Urban cycling: cars vs. bikes

I was hit by a car the other day while riding back into the city after an afternoon on the bike. An old lady pulled out from a side-road on the left onto the main road I was on, not thinking to check for traffic to her right. Thankfully I saw what was coming and wasn’t hurt by the collision, but for the rest of the day I was quite shaken. I’ve had a few encounters with cars in the three years I’ve been cycling, but this was my first physical contact, and I won’t forget the feeling of oh-crap-I’m-going-to-hit-that-car.

A useful and instructive warning for cyclists. Image: Warrington Cycle Campaign

While I’m certain she meant no harm, it’s made me more aware of my vulnerability on the bike and of how precarious urban cycling really is. BBC One recently produced a controversial documentary, War on Britain’s Roads, on this very topic. Despite widespread criticism (see, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent) for its sensationalist depiction of a “two tribes” battle between cyclists and drivers (you only have to read the title), I think it at least illustrates some of the problems we face on the roads, whether on a bike or in a car. So here are my thoughts.

There’s no such thing as a cyclist

I’ve heard and seen plenty of people rant about the recklessness of cyclists: they think the law doesn’t apply to them, they run red lights, they don’t pay “road tax”, etc. Cyclists take all sorts of liberties that drivers can’t and don’t take.

But what is a cyclist, really? Illustrated nicely by BBC One’s documentary, the debate is easily polarised into two warring factions. Of course, this is a false dichotomy; being a “cyclist” is no more a defining character feature than being a “driver”. Indeed, if I were to pick an average person off the street — or out of his car — and put him on a bike, he too gains “cyclist” status. Yet the label has stuck, and is loaded with stigma.

The problem is not with cycling as a means of transport, or with cyclists as a distinct subculture, but with the psychology of cycling. Many people — including those who get wound up about it — do not behave sensibly when given a bike. I often see people doing stupid things on bikes (riding after dark without lights, sailing across junctions, not giving way, hurtling down pavements), and it’s easy to turn this into a stereotype. But these people are just idiots on bikes, in the same way that the woman who pulled out on me was just an idiot in a car.

Unfortunately, the lack of accountability means that people are more likely to misbehave on bikes than in cars. However, the sooner we can abandon the primitive and tribal idea of cyclists vs. drivers, the better. We’re all just trying to get somewhere, after all.

Roads are not designed for bikes

Perhaps the biggest problem facing cycling as a means of transport — and what I expect prevents more people from taking it up — is that roads simply aren’t meant to be used by bikes. Town planners don’t think about small vehicles without engines and the Highway Code does not cater for cyclists.

Of course, there are provisions for cycling in most British cities in the form of cycle paths/lanes, but they’re ill-considered and utterly inadequate. To get about in a city by bike, you’ll ultimately have to use the roads (since cycling on the pavement is illegal), and this means rubbing shoulders with cars, vans, and lorries, all contending for very limited space.

Reallocating road space
A handy 10 metre cycle lane keeps cyclists safe from traffic. Image: Warrington Cycle Campaign

The law expects cyclists to follow the same rules as motorists while on the road. This seems reasonable, except that having one set of roads and one set of rules for two entirely different classes of vehicle is not safe. Bikes — small, human-powered vehicles that don’t typically exceed 15mph — must coexist precariously with large, engine-powered vehicles weighing a ton or more and travelling at 30-40mph. Inevitably I, on my bike, will get in the way, which is frustrating for drivers and uncomfortable and possibly dangerous for me.

So we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place; cyclists can’t ride on pavements for fear of injuring pedestrians, while riding on the roads is dangerous for the cyclist. Indeed, if bikes were invented today, I doubt they would be allowed on the roads at all. What’s needed is for cycling to be taken seriously in town planning: continuous, segregated cycle routes, offering cyclists a safe way of getting from A to B without mixing with regular traffic.

I can’t see this happening soon, though, and I’m left wondering what place bikes really have in modern cities.


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