I’ve been cycling around London since I arrived here in 1978. There were then only a handful of cyclists and no cycle lanes. People regarded us as insane to risk our lives in the traffic and our health in the pollution. However, cyclists then, as now, were able to use the Bus Lanes which provided some degree of safety. I don’t know if cycle awareness was included in bus driver training but I never had any problems with busses or taxis. I’d been a car driver since the age of 15 and this helped as I knew the basic road code, stopping at red lights, doing clear hand signals and allowing pedestrians to cross on Pedestrian Crossings. I’d had a job which involved driving a hire car around London and somewhere on a roundabout on the South Circular in rush hour on a winter’s evening I was overtaken on the inside by a huge lorry, which then drove across the front of the car. After that I was pretty careful cycling around places like Hammersmith Broadway or Hyde Park corner which in those days were uncontrolled by traffic lights. The pollution problem, I disregarded as these particles spread out to cover the city uniformly (that’s a law of Physics) so just living in London means you’re breathing it in.
In the early eighties, I moved from Hammersmith to Bow in Tower Hamlets and would regularly cycle though Whitechapel to the Kings Road, Chelsea, though the City and along the Victoria Embankment. The Mile End and Whitechapel roads were pretty challenging in terms of traffic, dust and rubbish from the market. At least on the Embankment there was grand architecture to look at. During this period I developed a strategy of coming forward at red lights so I could get ahead. The initial acceleration from a bicycle is far greater than any motor vehicle and you could easily clear the space to allow them to pass later. I also would make eye contact with drivers, particularly on roundabouts and prepare to take evasive action if they seemed unaware of me.
Fifteen years later, I moved to Hackney and my route into the West End took me though Clerkenwell or Angel and I still get a thrill from freewheeling down the Bus Lane in Pentonville Road to Kings Cross. In all that time I was only knocked off my bike twice. Once near Old Street, as I stopped for a light, a car drove slowly into the back of me and in a quiet street in Hackney on a rainy day, a tradesman, who had been resting in his van, decided to open his door just as I went past. Luckily there was no other traffic to run me over as I slid across the road. ‘What the f… do you think your f…ing side mirror is f…ing for?’ I screamed. The third incident, earlier this year, was in Cornhill on a dark wet evening. A car with no lights on and parked on a double yellow line opened the driver’s door and I went flying for the second time – the car owner was traumatised. Wearily, I said, ‘It would have been good to look in your side mirror.’ There have been numerous times when I’ve had to break suddenly due to a car overtaking me then immediately turning left. Sometimes it’s too late and I’ve found myself also turning left to avoid being run over. This happened to me only today, thus prompting me to blog about cycling, something I’ve been intending to do for months.
Now twenty-five years later I’ve moved back to Tower Hamlets – Stepney Green, just off the Mile End Road. So what’s changed? For a start there are thousands more cyclists, particularly commuters. They flood into and out of the City, West End and Docklands during rush-hour in an aggressive frenzy. I don’t often cycle at these times, but when I do, it’s almost as bad as taking on an HGV. We have high visibility clothing which has, thanks to the success of British Cycling as an Olympic Sport, become ‘designed’ with helmets to match. In the Olympic summer of 2012 I cycled around London with great inspiration, but was disappointed that few took advantage of the cycle park.
We have flashing lights with batteries which last months rather than weeks and tyres which are less susceptible to punctures and we have cycle lanes. A few, like the one through Bloomsbury have been around since the Ken Livingston days, others, painted Tory Blue by Boris are new. I’ve discovered that Super Highway 3 will take me along Cable Street to Tower Bridge on a dedicated lane in fifteen minutes. It’s brilliant. But it can be crowed with overtaking and failure to give way when required or to stop. I recently saw a woman cyclist collide with a pedestrian on a crossing. Then there are the red lights, which demand a special mention, later. To the north of me is Super Highway 2 which runs along Mile End Road to Aldgate. Yes it’s the same road I cycled on twenty-five years ago. It has the same traffic and dust and markets, there’s just a blue strip painted on the inside of the bus lane so you still have to negotiate the traffic. I cycle down this route often and enviously look at the wide deserted pavements on either side of the road which could be dedicated to us. It all narrows down along the Bow Road and rather than negotiate the tricky Bow roundabout (site of a recent death) I always go up and over the flyover – there’s nothing to say I can’t and it’s safer.
Someone has at last noticed the difference in cycle and vehicle acceleration and put in the cycle zones at lights and intersections. These are fantastic, provided motorists pay attention. That’s the point of them; if they illegally stop in this zone, they are delayed while we pull ahead and clear their way. Buses and taxis are guilty of this as well and can all be fined.
The other thing I’ve noticed with the burgeoning of the cycle population is ignorance of the Road Code, arrogance (cycles always have the right of way – even if they don’t) and plain wilfulness or risk-taking. As the holder of a drivers’ license, I can get points for infringements on my cycle, so I’m happy to stop at red lights while all and sundry ignore them completely or cross on the pedestrian green man dodging the walkers as they go. The women are just as prone to this as the men and it’s quite usual for a nice middle class girl with a wicker basket on the front of her ‘ladies bike’ to sail by without a care looking neither left or right. Periodically the police set up traps but not often enough.
Finally, there’s the issue of signalling. Cyclists, I believe need to give clear signals of their intention to turn left or right, and If you’re wearing a bright yellow jacket, all the better. None of this one finger pointing right at hip level, but a whole arm horizontal from the shoulder, telling everyone ‘I am a cyclist and this is where I’m going.’ I also think that the road code should be altered so that motor vehicles must indicate intention to turn left as well as right, in good time and including waiting at lights. When I sat my test, signalling was only recommended when necessary – whatever that meant. I’ve often pulled up to the left of a car which is not indicating and I assume it’s going straight ahead, only to be cut up when they turn left. If a waiting car is indicating left, I can pull up on their right and go ahead or turn right. This, I believe would improve our safety even more.
I’m constantly astonished that there aren’t more fatalities, particularly on the Boris Bikes and notice that motorists are much more wary of cyclists than they used to be. Cycling in London is so much better than in 1978.