Monday, 18 June 2012

Day before AddisonLee bus lane court judgment, its minicab drivers say: "I feel so vulnerable on a bike". How many more people need to say this before Boris updates his cycling strategy?

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AddisonLee driver looking nervously at a white van: Part of a group of minicab drivers testing new cycle training for drivers, courtesy sk8dancer

A couple of months ago, the chairman of AddisonLee made some unbelievably irresponsible comments about people who use bicycles. In the media storm that followed, AddisonLee's chairman, John Griffin promised to consider cycle training lessons for his minicab drivers.  

Now, several months on, John Griffin has been true to his word and put a small group of minicab drivers through a pilot cycle training lesson. You can read about the lesson on the London Fixed-gear and Single-speed forums. According to skydancer, the training was a 'pilot lesson attended by drivers and AddisonLee training people to assess its value for the company'. I genuinely hope AddisonLee implements compulsory cycle training for all of its drivers - it is the corporately responsible thing to do and could change London's road culture in a very significant way. 

What really fascinates me about the cycle training are the comments of the minicab drivers, carefully recorded by skydancer:

"Now I realise why cyclists ride in the middle of the lane sometimes"

"I feel so vulnerable on a bike. I'll be more patient and give them more space"

"Some cycle lanes are crap. I get why some riders don't use them and I wont hoot them"

I think these statements more or less sum up two problems in London: There's a complete lack of understanding between road users, depending on whether they're behind a wheel or on a bike. But more than that, here's a bunch of blokes who normally whip around town in high-powered minicabs, dashing from job to job. Yet, take the motor engine away from them and, hey presto, all of a sudden they seem to understand that London's streets are intimidating to cycle on. Why's that? Because they're on bicycles and they suddenly feel rather vulnerable.
The fact that a bunch of AddisonLee drivers find London's roads intimidating to cycle on seems to fly in the face of the fallacy maintained by Boris Johnson that you 'just need to keep your wits about you' when you're cycling around some five lane gyratory. I bet you, that if you quoted this Boris theory of safe cycling to one of these minicab drivers, they'd tell you that he's bonkers.

Tomorrow, the High Court will rule on a judgment whether to allow AddisonLee minicabs access to London's bus lanes. In a letter in today's The Times, John Griffin says the 'judgement will have huge consequences for millions of Londoners'. Too damn right it will. If AddisonLee gets to use bus lanes, you can kiss goodbye to safer cycling on London streets. Even his own cab drivers might understand why allowing minicabs (and it will be all minicabs, not just AddisonLee cabs) access to the bus lanes would deter people who might otherwise use them to cycle in. I've long felt that the bus lanes are the nearest thing London has to a bike network. Pathetic isn't it but kind of true.

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AddisonLee minicab drivers and staff start their cycle lesson

Back in January, Olympic cyclist Nicole Cooke issued a statement aimed squarely at the Mayor: "I certainly wouldn’t fancy riding across Vauxhall Cross or Elephant and Castle in rush hour, and those are only two examples. If we want more people to ride their bikes, we can’t have parts of the city where cyclists feel like they are taking a big risk just crossing a junction — it just shouldn’t be that way." It seems to me that AddisonLee minicab drivers might agree with her now they've done their training. 

The thing is, Boris isn't budging. At least not yet. Only last month, he repeated his insistence that Elephant & Castle is 'perfectly negotiable'. Yes, Elephant and Castle is perfectly negotiable. In the daytime, when it's not raining, when you're confident and hyper-well trained, provided you're prepared to cycle like an Olympic athlete to accelerate through the junction and you have every fibre of your being honed to make sure no-one accelerates or drifts lane into you. Boris seems to think we can turn London into cycling paradise by training more road users so everyone can play nicely with everyone else on roads like this. 

The thing is, not a single mayor in a single other major metropolis agrees that Boris Johnson has the right strategy. Neither do our Olympic athletes. And my tuppence worth is that those AddisonLee minicab drivers don't agree with him either now.  

Mr Mayor: Yes, we have responsibilities to ourselves and to others on the road. Some of us can negotiate places like Elephant. But all of us know our friends and family don't cycle in London for the same reasons these AddisonLee drivers don't. It can be extremely intimidating. And that's an issue you are responsible for solving. 


By the way, in case anyone thinks I'm having a love-in with AddisonLee, I'm not. They need to make this cycle training compulsory for all their drivers. The weekend before last, I was cycling back from Bow roundabout on Cycle Super Highway 2. I was dangerously cut up've guessed it. AddisonLee minicab LT59 0HB who was happily chatting on his mobile phone as he cut me up in the bike lane with a couple of centimetres to spare. He even wound down his window to talk with me when I remonstrated with him. And carried on talking on his mobile, in his right hand. 

If you're looking for some cycle training for yourself, you can take lessons for free in most boroughs. Check this TfL website for more details. 


  1. Perhaps it's a generational thing, but personally I regard using a mobile in a public place to be the height of rudeness and discourtesy to those around you, whether you are posing a danger to them or not - you are not looking properly where you are going, even on foot, and you are not engaging socially with the people you meet eg shop cash register operators etc. Rant over.

    I was taken last week to the Stratford Olympic site in an Adlee car (or the Firm's account) and had a good chance to chat to the driver, about this and that. He was a middle-aged South Asian gentleman, who was proud of his three children and was telling me that his daughter was taking her A levels and was being encouraged by her teachers to raise her aim - try for a degree course in medicine. In other words, he was just an ordinary guy who wanted to look after his family and give them the best chances in life. Nothing particularly threatening about that!

    I don't want to run a deterministic argument, the absence of free will etc, but much of the explanation for the behaviour of drivers of minicabs, courier vans, HGVs etc lies with the terms of their "employment". I use the term in parentheses because in strict legal form most of them are not, in fact, employed at all. Ad Lee drivers for example lease the vehicles and then get paid for each trip, presumably with a handling fee retained by the company. I noticed this last year when a booking screw-up led to two guys being sent to collect me from the Wellington Hospital, and one of them was pretty cheesed off about being sent to darkest St John's Wood only to find that his fare had evaporated. More to the point, they are paid per trip, in fairly broad distance bands, with no time component, so they are massively motivated to get each trip completed as fast as possible so that they can call in and report ready for the next one.

    Very similar models apply to couriers and HGV drivers, the latter often being the actual owners of their vehicles as well, but still it's a fee per trip, and the faster you complete, the faster you can move on to the next trip and the next fee.

    No surprise then if their behaviour can sometime border on the reckless.

    The Mayor can't solve this. It is a nationwide, possibly even Europe wide, problem which requires national government intervention, just as safety standards like sensors and mirrors are. What Boris can control however, indeed some would argue that it is the ONLY thing he can control, is the local transport budget, including the design, construction and maintenance of its roads.

    There are limits to how much you can influence human behaviour - except, I submit, through the structure of financial rewards like these - and the Mayor should stop pretending that he can, or that he has any real say over matters falling in the purview of the Westminster government or Brussels. These are just cop-outs and distractions because at the end of the day he can just say "Not me Guv - I odn't make the rules". He should stick to his knitting, and deal with what he can influence, and redesign the roads to reduce real and perceived road danger for cyclists and pedestrians.

  2. I can't negotiate Elephant properly in a CAR!! Just moved south of it and learning when to be in which lane... I know it should be obvious to someone with 7 years of driving (inc 4 in London) but it's very confusing! No way am I going through there on a bike. I'm just not immortal enough.

  3. The behaviour of many car users makes me only use my bike for local 'suburban' journeys. Which is just as well as to go further I would have to negotiate the Hanger Lane Gyratory NO THANKS. I think cycling lessons should be available far more widely - recently I had an incident which made me think why they are so valid. I've always thought the cyclist needs training to feel safe - but equally to BE safe.

    I was crossing (safely) the road last week when a young man (no helmet, not really wearing cycling gear) decided that the red light wasn't for him for some reason. He nearly ploughed into me as I stepped off the kerb then turned round to face me - whilst speeding forwards down a hill - to shout 'F***** ignorant pedestrians!'. He clearly genuinely hadn't seen/didn't know about the light/crossing.

    Now I'm not only nervous of cars... I'm also nervous of some fellow cyclists. Also I have no doubt he'll have had near misses with cars (hopefully near misses not being knocked off) and those cars could come and honk ME as I cycle to work in revenge. :(

  4. Hope Addison Lee extend this scheme, it's a good one. I've always thought that two or three hours on a bike should form part of the driving test. Getting on a bike in London really does help drivers to better understand cyclists and their actions.

  5. A great initiative, but I agree all Addison Lee drivers should be able to take this course and paid for their time.

    In response, i'm sure the mayor will just dismiss a single lesson as being not enough training and will just say that if people want to cycle they should do a full course and then they wouldn't feel vulnerable (as HGV's bounce harmlessly off his foppish fringe).

    I would like to see more motorists get training but everything in the Times's campaign and the London mayorals did nothing to promote this. What's really needed is decent incentives such as lower insurance premiums for motorists with full Bikeability certification or the use of mandatory cycle training for any road user involved in an accident with a cyclist (much like speed awareness training).

    Getting people to experience cycling as it is, is the best way to make them more empathetic.

  6. This was a media stunt. Thats it. John griffin has already expressed his real opinion about cyclists in london. If he was actually worried about us then he wouldnt be trying to flood our bus lanes with his mini cabs!

  7. @perdita - there's actually some subways to avoid the gyratory so you don't have to mingle with traffic. Not as nice as being above surface and takes a bit longer to negotiate, but far preferable to being on the road. Better still there are good routes to avoid the junction altogether - e.g. by using the Grand Union canal Paddington branch which pretty much replicates the A40 into town with a few more twists and turns, but less traffic and more wildlife!


    1. Before cyclists are encouraged to go hurtling through pedestrian subways and along multi-use towpaths at 15+ mph, perhaps they should also be sent on some sort of educational course of their own. I often cycle the towpaths purely for pleasure/leisure and am fed up with the stunts some characters perform. Accelerating to overtake with contempt for anyone coming in the opposite direction forcing oncoming users to take avoiding action, speeding under low bridges on blind bends(whilst on the phone) and generally displaying the kind of attitude they so despise in cab drivers! I've seen lycra clad groups in some sort of time trials kicking up dust along the Lee Navigation!! Yes, it should be preferable to being on the road and I for one would like it to stay that way.

  8. I'm a professional driver and a private cyclist and I think all drivers should be (made) aware of the vulnerability of those people who are not ensconced in steel. The city I live in has about 600.000 inhabitants, a mere village compared to London, but it's busy enough as it is. Whatever my means of transportation, I want to get to my destination safely and without hassle, just like everybody else, and I keep reminding myself of that simple rule.

  9. Learning to ride a motorbike improved my car driving no end - on two wheels you have to be so much more aware of the space around you, and you have to do a private deal with yourself that any accident you are in is de facto down to you not spotting how bad a driver the person in the bus, car, truck or taxi was. Putting taxi drivers thru bike training has to be a good thing - although they have already spent months trawling round on mopeds to learn the Knowledge, so ...