Monday, 10 September 2012

Have the Daily Mail & Evening Standard published a fake article about cyclist road behaviour to call for compulsory cycle licences? Even if it's true, I think they're missing the point. We should be presumed at fault if we cycle into a pedestrian, yes. And we should be presumed at fault if we drive into a pedestrian or cyclist too. Licences won't change things, changing the environment will.

Daily Mail wants this little person on a
bicycle to have a licence. Would Petronella Wyatt
call her a 'lycra lout'?
Over the weekend, the Daily Mail published an article about cycling by Petronella Wyatt. The Evening Standard quoted that article in its Monday morning issue.

The article in the Mail is deliberately provocative:

"The majority [of cyclists] are safe – but not all. There are rogues: Lycra louts whose intentions are as low as the meanest hit-men. In 2012, I had my handbag stolen by a gang of youths on bikes....I have seen cyclists on the pavement and on the wrong side of the road. Others fail to signal, overtake on the inside and ignore traffic lights." And so it goes on.

The Evening Standard has re-purposed much of the article in today's edition that calls for obligatory licensing for people who ride bikes. It claims that Wyatt's mother was knocked down twice in one month.

The thing is, in my opinion, this article is fake. The reason I say that is simple. In February 2010, the Daily Mail published an article also by Petronella Wyatt that is almost identical to the 2012 article. According to this weekend's Mail on Sunday, Wyatt's mother was run over by a cyclist on 16 August. According to the Mail she was also run down in 2010. According to the Standard, she was hit twice last month alone. It's not clear if her mother has now been knocked down once, twice or possibly three times (Once in 2010, once or possibly twice in 2012).
It is possible (albeit dreadful if true) that her mother was indeed struck twice by a 'lycra lout'. But something makes me feel this is all a bit fishy. You see, if you run the two articles side by side, you'll see the wording is almost verbatim:

In 2012 Wyatt writes: "I could hear a convulsion in his voice. It sounded like stifled laughter. He could not repress a gurgling sound before he managed to compose himself to express sympathy and shock. 'Again? How awful!'"

What's wrong with this picture? This is supposed
to be a cycle highway. Poor street design encourages
poor road user behaviour at junctions like this
In 2010 Wyatt wrote almost the exact same text: "The inevitable convulsion took place in the nerves of my friend's face. She looked as if she was going to laugh. She could not suppress a gurgling sound before she managed to compose her features into the correct position of commiseration and shock, and say: 'How awful!'"

And so it continues - the same text amended ever so slightly.

Let's assume that Wyatt's mother was indeed hit twice by someone on a bicycle. That would be truly awful. Awful enough that a good journalist ought to be able to write about it convincingly and from the heart. But Wyatt hasn't done that. She (or someone else in the organisation) has taken old copy and rehashed it. I'm afraid that leads me to question the veracity of her claims.

I disagree with the tone of Wyatt's article. Her facts are also wrong, especially the points about who's to blame for collisions involving people on bikes.

178 people were injured when walking in London last year by people riding on bikes. Wyatt's mother therefore makes up between 0.55% and 1.7% of those incidents. Let's also remember that 77 people were killed in collisions with motor vehicles when walking in London last year (none of them by people on bicycles and yet plenty of people are killed or seriously injured by motor vehicles on the pavement, not only on the road), up 33% on the previous year. The number of people seriously injured on our roads while cycling has also jumped 36% over the long term trend.

It's worth noting that a significant proportion of the people killed cycling on London's roads this year have been children. I'm not sure if Wyatt proposes licensing 'lycra lout' children or not.

But rather than dwell on those issues, I think we should be reframing this debate. Wyatt calls for compulary cycle licensing. In all honesty, that's hadly going to make a difference. Have driving licences prevented 77 people being killed while walking in London this year? No.

I think the issue is about how our streets function. For everyone. And London in particular has a real issue on its streets.

Chris Boardman on BBC Breakfast calling for a change in the street environment. For all of us.

London pedestrians often feel intimidated by people on bikes. Londoners on bikes feel intimidated by people in cars and in particular by people driving minicabs, vans and lorries. The result is that our streets are places where the fittest or the toughest or, frankly, the biggest take precedence and everyone else has to jump out of the way. That can be seen at pedestrian crossings where there's often not enough time to cross the road or where some people on jump the lights on bikes. But it can also be seen in the street when people drive through red lights (happens much more than the press would like to have you think), on mobile phones, undertaking other drivers at speed. We have created a street environment which stinks. And we're all the worse for it.

And I'll be frank. Some people in London cycle like jerks. They cut other people up, they jump lights, they behave badly to other road users. Equally, some people in London drive like jerks. They undertake, swerve because they're on their phones, cut up pedestrians and cyclists. I despair when I see people cycle like antisocial idiots. But I've become so used to people driving like antisocial idiots that I almost don't notice. Unless I'm on my bike, when they pose a serious threat to me.

As I mentioned in this blog last week, I think that our streets have been actively designed to generate more conflict between different road users, not less. And it's time for that to change. For all of us, whether we're walking, cycling or driving.

Blaming cyclists alone is not the answer. I'm going to leave with the words of Chris Boardman on Radio5 live last week:

“The emphasis shouldn’t be just on the cyclist. We’re creating a symptom without looking at the cause. If someone gets shot on the street, the answer isn’t that everyone should wear body armour. You say – ‘hang on a minute, maybe we need to look at the reasons behind this?’.”

Boardman's interview on BBC Breakfast was even better. You can view it above.

We need more voices like Chris Boardman's to come forward and less knee-jerk reactionary re-hashing from the like of Petronella Wyatt.


  1. Your blog is a persuasive voice building a good body of evidence. You should develop your point, though. Yes, some roads are designed to maximise conflict (I cycle north over Southwark Bridge daily!) but others are designed for ambiguity eg Exhibition Road. So, are you prepared for some ambiguity in road design in which cars, pedestrians and bikes rub courteously along with each other or is total segregation (a miserable and expensive concept) the way to go?

    1. Horses for courses Doug. If you look at the two countries which do this best, the Netherlands and Denmark, in their own rather different ways they analyse each road according to traffic volumes and speeds and specify a solution accordingly. The highest volumes/speeds would merit a fully-offroad cycle path, almost a mini road (at 4m it would be wider than the country lane I live on) with considerable physical separation from the motor-road. Gradually the specification becomes less ambitious as the adjoining road sees smaller volumes or lower speeds, until in low speed residential or commercial settings there is not even a marked cycle lane, but there is likely to be other traffic calming, mainly through subtleties of design (use of cobbles, for example, rather than speed humps) and elimination of opportunities to rat-run.

      If you took the Cities of London and Westminster as examples, roads like Brompton or Upper Thames Street (both TfL Red Routes) would likely merit segregated cycle paths. Roads like Jermyn St or Wood St would not require anything apart from perhaps choking off rat-runs and permitting cycle contraflow in Jermyn St.

  2. As a cyclist of more than 35 years, I have to say that I am becoming utterly despairing of the behaviour and attitudes of an increasing number of my fellow cyclists. The most regular cause of danger to me on my bike at the moment is other cyclists, if I am honest - people who don't signal, who don't understand the basic rules of the road, people who cut me up and become aggressive when challenged over the way they are riding.

    Whilst I do agree that blaming cyclists for all of the problems on the road, particularly from the point of view of pedestrians, isn't the whole picture and fails to recognise the need to widen the debate out, it is the case that many newer cyclists do need to be educated in how to ride safely, with proper consideration for others.

    1. Anonymous, I don't know where or when or how you cycle, but I absolutely don't recognise your experiences - while other cyclists requently irritate me by their behaviour, I can honestly say I have NEVER felt in any danger from them.

      Which is not something I can say about many of the motor vehicles I have encountered, or the three black cabs which have knocked me off my bike, putting me in hospital on the last occasion.

    2. Completely agree with the article, and in particular with Mr. Boardman's gunshot analogy. But I thought I'd dive in here in support of Anonymous. I cycle between Streatham and Liverpool St every day, and I often see what I consider to be intimidating behaviour by cyclists towards pedestrians.

      I don't agree that they pose any danger to me on my bike, but I very often see pedestrians skipping out of the way of cyclists, or cyclists weaving round crossing pedestrians. All this usually when the pedestrians have the right of way.

      Couldn't we all agree that large should give way to small? That would be a much calmer way of resolving conflict, I think.

    3. Anonymous,

      I don't know where you are cycling, but it doesn't sound like anywhere in the UK. In all my years of cycling I have had a few close overtakes by roadies and once had to lightly brake to avoid a cyclist jumping a light. In the same time, I have been hospitalised by a motorist once and injured less severely on four of five occasions. I have also been assaulted by a several motorists who have apparently been offended by my presence, deliberately intimidated by many more and put in danger by motorist negligence more times than I care to remember.

      Whilst my account is merely anecdotal, I expect it will be familiar to far more cyclists than the experiences you claim to have had.

    4. I think it depends a lot on the route people take, but yes, I agree with Anonymous. I commute every day by bike from North London into Liverpool Street. I have been hit by cyclists numerous times when they are jumping lights, especially on pedestrian crossings.

      There are three major roads that I cross by pedestrian crossing now, taking safer back street routes to avoid traffic. However, crossing on the green man there are ALWAYS cyclists jumping the light. I've seen wheelchair users, old ladies and children almost taken out by cyclists jumping the lights. I'm not on about people sneaking in a left turn on red and doing so cautiously. I'm talking about top gear, full speed, whizz through red lights on pedestrian crossing and expect everyone to get out the way.

      The thing that really gets me, is the attitude. If I shout "hey you've just jumped a red light" in response to a narrow miss, the response in three quarters of the cases is, quite simply, unprintable. These aren't people who have made an honest mistake, they simply think they are above the law.

      It is getting so bad that I am actually planning to go out and video these crossings and ask the police to do some spot checks.

  3. Total segregation for me, on main routes.

    Having live in NL I find segregation as far from miserable as it's possible to get. Total segregation is WONDERFUL.

  4. Total segregation on main roads (if it's well-engineered) is just great. No more dodging lorries, buses, white vans, kids who want to do 60 in a 30 zone....

    Sharing the road is just fine if the speed limit is 20 and there's no through traffic...

  5. People cycling like jerks is very annoying, undermines 'the cause' and I really wish they wouldn't. It is however,unlikely in the extreme that they will kill or seriously injure me. An inattentive,speeding, mobile wielding driver on the other hand.....

  6. If there is one element of the Wyatt piece which resonates with me it is this – we (as a society) get the cyclists we deserve.

    The recent outburst of the Richmond News freesheet editor on dead cyclists shows that many opinionated people (in the press, politics etc) simultaneously celebrate and deplore what amounts to exactly the same qualities in our cyclists. When it comes to Bradley Wiggins or Chris Hoy, or even Victoria Pendleton or Lizzie Armitstead, we celebrate their strength, stamina, speed and indeed their naked aggression, because that is what it takes to rise to the very top of elite athletics. They have balls, basically, and that includes the ladies.

    Those very same characteristics however when displayed in a daily street environment, especially the aggression, are deplored as they exhibit themselves – sometimes – in red light jumping or pavement cycling or, unfortunately, in giving other road users the finger or some verbal abuse.

    I would argue that, a bit like those cards every clerical assistant has pinned above their desks at work, “you don’t need testosterone to cycle here – but it helps!!” In a process of social Darwinism, natural selection favours the qualities which enable people to survive the road conditions we have to live with today. The doctrine of vehicular cycling invented by John Forrester and taken forward here by John Franklin was conceived to enable cycling in heavy traffic, by behaving like a car – adopt “primary position” in the middle of the lane rather than hugging the kerb, cycle fast enough not to greatly inconvenience motor vehicles, maintain high cadence to permit explosive acceleration at roundabouts etc. Essentially it requires you to be fast, fit and fearless – and that probably shades into assertive or even aggressive behaviour at the margins. Statistically (always with exceptions) it more or less requires you to be male and aged between 25 and 49. Certainly if you examine the stats on the cycling demographic, that is what you will find.

    Elsewhere you will find stats which tell you that a disproportionate number of women cyclists suffer death or serious injury, especially with left-turning lorries. An explanation for this – and while the numbers are fact, the explanation I think is conjecture – is that women are more law-abiding and take fewer “risks” like passing lorries on the right, jumping red lights or anticipating their going green again.

    Is it any surprise if we find a tendency (as ever, marked by exception) to male-hormonal behaviour in road cyclists? If this quality irritates the non-cycling public, generating hostility and providing the political cover for national or local government to do nothing to improve cycling facilities, then we have a vicious cycle from which we will struggle to break out.

    If only we could get across to politicians but also to the noisy, strident anti-cycling elements in their political constituencies, that an environment which brings out all the other potential cyclists – children, women, and men older than 50 - would mean a rather different image of cyclists and cycling from the one we see today.

    You know, an image a bit like that seen in Amsterdam or Copenhagen.

    Now, how do you suppose they managed that?

    1. Having a copy of John Franklin's 'Cyclecraft', and read it, I would agree with you that the book takes these positions, and perhaps this has had an effect on how we behave. Mainly from friends who drive, I do come across this almost automatic response from them about the problems that they perceive cyclists cause. of course, this line of almost constant blame toward one party, will not really move the argument forward and help anyone, but nevertheless, this is the stance from a probably not insignificant number of people.

    2. "Now, how do you suppose they managed that?"

      A rhetorical question, of course, but just in case anyone is still in any doubt about this, my latest blog, Daring to redistribute space and means, suggests a way forward based on the best practice from Europe.

  7. The idiot in the clip is talking about 'Denmark' when he means 'the Netherlands'. Argh!

  8. I'm not a regular reader of the papers mentioned, but whenever there's an article on cycling, there's usually a lot of enmity in the comments. As long as cycling is not taken seriously, no money will be spent on infrastructure, and people will be stuck in their cars until the day arrives that petrol prices will be going through the roof. I hate the economical down-turn we're experiencing at the moment, but it should be used as an opportunity to get our priorities straight and not just where urban mobility is concerned.

  9. Petronella Wyatt had an affair with Boris Johnson in the 90's, which he denied at the time. He was sacked from the front bench by Michael Howard after her mother, Verushka, issued a statement confirming the the affair had taken place and that Boris had paid for an abortion.

    She probably thinks that by attacking cycling in London, she is attacking Boris.

    1. Which in itself is a funny old world, considering how he has been regarded by many to have attacked cycling himself. (Eg the zombie stat he came up with, the refusals over Go Dutch..)

  10. I had a go at Googling “Petronella Wyatt” last night – as one does – for a little light amusement. Oddly, neither of the Mail articles came up but there were some curiosities.

    One was a comment in the Telegraph which cast some doubts on the amiability of her friends, which seems appropriate enough when you consider that on hearing of her mum’s alleged misfortune their immediate reaction was to gurgle and splutter as they stifled a laugh. I don’t think I know anyone who would react that way to me if I told a similar story.

    Another was her own account of her encounter with a store detective in the Food Hall of one of the major London department stores (I am guessing Harrods or Selfridges) where she stole a truffle*. For those of you without an appreciation of the finer things in life, this is a fungus typically the size and appearance of a potato, but which typically costs tens if not hundreds of pounds. The store detective was unusually lenient, just telling her to take it to the counter and pay for it, and show him the receipt – I worked at one of said stores a while ago and my recollection then was that they always prosecute.

    You may have heard of the paradox of the Cretan Liar (sic – no offence to Cretans, indeed one of my friends is a Cretan). If all Cretans lie, and you ask someone “are you a Cretan?” you can never get a yes – a non-Cretan will truthfully tell you he is not Cretan, etc... Well, from Petsy’s article we have to assume that she is either a thief, or a liar.

    All the more reason for doubting the entire foundation of her recent ravings.

    *Daily Telegraph, 6 February 2012

  11. I'm not sure those last comments on Ms. Wyatt's integrity or motivations are really called for. Innocent pedestrians DO occasionally get injured by cyclists, and this is utterly reprehensible. It was good to see the LCC, for instance, being quite vocal in its criticism of the cyclist who seriously injured a pedestrian on a pelican crossing in Holborn recently.

    But I think this point about the unpopularity of "cyclists" is really interesting. Half of an episode of "Thinking Allowed" on radio 4 was devoted to some really interesting research on the morality of cycling (
    In summary, most people see "cycling" as a moral activity, and express guilt about driving so much. However, people's moral rating of "cyclists" is anything but. Depending on how you look at it, this is either encouraging or discouraging: discouraging because a significant proportion of respondents disapprove of cyclists in general, but encouraging because these same respondents do think that they themselves should cycle more.

  12. Chris Boardman is sound as a pound. He seems passionate and sensible about encouraging cycling as a mode of transport. Even when commentating on sport cycling he mentions it. Someone should be exploiting his profile even further to raise these issues.

    I hope Wiggo and Cav put a bit more effort into this area once they stop concentrating on their careers racing.