Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Cyclists are people too!

OK, I admit it: this may not seem like a particularly serious topic for discussion, but it's something that bothers me on a personal level. Britain hates cyclists. And I'm not just talking about motorists - pedestrians are equally ignorant in this matter. This attitude is unhealthy and contributes to the reluctance of many drivers to leave the car at home for short journeys and hop on a bike instead.

Yesterday, as I was happily cycling to work along a fairly busy road, I was yelled at by a man driving a Tesco home delivery van. A much larger articulated lorry had just passed me with no great difficulty (I keep as close to the pavement as  I can without scraping my peddles on the kerb) but this Tesco van seemed to be holding back. When he finally overtook, the driver shouted that I should have been on the pavement, to which I responded that it's technically illegal to cycle on the pavement. His only comeback was, unless my ears deceived me "piss off."

Perhaps more annoying than this is the almost daily occurrence on the way home from work. By this time it's dark, so, naturally, everyone has their headlights on. As any good motorist knows, it's customary to dip one's headlights when there is oncoming traffic. Full-beam headlights dazzle other drivers, making it very difficult for them to see where they're going. Apparently though, cyclists don't count. Admittedly, the majority of motorists  do dip their headlights when they see a cyclist, but there's a significant minority who don't.

Then there's the offence of which pedestrians and motorists alike are both guilty: blockage of cycle lanes. There are, generally speaking, two types of cycle lane on British roads: they are either along the left-hand side  of the road itself, or they are on the pavement. In both cases, cycle lanes tend to be clearly marked with blue signs and massive images of bicycles on the road or pavement itself. All in all, cycle lanes are usually quite difficult to miss.

In light of this, it never ceases to amaze me how often the markings are completely ignored; how many motorists think it's perfectly OK to park over a cycle lane on a busy road, using the classic logic: "I can park here on double yellow lines as long as I put my hazard lights on."

Well, Mr. White Van Driver (these are the most common culprits), it's not OK. You wouldn't stop and park in the middle of the outside lane on a motorway, so don't park over a bloody cycle lane either!

When it comes to blocking cycle lanes, I must admit that it's often the pedestrians who are worse. When the cycle lane is part of the pavement, no matter how clearly marked it is, people will still walk all over it, especially in busy town centres. One particular lane, again on my way to work, has recently been installed along a one way street, allowing cyclists to travel the opposite way up the street without getting in the way of cars and buses. Rather than simply drawing a line down the middle of the pavement, which is not wide enough to accommodate both pedestrians and cyclists, and is littered with street furniture, the council have installed a second kerb about three feet from the original, and filled in the space with black tarmac covered with really obvious pictures of bikes. The effect is two clearly different paths. One made of block paving for the pedestrians, and one covered in tarmac for the cyclists. So why is it that every day when I come to cycle into town this way there are no end of people dawdling along in front of me, even when the pavement is relatively empty? And why is it that some of these ignorant fools look at me in annoyance when they have to step aside on to the pavement to let me pass? I can't imagine these same people wandering down the middle of the street and only stepping onto the empty pavement to allow cars to pass.

This may seem like a pointless rant, but there is a point I'm trying to make. Attitudes to cyclists in this country need to be addressed, especially considering the need to reduce our dependence on less environmentally sustainable forms of transport, i.e. cars. London is a different matter; the traffic moves so slowly in most parts that cyclists effectively have free reign. In Britain's smaller towns and cities, however, councils seem to be taking the wrong approach. In busy pedestrian areas, putting cycle lanes on the pavement is a bad strategy, as in all likelihood, pedestrians will ignore the signs and continue to get in the way of cyclists. On some roads, a cycle lane down the left hand side is a good idea, but if councils, and indeed the government, want to encourage more people to get out of their cars and onto bikes, an altogether different approach needs to be taken. No motorist who so freely disregards the status of cyclists as legitimate road users is ever going to decide to swap his Prius for a push-bike. Instead of wasting money on superfluous cycle routes, councils should instead invest in awareness schemes, targeted at motorists, to reinforce the fact that cyclists have just as much right to be on the road as motorists do. If motorists show cyclists a bit more respect, we won't need dedicated cycle routes in urban areas.

Of course, it works both ways, and a common criticism of cyclists, and a reason for the disrespect that they are shown by many drivers, is the fact that anybody can get on a bike and ride without having to pass any sort of road safety test. Many motorists don't trust cyclists to obey the laws of the road because there is no guaranteeing that a cyclist is even aware that the laws apply to them. This is valid reasoning (although it obviously doesn't excuse the purely ignorant behaviour exhibited by some drivers who simply don't think that cyclists matter). Many cyclists are teenagers with no driving experience and therefore no formal knowledge of the road laws. All cyclists should be encouraged to familiarise themselves with the highway code just as motorists and motorcyclists have to. The modern cycling proficiency test, 'Bikeability' needs to be more heavily publicised and more children ought to be persuaded to take it. By improving road safety and knowledge of the relevant laws among young cyclists, this will in turn increase motorists' confidence in cyclists, and perhaps increase the number of people who feel safe to get on a bike in urban Britain.