Cyclists can’t win

I can ride a bike, but I’m not a cyclist. I have a great deal of respect for those that pedal their way around life. I see all sorts of people on bikes, small swarms of kids with over sized t-shirts and baggy jeans on their BMXs, commuting city types on the train with their folding bikes and bicycle clips, older ladies with their shopping baskets on sit up and beg cycles. It’s a fabulous form of transport providing faster travel than walking, whilst still remaining independent of timetables, and in many cities it is as quick, if not quicker, than going by car or public transport.

But I’m not a cyclist. Although I can ride a bike, I have limited confidence in my ability to cycle effectively in traffic, and the multitude of vehicles on the road quite frankly scares me. Plus I’ve seen how some drivers can behave towards cyclists and it’s appalling.  

When on the road cyclists are often treated like second class road users, possibly because they don’t tend to travel at the speed limit, so are therefore a hinderance to drivers who have to travel behind them or who have to navigate round them. In most cases this is not a problem: the driver will wait patiently behind the cyclist, not too close, and will find a good spot to overtake giving the cyclist plenty of room. But in all too many instances cyclists are harangued by drivers, cut up, or even squeezed off the road.

There are instances where cyclists have been considered in the design of roads.  A frequent combination is ‘bus, taxi and cycle lane’, which provides a wide lane for cyclists, keeping them apart from the main flow of traffic. However, the probable combination of bike and bus is not a good one in my mind, due to issues of visibility, size and the potential effects of running to a timetable. Similarly, taxis, although not as big, are also time dependent, which might impact how (well) they are driven.

I also have concerns about road users pulling out of side roads, and how readily they see cyclists travelling in ‘bus’ lanes. The colloquialism of ‘bus lane’ illustrates the issue: drivers might come to a junction with a preconceived idea about what they are looking for, and a bus is more noticeable and therefore can be identified quicker than a bike.   Therefore, I wonder how often cyclists are simply not seen because they are not looked for? compounding this, the differentiating tarmac colour of a ‘bus’ lane (red), removes a visual indicator that a driver might expect to see a bike as cycle lanes are often green.

Dedicated cycle-only lanes are brilliant, but often they are not continuous. Cyclists are rerouted, across roads, and onto pavements, forcing them to cycle further and work harder to get to where they need to go, and requiring them to give way to other vehicles and pedestrians. Dedicated cycle lanes when found alongside roads are often abused by drivers who use them as a handy place to stop, blocking them completely. Cycle lanes can often be found alongside parking bays, putting cyclists at risk of being hit by opening car doors. In many cases, cycles lanes just end half way down a road.

The situation is no better off-road. When cycle lanes are provided on the pavement, cyclists need to navigate pedestrians. It’s all too common to see people, who wouldn’t let their child or dog run into the road, use the cycle lane as an extension of the pavement, leaving cyclists needing to have their wits about them in case they need to stop or swerve suddenly to avoid pedestrians and pets.  In some cases there is no visible segregation between cycle path and pavement, and cyclists find themselves needing to negotiate pedestrians, who may be listening to music, or on the phone, and who are not able to hear the approach of a cyclist. In this example, a cyclist would also need to navigate road furniture as well as a pedestrian who has his headphones on.

Cyclists can’t win. When they cycle on the roads they put themselves at the mercy of fellow road users. When they cycle on the pavement they are responsible for ensuring the safety of those around them who seem to have no awareness of their presence. In both situations it is the cyclist that has to give way and change their route.

It would be good to see more focus on the factors that impact cyclists, particularly with the proposed introduction of a dangerous cycling offence with this private members bill. Understanding the environments in which cyclists need to travel may help identify and minimise situations where they put pedestrians at risk in the first place, and can also help keep the cyclist safe.

There has probably always been the need for cyclists to submit to motor vehicles and pedestrians. However, in recent years there has been an ever-increasing drive to minimise traffic congestion, and our impact on climate change, alongside a need to combat our ever-growing obesity epidemic by building exercise into our daily lives. This has contributed to the advent of city based cycle-hire, such as the Barclays scheme in London. I wonder if a consequence of these measures will be an increase in novice cyclists on roads, and what the safety implications might be.

So will these initiatives be matched by adequate investment into designing roads fit for cycle use, rather than cycling provision being an after thought? How many more people would consider cycling if there were dedicated cycles lanes, with physical barriers segregating cyclists from traffic and pedestrians?

There will always be arguments that existing traffic and parking requirements mean there simply isn’t enough space to adequately accommodate cyclists as well. However, it might be that we need to change our attitudes, priorities, and our funding decisions, if political pledges about traffic congestion, climate change and obesity are to be met. And maybe with higher priority and better provision for cycling, cyclists will rise through the road-users pecking order, and more people will give them the respect they are due.

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One response to “Cyclists can’t win

  1. A nicely worded article. It’s what the people at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain are trying to do:
    http://www.cycling-embassy.org.uk/

    From a personal point of view as a Londoner I was hoping Ken would move in that direction but I guess I’m wrong:
    http://crapwalthamforest.blogspot.com/2011/05/ken-livingstone-comes-out-against-dutch.html

    I remember my first visit to the Netherlands when I was a kid and being amazed that they’d redesigned their roads for pedestrians and cyclists. Now I’ve got a kid of my own and our roads are getting actually worse by the day.

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