September 9, 2014 by shortbloke
So I’m back in Cyclo-Commuter-Land for a short while, which is not a bad thing from a fitness perspective. I spent a commute-less year or so and it really hit my fitness. Getting out of bed in the morning and cycling for an hour is just so much easier if I actually have somewhere to go.
The Big Smoke is way more cyclo-friendly than it used to be, but it has to be said, it’s still not a pleasant place to ride a human powered mode of transport. There are big things, spewing horrible fumes at you, small things whizzing past on both sides with the minimum of clearance, medium size things hooting and cutting in front of you and pedestrians shouting at you for crawling over a red light as they jay-walk through the traffic ahead of you. All that makes the experience just a touch less pleasant than it should be.
The worst thing ? The fact I could die horribly at any moment. Literally. Some of those dumper trucks are just killing machines on wheels. They can’t see anything, even if the driver is paying attention. They are so huge they probably wouldn’t even notice a small squishy human expiring under two of their many wheels. Their shear size makes it practically impossible to do any kind of sensible road sharing and keeping well clear is the only way to handle them.
Never the less, I choose to ride because I figure I can handle it. I am arrogant enough to think I can avoid getting killed for however many years I’ll be doing this. I dress up in my lycra war kit, take out my 700C’s and drop handle bars, adopt my cycle-warrior persona and skip my way through the traffic, passive aggressively asserting my right to the tarmac (which is incidentally paid for by my taxes as well as everyone else’s).
Of course, the truth is, I am fooling myself. I am not invincible. 14 people died on a bike in London in 2013. That’s actually more than have been killed in cycling related accidents in Paris since 2007. In 2011 no Parisians at all died in a cycling related accident.
So why is that?
It’s because, even with all of Boris’ talk, the roads are not cycle friendly. They’re just not.
I choose my routes carefully, I take mostly large roads with plenty of space and preferably a bus lane. I try not to overtake trucks unless they are hemmed into traffic and I never, ever, sit at the front of a set of traffic lights unless I can get at least 10 feet in front of the traffic waiting at the line. If I can’t get that far ahead of the waiting traffic, sitting back and waiting for my petrol powered buddies to move through the lights is not going to kill me, literally.
Yes, I know, we’re supposed to sit in those green boxes the nice town plannery people paint on the roads, the ones with a big picture of a stick cyclist in them. Well, they’re nice street art but why on earth would I want to sit just a few inches in front of a killing machine when I can crawl forward through the pedestrian crossing and sit way over there, on the other side of the crossing, at least 15 feet in front of the cars and trucks ? That distance gives me time to get into my pedals and away well before the impatient drivers behind me have even the slightest chance of crushing my back wheel with an inappropriate bit of premature acceleration.
I think those green boxes would be way more useful on the far side of the pedestrian crossing. That way bikes can sit well in front of the cars, making them more visible for high seated truck drivers and giving them ample chance to get moving ahead of the cars when the lights change. I know that means we’d have to weedle our way through any pedestrians using the crossing (to get into the box on the other side), but if there is clear right of way for the pedestrians, I’m sure we’d be able to figure it out.
But that’s a small thing. There are way bigger problems than that. The other day I was discussing cycling with one of the women in the office. She wanted to Boris from the overground station to the office instead of taking the tube. We talked about routes. Suddenly what I was suggesting struck her. “What, you mean on the actual roads? With the cars? Are you crazy? No way. Absolutely no way”. End of discussion. There is no way she was even going to consider riding somewhere were 3 tons of metal moving at 30 miles an hour might come within 20 feet of her. And I don’t blame her. You would have to be a little bit insane to do that.
So there is another person not getting fit on their way to work. Another person wasting hard earned spondies on some of the most expensive and over crowded public transport in the world. Another person looking at their fellow travellers armpits instead of spectacular river views.
What does it need to make that change ? It needs Separate but Equal. It needs full blown Apartheid. It needs end to end integrated cycle routes where no motorised transport is allowed. None at all.
Then maybe we’d get normal people, wearing normal clothes, doing something normal. Using a bike to get from place to place.
Until there is total exclusion, utter separation, the vast majority of bikes on London’s roads will continue to be ridden by lycra-clad cyclo-warriors like me. People who cycle for sport, who self-identify as cyclists, who salivate over the latest carbon fibre frames, follow the Tour and know the names of all the riders competing for the yellow jersey. Hell, the people who know what The Yellow Jersey is.
Those are the only people who believe they can handle it. The ones who weave in and out of the killing machines with little regard for road etiquette or their own safety, who jump lights and swear at inattentive pedestrians (I myself am completely respectful of all the rules of the road and never swear at anyone of course).
That’s not what we want. What we want is that woman wearing sensible shoes, the one on the bus, to pick up a Boris Bike and ride those short few miles instead. We want that small child to stretch their legs and hone their balance on the 0.9 miles to school instead of idly accumulating blubber in the back of 5 ton petrol guzzling machine. We want that middle aged office clerk to get out of his car, tuck his right suit trouser leg into his sock and feel the wind in his face instead of dry air conditioning. We want that mum in the pink tracksuit to follow her giggling 4 year old on a pink shopping bike with a whicker basket hanging off the handle bars, instead of clogging up the side streets with a large pink 4by4 outside her children’s pre-school.
Only when all that happens will we see people riding bikes, not just cyclists.