We all deserve better

Another day, news of another fatality, the fifth in just nine days and another at Aldgate, on or near CS2. I’m genuinely speechless about this. I’m upset. I’m angry. I’m frustrated.

It doesn’t have to be like this, but the hollow promises of the ‘Go Dutch’ and similar campaigns cannot be allowed to continue.

For years I’ve laughed off talk from friends and family of the dangers of cycling; I’ve always thought of myself as road aware, decently savvy on the streets, that the thousands of miles I do annually, the tens of thousands of miles I’ve cycled on London’s roads over the last couple of decades have given me a few extra senses. To a significant extent, that’s true. I’ve had many close calls but very few collisions, the last time I had unintended physical contact while riding – with the road or another vehicle – was several years ago and even that was a minicab running a red light, so I’m especially conscious of those complaining about the ubiquitous red-light-jumping cyclist.

We can generally ignore the inane witterings of Rod Liddle, most reasonable thinking people see cycle commuting in London for what it is – just ordinary people trying to get to work.

For me madness is being crammed like sardines into the tin cans of tubes and trains when there’s (mostly) fresh air and exercise to be had on your bike. It’s cheap, it’s quick, it doesn’t contribute to the crap air quality of London, it frees up space on public transport

The roads might not have been built for cars in the beginning, but they have certainly been redesigned for them in recent decades. Our 21st century road system is increasingly unfit for its cycling purpose.

There are junctions in London right now, like Blackfriars Bridge, where the majority of rush-hour traffic are bikes. Why are HGVs even allowed there at the same time? We need segregation at major junctions, not being asked to dodge 3 lanes of motorised traffic so we can turn right, not having to share what provisions we do have with illegal motorbikes. I’m sure the HGV drivers don’t like the bikes swarming around where they can’t see them, either.

I’m off to make another donation to RoadPeace and to apparently count myself lucky that I made it to work in one piece again.

If five pedestrians had been killed in the last nine days there’d be questions in parliament and front page headlines, special programmes on the TV. But because it’s the roads, the carnage out there is just something we’re expected to tolerate and put up with.

This isn’t about red light jumping, whether to wear helmets and hi-viz jackets, or some smug sense of middle aged lycra clad entitlement. This is just about making London – and the UK – more pleasant places to exist. A city choked by motor vehicles where the inhabitants travel around feeling physically intimidated and consistently let down by the elected (and unelected) powers that be.

Cyclists deserve better. London deserves better. We all deserve better.

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Dear Mr Policeman, you’re in the road

It’s a normal morning, the traffic is reasonable, the roads are a little damp, but what wind there is is, gratifyingly, mainly a tail. So far, so typical.

I’m ticking along the Embankment just along from the Chelsea Physic Garden. There’s a car next to me who I’ve been tracking for about half a mile and a lorry just in front of us. I’m being cautious with the lorry but the traffic is slowing ahead because of the lights on the south end of Chelsea Bridge, so I do go up his nearside. The visibility is good, he’s not obviously making any leftward intentions and I’m mindful that while this isn’t always advisable, I’m carrying enough speed that I’ll only be beside him for a couple of seconds and there seems to be plenty of space.

So now I’m in front of him and, as there often is, there’s a police check of some description in the lay-by behind the Royal Hospital.

So there’s a copper who has decided that the lorry behind me is to be pulled over. Pop-quiz, what does he do? Yes, children, he walks straight out into the road in front of me. Now, we all know that’s dangerous, don’t we?

Dude, you're in the road
A policeman doing his job. But doing it in the road. My road.

Nice work fella. I’m doing 35kph+, it’s reasonably light by now and I’m well lit; there is no excuse. You give me about 18 inches of gap, but you are still moving out and you’re not even looking at me. You give me no indication that you are treating me safely, you’re waving at the lorry and moving to intercept him, through me.

You’ve got a job to do, but that is a classic example of what cyclists have to put up with. This traffic cop has no empathy with my situation; most drivers don’t.

That road is a busy cycle route into town and, at that time of the morning, is chock full of both cyclists and vehicles. Not that this copper apparently understands that.

[Video to follow.]

Sticking up for the vulnerable road user

When bloggers aren’t ranting, they’re apologising for breaks in transmission. Quite a break.

I’d been meaning to mention the early day motion EDM 407 for a while and the other day, after reading this, I finally wrote the following to my MP:

Dear Stephen Hammond,

As one of your constituents who cycles, I am wondering if you are planning on supporting EDM 407? It attempts to raise the profile of victims of road accidents, in particular, that cyclists are often not given enough support by the justice system.

I would be interested in your opinions on the related concept of ‘strict liability’, where vulnerable road users are automatically considered the innocent party unless it can be proven otherwise. Obviously there are numerous road users, whether cyclists, pedestrians or motorists, who flagrantly disobey various traffic laws and the Highway Code on a daily basis, but the majority are law abiding. For every uninsured, speeding motorist, red light jumping cyclist or headphone-wearing pedestrian crossing the road without looking, there are many more normal people just going about their day.

Over 80 cyclists have been killed on Britain’s roads this year. If a terrorist group had been that ‘successful’ the country would be in uproar.

I’ve cycled nearly 5000 miles in the last year (and driven a similar amount) and I can assure you that the UK’s roads are not fit for purpose. To many times cyclists and motor vehicles are forced together: many cycle lanes just disappear moments before a junction, in shared bus lanes motorbikes zoom past a few inches from your ear and every advanced stop zone is so full of mopeds that cyclists can rarely get a look in.

Cycling is cheap, convenient and healthy, but when my wife would rather drive the half mile to the butchers on Leopold Road rather than take one of our our young children on the back of a bike because of the danger, it has got to change.

I want my children to be able to cycle safely in London – to go to school by bike, to think that cycling is normal, to not have to be driven everywhere and contribute to the problem.

The current situation is untenable and successive governments have failed us all. The roads are crammed with cars – either parked or in queues – because most people can’t imagine an alternative. They would rather get in their car and exacerbate the problem than risk their life and the lives of their children on the roads of Wimbledon, Merton, London and the rest of the UK.

Yours sincerely,

See you next year, probably.

Life in the slow lane

For a couple of mechanical reasons I had cause to travel a little slower this morning, nothing too major, I just wanted to be able to stop more steadily (a small bulge in my front tyre and a desire not to clip it with the front brake blocks mainly).

So I was taking things a little more leisurely, cutting a few mph off my cruising speed and letting the speed fall a little earlier approaching junctions and hazards. Life in the slow lane, if you will, and it’s a different place! Normally I bash along passing most people, grappling with the burn from the lights and generally mixing it with the cool fast kids at the front (beating more than I lose to, natch – there aren’t many non-RLJs who’ll stay ahead of me 🙂

The manners back there were awful. Now, I’m not perfect, but when I get to some lights, I won’t queue jump. I might go to the outside, but I won’t go around and then push in, or go up the inside (or go on to the pavement). On the plus side, at least people were stopping, but the manners at the lights just seemed so much worse to me today. I was cut up and undertaken way more than I would consider polite. Maybe some of it was that I will have been taking my normal (fairly aggressive) road position and wasn’t necessarily then punching my weight, but that didn’t excuse all of it.

Well, maybe it’s about seeing the world from a different viewpoint, walking a mile in another man’s shoes (which is always a good idea, because if you realise that he was right, he’s a mile away. And you have his shoes.) I’m sure that the minor infractions that other user groups complain about cyclists is because we can, but that’s a reason, not an excuse. Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should.

Reclaiming the Road Space

Last year, TfL launched an experimental scheme to extend the ability of motorbikes to use bus lanes. In other news a few months ago the industrious James Randerson of the Guardian managed to unearth a few facts about Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs), basically after much digging he discovered that actually, yes, it is a fixed penalty for deliberate flouting of them.

Together with the eye-wateringly blue cycle superhighways, which many cabbies, motor cyclists and assorted other ne’er’do’wells assume that cyclists MUST use, London’s roads are becoming increasingly confusing; who is allowed to be where, when and who’ll you’ll be sharing the space with when you get there.

The cycle lanes are particularly open to misinterpretation: parked cars, mopeds, motorbikes, the unwitting and the deliberate. You might forgive the poor motorcyclist, they’ve been let into bus lanes (which are normally also cycle lanes), so they assume (incorrectly) that now all cycle lanes are open to them too. It seems like every day I’m being overtaken on the inside by a motorcyclist along CS7 – and when I’ve pointed out the dangers, almost exclusively the responses are that they believe they’re allowed to be there (normally in fewer words).

iBikeLondon is advocating cyclists reclaim the ASL box. That doesn’t go far enough; we need to reclaim the cycle lanes, too. But as the cyclists in the city point out, all this is highlighting the conflict that marrs our roads: we’re just none of us very good at sharing.

London just isn’t very good at going beyond some PR fluff and spin. The boris bikes have helped get a few more non-specialists out there, but as the nights (and mornings) draw in, the roads will return to their more natural state of being populated by the generally more hardy, experienced and, dare I say it, more militant cyclist. If you’re out there week-in, week-out, rain and shine, cold winter dark mornings and balmy summer evenings, you’re less likely to put up with grockles invading your space.

Fighting back doesn’t really help anyone, but where’s the balance between deliberate obstruction (e.g. Critical Mass) and meekly submitting to being weaker and happy with it? The police shouldn’t be needed to enforce every last nuance of the traffic rule book, we should be adult enough to work these things out but when everyone’s rushing about, desperately trying to make it through the lights, being higher and mightier than thou (we are all each individually right, after all, it goes without saying that you, as the other guy, are implicitly wrong).

The anti-smug backlash

The excellent London Cyclist blog asked this morning, what London’s cyclists thought of the tube strike?

The general concensus was that there were more out there and that there were many who really didn’t understand how it worked. As I suggested in a post 3 years ago (almost to the day)

Your normal tube journey has tourists getting in the way and making you grumble. You fairweather, occasional cyclists are the tourist on my tube. Don’t be surprised when I grumble at you!

Much has changed in three years, but apparently not that much. There were definitely more bikes and definitely more people who were clueless as to how to ride in traffic and, as importantly, how to ride considerately in a group.

While I’m not going to tout myself as some elite level cyclist I have ridden for years in pelotons, on club rides and just generally in groups who know what they are doing, some of the n00bs scared me yesterday: both from a blatant sense of danger, but also that it is their behaviour who drivers and other road users will remember. I’m generally happy to wait my turn – I’m faster than most and I’ll let my speed do the talking when the lights go red, but the amount of queue-ignorance and just pure bad manners was simply staggering.

It is not a race track out there but n00bs see people riding fast and assume it is, not to mention the queueing at lights (let’s leave the jumping and skirting down on pavements alone for a moment). You wouldn’t jump the queue when getting your coffee when you get to work so why do it when queuing for the lights?

After almost 20 years and over 40000 miles on London’s roads, it is clearly a better place to cycle now than in the early 90s when I started regularly riding here. I’m afraid, though, that we’re in danger of seeing a backlash if the general level of bike nouse doesn’t increase. We might have safety in numbers, but we’re going see more clampdowns and rules because we obviously can’t control ourselves.

Some predictions

  • Cycling will be banned in many areas where it is currently tolerated, perhaps as a result of being shown as not being able to play nicely with the other kids e.g. on the South Bank.
  • Some of the semi-autonomous districts (BIDs) will be looking to ‘solve’ the problem themselves (as highlighted by the well argued I Bike London). Canary Wharf, as another example, is semi-private and it wouldn’t suprise me if the landlord started actively putting obstacles in the way of cyclists (rather than merely passively making cycling out here problematic and dangerous)
  • There will be some enforced insurance and possibly even a licensing scheme. If you’re a member of the LCC or the BTC, possibly even on your house insurance, you already have third-party insurance. And just like car drivers have to be insured to drive their vehicle (of course many aren’t) and it’s not beyond the realms of credibility to expect that cyclists will have to do the same.
  • Number plates. If you can anonymously break the rules, leaving fuming drivers in your wake, it’s not going to be long before someone mentions some system for being able to identify you.

The weather turned slightly worse this morning and there were fewer people out there, so until the next tube strike, I expect the roads to return to something approaching normal.

Grab back control

A recent edition of the Evening Standard, which I never read even when you had to pay for it and I still don’t despite it is now free – as a wise man once said, twice crap is still crap, you just have a bigger pile – carried a banner headline (it must have been as I saw it on someone else’s copy) cycling city touting the new bike hire scheme, similar to Paris’ Vélib’ programme.

This is a tremendous idea, don’t get me wrong, more people on bikes is a winning situation on so many levels. Cycling is now a viable method of commuting in London, which it wasn’t 15 years (and some 35,000 miles) ago when I started on two whiles about this metropolis. Cyclists are a lot more visible on the capital’s road and, by extension, the chances that the car driver behind you is also an occasional cyclist too have now grown. If more people get out, even a little, on bikes then life does get better for all of us.

But Boris needs more than just a few thousand hire-bikes and some headlines. The “cycle superhighways”, especially the two scheduled for “opening” in May of this year, are possibly progress – although what’s a new lick of blue paint really going to accomplish? You’ll still have dozens of sets of traffic lights and too many cars, vans and buses fighting over too little road space with drivers and other cyclists who have little or no roadcraft, patience or manners worth speaking of.

The problem is that London’s roads are no longer fit for purpose. From the bus lane on the M4 to the kerfuffle about the Olympic lanes, drivers complaining about red-lighting jumping bikes, motorbikes being allowed in some bus lanes; too many people feel that they’re special and that it’s everyone else who is the problem.

We are all the problem. When I’m on my bike I’m a smaller problem admittedly, but my daily round-trip is now almost 25 miles, surely that’s the hub of everyone’s problem? Too many people are working in too compact an area – be it the West End, the City or Canary Wharf. Too many people are being moved into too small an area, too often by a transport infrastructure that cannot be taken seriously.

I don’t intend to move to the East of the City, but for now I’m working there. Canary Wharf had the chance to do it right. They started the place from almost scratch and could have designed in cycle access but it really feels that they did the exact opposite. The roads within a mile of the development are generally massive and car-focussed. Actually everything East of the Tower, so make that three miles. Cyclists aren’t expected to feel like second class citizens here, they are expected to consider themselves are untouchables. In 2007 90,000 people worked in Canary Wharf and just 2.9% cycled. Frankly, I’m surprised it is that much considering how we’re treated.

I don’t want much – and maybe May’s cycle superhighway number 3 will be enough – but I’d like London to repay some of my taxes by allowing me to travel to work without risking my life on a daily basis. Canary Wharf is a soul-crushing place at the best of times, it doesn’t have to be a body-destroying one on the commute too.

I don’t expect to cycle from my front door to the secure underground parking (sic) with neither stopping nor even putting a foot down, and having broken no rules. We all will need to stop and give way at points, but frankly the current situation is ridiculous – too many red lights where all I’m doing is waiting (and probably watching other cyclists going past me) for no obvious good reason.

If Boris wants to make a difference he needs to get everyone moving and not stopping, helping each other and not getting in each other’s way any more than we have to. The system is now built to stop and control, taking away our right to think and react. A cyclist at a redundant red light has more ability to exert some freewill than the car nth in the queue – but because it’s “illegal” everyone gets up in arms.

I’m not about to condone their flagrant disrespect, but get angry at the red light, not the cyclist flexing some degree of independence. In these pre-election times, the traffic light is about control; the zebra crossing, roundabout or crossroads are about give-and-take and letting us sort ourselves out. It’s about democracy versus totalitarianism. We don’t all always need to be told what to do. Running a red light is almost certainly unsafe because the junction doesn’t assume you to do it, so why shouldn’t we hand some control back to the road users and have us work out for ourselves what we need.