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The state we’re in: London cycling


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.

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  1. As a student in Dublin I regularly diced with death cycling in to uni. I found that these near-death encounters were considerably reduced when I a) learned to drive and so gave enough notice of manoeuvres and b) stopped letting myself be bullied into using the side of a lane. (I was always careful to obey the rules of the road btw).

    You wouldn’t catch me braving London traffic on a bike in a million years though. And Edinburgh’s bus drivers could do with a course of valium.

  2. The great cyclists-vs-drivers feud never creases to amaze me. Every time I come across a copy of my local paper (not very often) I check the letters pages to see if there’s another one from a disgruntled driver or curmudgeonly cyclist. Every single time, there’s at least one.

  3. I love cycling in London. the traffic, the rush the buzz of it. it’s the quickest way to get around, costs nothing and keeps me fit.

    But I do seriously worry about many of the riders on the road. I too see the white goast bikes and also watch some crazy and simply suicidal behaviour by cyclists. The positions they put their bikes into on the road are simply madness.

    It is not usually about them rushing and jumping lights it is about simple ignorance and lack of appreciation for the danger they are in. I used to be a push bike messenger in the city and wrote a post about sefety tips for urban cyclists that you may enjoy. You can read it here

  4. I completely agree: For driving to be accepted as a personal means of transport by any reasonable person, first drivers need to play by the rules.

    Once the more serious, more common, more deadly and more tolerated sin of speeding (which along with traffic density os the biggest predictor of road deaths btw) is properly dealt with, then we can start thinking about public health irrelevancies such as bicyc

  5. I completely agree, but…

    …once the more serious, more common, more deadly and more tolerated sin of speeding (which along with traffic density of the biggest predictor of (largely child pedestrian) road deaths btw) is properly dealt with, then we can start thinking about public health irrelevances such as bicycles skipping red lights etc.

    The recklessness of some cyclists is not disputed by me, but the frequency and severity of antisocial and deadly driving behaviour is so great that it is difficult to see it against the background it obscures.

    A background of quieter more pleasant public spaces is missing from dialogue because it is so difficult to imagine.