Monday, 3 October 2011

Will 'hating' cyclists be acceptable until cycling gets a proper place in the city?

Get out of the way! Montreal-style.
Rouleravelo blog
"I hate cyclists. Get a car!" tweeted Danny Care, Harlequins rugby player last week.

A few weeks ago, the residents of the Barbican held a Community Partnership Meeting with the local community policing team.

Two issues were on the agenda. Rough sleepers. And 'cyclists'.  The evening was spent listening to comments like this: "Pedal cycle offences have got worse since the last meeting – especially with Boris Bikes." Or "I was assaulted by a pedal cyclist and informed police but nothing was done.

Then this weekend I was at a party near Notting Hill, not my normal stomping ground. 'You're not one of those cyclists who [insert self-righteous exclamation along the lines of runs red lights, weaves in and out of traffic, rides with ear phones, doesn't wear a helmet, hi-viz. The list goes on]...?"

War on Germany's streets
And the list goes on.

These sorts of comments are depressingly familiar to the people I know who cycle. I think it is socially acceptable to deride people for cycling and accuse them of all sorts of abuses. I can't help wondering whether one reason for this is government pandering to motorists as if they were unfairly oppressed . In London, the Mayor, although he talks a lot about his cycling revolution, doesn't care to give cycling genuine priority on London's streets. We get some blue paint and are expected to fling ourselves through junctions designed for faster-moving motor vehicles, just the same way we were before the Super Highways came long.

Meanwhile, in other countries a real debate is going on about exactly who the roads are for, with Germany's Der Spiegel making it the main feature of one edition last month.

A very interesting case is Montreal, home of the Bixi, the original version of London's cycle hire bike. I've cycled a lot in Montreal. It's laid out like a typical North American city, wide streets, multiple lanes in each direction, fairly sprawling. Lots and lots of cars. Many of the streets look like the one pictured above. Fairly normal for London as well, in other words.

And yet, over the years, Montreal has been changing its streets. Lanes have been taken from motor traffic, junctions redesigned and bollards installed to keep motor traffic well away from people cycling. It's not perfect but it's lightyears ahead of London.

The Montreal Gazette ran a piece a few weeks ago about what these changes mean to people on the city's streets.

The first chunk of that article feels depressingly familiar: "Cyclists had to take on a different mentality; some would say they had to act like cowboys. We became cowboys because there was no place for cyclists in the city. We'd go through intersections on walk signals; no one wanted us on the roads, so we'd follow the rules of the sidewalk. We'd go on green lights with a no-walk signal; no one wanted us on the sidewalk either, so we'd follow the rules of the road. We had to jostle our way between parked cars and speeding traffic, keeping a careful eye out for parked cars opening doors."

Sounds very similar to the sorts of comments being made at that Barbican community policing meeting, really. But notice, these comments are made in the past tense. Because what stands out is this: ""We became cowboys because there was no place for cyclists in the city".

Montreal - giving cycling a place in the city.
Rouleravelo blog
I think that comment is true of London at the moment. When you look at any road scheme in London, what you see is cycling getting a few scraps here and there and being told to fit in around motor vehicles. 

What's been happening in Montreal, meanwhile, is this: "an incredible network of appropriate bicycle paths has been built, giving access to a growing population of urban bicyclists".  

And guess what: "With this transformation there is a slow but sure change in the mentality of cyclists.
We now have a dedicated place on the roads. With this newly established sense of place comes pride for our space and a desire to hold onto it and ensure that these paths are not taken away from us.

Give us time to grow into our new place and police us to make sure we follow the rules of the road. Let the younger generation grow up in a city where cycling has a proper place, and you'll see the cowboys in us slowly settle down."

I often feel like a second-class citizen when I cycle in London. I can't help thinking it's time the Mayor gave cycling a proper place in our city and let us become normal citizens. Danny Care would find it harder to 'hate' us. And so would plenty of other people.

That's yet another reason, I will be attending the Flashride on Blackfriars Bridge at 17.45, Wednesday 12 October. For more details click here.


  1. I do agree its unfair that cyclists tend to be stereotyped based on the worst of our number. Just because I get cut up occasionally by some idiot in a car, I don't assume all car drivers are just like Jeremy Clarkson.

    On the other hand, maybe its because terrible cyclists are proportionally more numerous than terrible drivers?

    I've only been commuting by bike for a month or so, so maybe I've been exposed to some kind of atypical summer lunacy, but I've been really surprised by how often other cyclists undertake me in the narrowest of bike lanes, overtake me so closely that their rucksack straps rattle my handlebars, or jump red lights reckless of other cyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists.

    I meet a really stupid driver about once a week; terrible cyclists crop up every day and are by far the most dangerous thing I encounter on my route. Which is hardly surprising, given you don't need to pass any kind of safety briefing or test before you take to the public highway on two wheels. If to this general ignorance you add 'everyone hates us so we ride like cowboys', you have a recipe for a seriously terrifying group of road users.

    By this point, I can hear the screams of 'heretic!' echoing across the internet. I absolutely don't think poor cycling behaviour is a good reason to deny us decent cycling infrastructure.

    But 'give us better cycle routes and we'll stop riding around like muppets' is just a different way of linking better cycling infrastructure to cyclist behaviour. And I doubt that even if you installed fabulous cycleways on every arterial route in London, my fellow bike commuters would suddenly morph into polite and responsible road users.

    Like motorists, cyclists will always be made up of the good, the average, and the totally useless. Our right to safe cycleways and a few less potholes shouldn't be contingent on our behaviour.

  2. This is exactly why there's a backlash against cycling, and exactly the reason for blackfriars. The residents of central London, who vote for the people who decide, mostly hate cyclists. We can go and protest at blackfriars all we like, but until we stop ignoring zebra crossings, stop going through red lights, and stop cycling on pavements - until then the roll-back will continue.

  3. Lots of good points there. Perhaps, as a cyclist of 30+ years standing, I can be allowed to make a point from the hating side? (if there is such a thing).

    Travelling in cities provokes anxiety in all of us. It not only feels unpredictable and dangerous - it is unpredictable and dangerous.

    When something unanticipated or threatening happens, we jump, get upset, even shout. And we remember it. That's only to be expected. And it has to be said that with recent (very welcome) increases in the numbers of cyclists, and the resource limited efforts of councils to provide for, educate and encourage them there has been a big increase in the number of unexpected and threatening events involving novice, bewildered or insconsiderate cyclists.

    Personally I don't feel a need to cycle on a pavement, ride through a red light or fail to warn others with a bell or voice when approaching from behind in shared territory.

    But I can empathise with those who routinely and deliberately (or occasionally and accidentally) do illegal, silly, unexpected or inconsiderate things.

    But even so, I still wish some people on bikes did less of those things because the result is that large numbers of people in cities now have direct recent personal experience of being upset by them. An understandable level of anxiety and hostility is created that acts to the disadvantage of all cyclists, considerate or not. While we campaign and wait for the gradual physical imporovements to reach the point where cycling is less risky I think we could be much more considerate about the ways we use the muddled arrrangements we actually have.

    That pavement you are about to hop onto, to avoid sharing a left turn with a lorry might also be the target for a three year old running out of a shop, or a partially sighted person making their peaceful way home. Stopping in the road, at the kerb, while the lorry disappears is no great hardship. Why push the cycling problem onto unknown others? You know that you are attentive and safe on the pavement - but how can the person you are bearing down on know that? You are already breaking the law, and travelling 3 or 4 time faster than they are - what else might you do?

    Anyway. Good luck on Lambeth Bridge. Be considerate!

  4. I agree a lot with what emilyobyrne wrote.

    There are a number (but in no way the majority) of cyclists who are intent on jumping lights, riding on the pavement etc and it disappoints me when I see it as I'm not sure their actions can be justified by blaming the lack of infrastructure.

    Using the argument that more dedicated cycling infrastructure will reduce the number of crazies is dangerous because it's possible that they will always be intent on jumping between lanes and across lights, and also focuses too much on the negative side of cycling when there are plenty of positives.

    I think cyclists should have their own cycle lanes, crossings etc not because it will stop the crazier ones from doing bad things but because it will open up the opportunities of cycling to so many more people of all ages and backgrounds.

  5. You can in fact quite legally pavement-cycle or jump red lights, in a way which is not available to most, if not all, motorised travellers: you just get off and push, as you walk (both feet on the ground, note). Then you are a pedestrian, no different from someone pushing a wheelbarrow or pram. This has even been confirmed in the Court of Appeal.

  6. As others have said above, much (but by no means all) of the reason for drivers and pedestrians hating cyclists is because of the behaviour of cyclists. The proportion of cyclists who break laws is way, way higher than that of cars. There should be no surprise that people complain, and feel scared of, cyclists more than cars, because cyclists (on average) are much more unpredictable than motorised vehicles.

    Sure, better facilities for cyclists might help reduce law-breaking, but that doesn't mean there's currently an excuse for doing so.

    In my experience offending cyclists defend their actions by saying it's safer for them to do these things. But, no, 99% of the time, law-breaking cyclists are going through red lights and going on pavements because it's easy for them and they don't want to wait. I have a fifteen minute walk to work and every day I will see several cyclists pedalling the wrong way down one-way streets. There's no safety reason for this, it's simply laziness.

    I think these cyclists don't see rule-breaking is a problem because it's just them, just a little old bike, and they don't see themselves as part of a greater whole - the image of all cyclists. Sure, one light-hopping cyclist doesn't make a huge difference, but its not just one, they're not just alone. All of them together brings down the image of all cyclists and doesn't help our cause.

    Yes, "our" cause - I've been cycling my whole life and cycle much more often than I take public transport, never mind drive. Law-breaking cyclists make me angry because I don't want to be tarred with the same brush as them. I want cyclists to be liked by other road users, but that's not going to happen while the law-breaking continues on such a scale.

  7. There are many reasons why people hate cyclist. The views of most of the society have a lot of innertia. Most of the views of cyclists come from the time when only cycle couriers and lycra warriors were cycling. These were the times of dangerous manouvers, smugness and recklesness. It will take time to change the opinion of the general population. This opinion will change with more and more people cycling.

  8. Phil Gyford, where on earth do you get the idea that cyclist law breakers are a “way higher” proportion that drivers? All the surveys conducted by the AA and others indicate that more than 2/3rd of drivers admit to routinely breaking speed limits. Recently a survey indicated that a significant proportion of drivers admitted to using a handheld mobile while driving. Some estimates place uninsured drivers at 25% of the total. Across large areas of London, entire streets have cars illegally parked with two wheels on the pavement. My anecdotal and unscientific experience of London Streets is that no motorcyclist observes the 30mph speed limit on any bridge, at any ASL there will be 3 or 4 motorcyclists in the box illegally, and taxis in particular routinely jump red lights – not anticipate lights about to go green, the typical cyclist offence, but continue through a light which has already gone red, which is far more dangerous.
    Cyclists misbehaving is certainly irritating, not least to me, but it is not dangerous in any objective sense. The City Police’s own statistics (2007-10), which I have obtained, showed that 15 out of 333 (4.5%) of pedestrians injured in road collisions could be attributed to the actions of cyclists, compared with 219 (nearly 2/3rds) which were attributable to the pedestrian’s own actions, whether through inebriation, or more commonly inattention due to phoning/texting as they walk. Indeed, more cyclists were injured as a result of pedestrian actions (20 out of 319) than vice versa.
    Those totals also tell a story – almost as many cyclists were injured on City streets as pedestrians when the latter outnumber the former by a factor of well over 10 to 1. Blaming cyclists reeks of the Victorian propensity for blaming the poor for their own poverty.

  9. "All the surveys conducted by the AA and others indicate that more than 2/3rd of drivers admit to routinely breaking speed limits."

    Good point Paul -- I hadn't thought about speeding (which often seems the rule rather than the exception) and parking illegally (if that never happened, we'd need no traffic wardens!).

    However, we're discussing the perception of groups of road users -- what other groups think of them. Parking is an annoyance but it rarely makes people fear for their safety. Speeding obviously can induce fear, although it's a matter of degree -- I probably wouldn't feel more worried by a car going 35mph in a 30mph zone, but would if it was going 50mph.

    And I think this is why things like light-jumping, pavement-riding and using one-way streets wrongly are things that affect perception. They are often a matter of clearly right or wrong, no grey area. (Light-jumping has a grey area, people going through just as, or after, the lights change, but I suspect both bikes and motor vehicles are equally at fault there.)

    And because this is all about perception it doesn't matter what the safety statistics are. We're talking subjective feelings, rather than objective accident statistics. It could be that no cyclist has ever been injured, and no one else has ever been injured by a cyclist, but that doesn't stop people being worried by the erratic behaviour.

    And it's this unpredictability that's key. We expect people using the road to obey the road's rules, no matter what vehicle they're using. This is what helps traffic move as smoothly as it does. We expect vehicles to stay in lane when they're supposed to, to stop at red lights, to obey traffic signs, etc. Yes, there are always people who don't do this -- cars who don't signal before turning, I'm looking at you -- but by and large everyone cooperates to help things run smoothly.

    This is why too many cyclists attract the wrong kind of attention: because often they don't obey the rules of the road that everyone else is sticking to (again, by and large). Suddenly, pedestrians can't be sure that a bike will stop while the man is green, or that they won't get hit by a bike coming the wrong way down the road. And cars can't be sure that a cyclist won't zip across a junction when oncoming traffic should be stationary. Cyclists -- vehicles on the road -- are behaving more erratically than anyone expects road users to behave.

    If it was very rare that cyclists did this, then it wouldn't be an issue. But because it's so common, all cyclists are seen as potential rule-breakers, as unpredictable, as potentially dangerous.

    You're completely right Paul that motorists misbehave a lot. It drives me nuts how many stop at the ASL when they shouldn't. But their behaviour isn't blatant enough, and doesn't bother enough people (yet), to make everyone else hate them.

    Maybe if cyclists had much better facilities we wouldn't break the rules so often. But we don't have those facilities and too many people hate cyclists. Yes, motorists and pedestrians break road laws too, and I wish they wouldn't. But that doesn't mean cyclists should be allowed to break laws even more blatantly.

    I want people to love cyclists. I want more people to cycle. I want cyclists and pedestrians and drivers to feel safe around cyclists and to see bikes as the great example of healthy, fun, sociable, inexpensive, green transport that we know them to be. But while a large number of cyclists continue to flagrantly break the law, then too many people will hate us all.

  10. It seems that the impact of unregulated cycling on pedestrians is being ignored. When cyclists complain about conflict with others, it generally tends to be motorists they are really talking about.

    I love to walk (incidentally the most environmentally form of transport there is) and am heard of hearing - which means that I am not aware of things approaching from behind. Due to the inconsiderate behaviour of cyclists I have actually had to stop, or be very wary of, walking in a number of places - many of which have specific prohibitions on cycling.

    For example, I no longer walk on many sections of the Thames path, or along parts of the Grand Union Canal. There are sections of both these paths that are very narrow - anyone with a modicum of common sense should appreciate the need to dismount, or proceed at a crawl when a pedestrian is ahead. However few do.

    I have been struck glancing blows numerous times - including once having my personal radio knocked out of my hand and smashed - and the enjoyment of many walks has been ruined by being forced to stop at regular intervals while yet another impatient (and often illegal) cyclist travel past.

    Cycling used to be illegal on the Grand Union Canal, but as elsewhere, these restrictions were routinely flouted.

    For example there is a beautiful walk alongside the Exe estuary between Exeter and Exminster in Devon. A very narrow path, approximately a foot or two wide, runs alongside the waterway. About a metre away there is a wide cycle path, constructed at huge expense. This cycle path does not afford the same views as the waterside path - presumably due to the fact that the topography would not allow the cycle path to be constructed directly along side the waterfront.

    Despite clear signage, many cycists completely ignore the expensive cycle path and use the narrow footpath instead. This has completely ruined a walk there on many occasions. It is impossible to walk in a carefree fashion whe having to stop every 10 minued to allow a cyclist to squeeze past and to be constantly looking over my shoulder apprehensively. This is especially teh case when walking my dog, which will often ignore the cyclist unless called.

    This example of complete lack of consideration is widespread. If it is due to a minority, it appears to be a very large minority. I have had far more problems with the average, middle-class well-to-do cyclist than I have had with the stereotypical hoodie on a mountain bike. In fact the cyclist who smashed my personal radio was a well-spoken, well dressed young lady, who although apologetic, continued merrily on her way, oblivious of the lesson she should have learned about the unsuitability of that section of the path for cycling.

    While I sympathise with the inconvenience and danger that motorists preesnt to cyclists, I get very angry at the complete lack of appreciation of the problems cyclists routinely cause pedestrians. Much of this wilful and somewhat hypocritical ignorance is displayed by very same cyclists and cycling organisations who complain vehemently about their treatment at the hands of motorists.

    If cyclists argue for greater infrastructure and regulation to enhance the experience and safety of cycling, they should also accept the need for greater regulation to enhance the experience and safety of walking.

    Compulsory education would be a start. My experience suggests that a number cyclists who have never taken a drieing test are unaware that they are cycling on prohibited routes in the first place. I once had an altercation with a middle-aged woman with a cut glass accent who got very annoyed that she had nearly collided with my old, deaf dog. In indignant tones, she remonstrated wiht me that the lane was a cycling path - she thought that a circular sign, with a red border and a picture of a bicycle inside meant "Cycle Path"! This sort of ignorance and the problems it can cause doesn't help the cause of cycling.

  11. Just reading this blog a few months later and the irony is apparent: Danny Care, banned for drunk driving. Will he be getting on his bike now?