Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The War on Britain's Roads: Some Rough Thoughts

                There is a war happening on Britain’s roads. A war between cyclists and car drivers. So a documentary aired earlier this week by the BBC would have you think.
The documentary, commissioned off the back of the recent sporting success of Team GB cyclists and the subsequent boom of commuter and amateur riders, is quick to illustrate the conflict sometimes seen between different types of UK road users, but makes no attempts at finding solutions to any of the problems shown in the programme. Quick to point fingers in both directions, the documentary presents issues in a black and white “us or them” manner, attempting to lay blame squarely at the feet of one or other party on each particular issue and then quickly moving on. As such it was a cynical attempt at garnering higher viewing figures solely by courting controversy. The prevalence in the film of clips filmed in London was a clear indicator of this; conditions here are bound to be the most fraught of those anywhere in the UK. But of course, without conflict there would be no documentary, no narrative for the producers to form.
Clearly attempts were made by the documentary makers to appear partisan, though this was mere lip service; equal screen time was given to both cyclists and road users. Here is the thing, I genuinely don’t believe that this is an issue where being partisan is at all appropriate. To me the clear and logical choice is that the bicycle is the best mode of transport in our increasingly metropolitan world, and the responsible decision in every possible way. I don’t feel as if I should need to make the environmental or health cases for the bicycle here, as they are both completely self evident.
There are a number of things, however, that I feel non-cyclists would benefit from having explained to them. The most important among these is regarding “commanding the road”. Multiple times in the documentary we heard reference made to this practice, but what is it? Essentially, “commanding the road” involves riding further from the left hand gutter than a cyclist would usually be expected to. This is a tactic taught in cycling proficiency courses (which are available free in most areas by the way) and the benefits are two-fold. Firstly, it prevents other road users from attempting dangerous overtaking maneuvers by simply not giving them the room to do so. The highway code recommends a MINIMUM gap of 1.5m when overtaking a cyclist, but too often we are squeezed outwards with merely inches to spare. “Commanding the road” helps prevent this. Secondly, it ensures that any overtaking maneuvers that are attempted are more safe. The practice forces road users to take their vehicle in an arc around the cyclist, affording them more room. The key thing here is for other road users to consider cyclists as people – mothers, fathers, husbands, wives – not mere obstacles to be overtaken in the shortest possible time.
One of the longer sections of the documentary portrayed a conflict between a cabbie and a cyclist who had struck the driver’s cab with his fist as the vehicle had moved over towards him. In the course of the conflict the cyclist did, quite frankly, come over as a bit of a bell-end. He was, however, entirely in the right. When I am using the road on my bicycle safety is my primary concern. This is not a form of aggression – why would I display aggression for its own sake when I am clearly the more vulnerable road user? Any overt aggression shown in the documentary was on the part of those in motor vehicles.  The situation is this: if I feel as if you are putting me in danger with your vehicle or are not aware of your proximity to me I will strike your vehicle to warn you. I do not care if this vehicle is your property – it is my person that you are putting in danger. I would much rather do this and potentially face an angry motorist than run the risk of being mown down by your vehicle.
It is obvious that car drivers may not be very happy with this situation when it occurs – and there is actually a parallel situation operating in the opposite direction – one of the very few point I would like to make on behalf of those in motor vehicles. This is regarding horn use. Unfortunately horn use on UK roads has become a sign of aggression, rather than its intended purpose as a warning to other road users. Cyclists have a tendency to get uppity whenever a horn is used, and we need to get out of this practice. Anyone who has ever ridden on the continent will tell you that a short use of the horn is used to warn cyclists of their presence, for mutual benefit. UK cyclists need to understand this better, just as drivers need to understand that long angry blasts of horn on a Sunday morning are not liable to make us ride in single file. It’s a Sunday morning, why on earth are you in such a rush?
This brings me to another point. Cyclists do not cause traffic. Cyclists are traffic. We are held up by congestion just as much as other vehicle users, and more cyclists can fit safely in a given unit of road space than passengers in motor vehicles. By all means let us know if you are behind us, with the aforementioned brief horn use. Most cyclists are reasonable people, and will move into single file if they know you are there. Long angry blasts of the horn though? Expect me to flip le bird at you, I certainly don’t see you in a single seater sports car.
When the situation described above does occur and conflict arises, one of the first things we usually hear is “I pay my road tax mate.” I would like to make this clear: nobody pays road tax. What you pay is Vehicle Excise Duty, and this does not go directly toward paying for roads. Highway maintenance is paid for out of general taxation, and as such this means that everyone has an equal right to the road (not that this was ever in doubt anyway). Tax technicalities aside, more than 90% of cyclists are car users anyway, and so pay just as much “road tax” as you do.
This brings me neatly to the idea of registration so often touted by the anti-cyclist brigade. This idea is ludicrous. We want to be encouraging cycling, not placing a barrier to it. I is often claimed that as cyclists do not have to pass a test, they are lacking in the skills necessary to use the roads. This can be achieved in other ways – encouraging cycling proficiency tests in schools, creating a culture where cycling is the norm and everyone learns from a young age. Prohibition is not the solution.
A minor point that I would like to make regards the skipping of red lights. Whilst I do not condone this practice, as I believe that the bad feeling created outweighs any benefits, there are instances where skipping red lights is actually the safer option. It is often said that more women are killed per mile cycled than men, as a result of men riding more assertively by skipping queues and removing themselves from traffic. Skipping red lights can be seen to form part of this. Ultimately, it should be considered that when a cyclist skips a red light, it is themselves that they are (potentially, given what I have said previously) putting at risk – cyclists have far more to lose from a collision than car drivers. This is the reason why cyclists are “never nicked” (as pondered in the documentary); and danger they pose is almost entirely to themselves, and not other road users.
The fact is that the more of us there are, the safer we are. “Ghost bikes” and “critical mass” protests are other ways we can increase visibility, not just sentimentality and fun respectively. The more people who have friends or relatives as cyclists, the more consideration we are likely to receive. Hence any reduction in numbers is not only a sad thing, it is also a dangerous thing. Another criticism I have is that finishing with a segment about irresponsible riders organising races through cities can have done little to garner sympathy for us. This left a sour taste in the mouth
I can only hope that this documentary does not create a dent in the numbers of riders now seen on Britain’s roads, and the attempts made in advertising by companies such as Sky and Fiat to raise the profile of riders on our streets. A noticeable anecdotal increase in aggressive driving this previous weekend does not bode well. Ultimately the best thing about this documentary was the music (Boards of Canada, DJ Shadow and Explosions in the Sky for those interested).