, but rather that they could no longer go sufficiently fast in their cars.
The current distain shown by four wheels for two and two wheels for two legs can perhaps best be understood in two ways. Firstly as a competition between different groups for road space and speed, both scarce resources in an ancient and ‘un-designed’ cities like London and Dublin. It is a neat coincidence that when sociologists talk of the propensity of a societal group to mistreat those directly below it on the social ladder they talk of the ‘bicycling reaction’, so named as just like a cyclist the group bows to those in before it and kicks those below. The treatment of pedestrians by London cyclists is not so dissimilar. Secondly, some of the quasi-conflict appears to have its roots in class. Cyclists are predominantly from higher socio-economic groups who can afford to live within cycling distance of work. Conflict, then, as much about people seeking to demonstrate their difference from – and superiority to – others as it is to getting anywhere quickly.
It would be nice to see people improving their behaviour without police crackdowns or yet more Government leglisation – and before the current cycling paradigm becomes so engrained that it is part of the Londoner’s character. Cyclists will certainly get no encouragement to change from the CTC, which has written in support of cycling on pavements. Many seem to think that, simply by virtue of their being likely to come off worse from collision with a motorised vehicle, cyclists occupy the moral high ground. They do not. Cycling should be encouraged, but a sober reassessment of the behaviour of cyclists rather than blind support of their rights on the road would be the most appropriate.
Cycling has much in its favour: it is quick, cheap and increases fitness. As a result there are plans for a massive increase in cycling provision across Britain, but this will only work if cyclists begin to play by the rules. Boring, I know.
Also published on Forth.ie