Saturday, February 18, 2012

Cycling in the City

Have been following with interest The Times' highly worthy campaign to make cycling safer in our cities. I used to cycle regularly across London to work.

Cycling?  In London?  Are you mad?  The more I read the more I have asked myself the same question.  It all started when I lived some distance from the most direct tube line to my place of work (District) and because I have a chip in my head that never, ever, absolutely on no account, allows me to leave home in good time, I would, forever late, resort to the bike and cycle to the district line station rather than work up a flustered sweat speed-walking there or worse, by waiting for a bus.

Then, on 7th July 2005, I cycled to the tube station only to find it closed, gates pulled across as baffled crowds amassed, and huffing and puffing at the damned inconvenience of it all I decided somewhat reluctantly to cycle all the way to work (only when I got there did I realise that there'd been a coordinated terror attack).  Well, I rather impressed myself with how quick and painless, indeed pleasurable, it was, to cycle instead of tubing it.  Plus it cost nothing, plus it meant not getting blown to bits by a suicidal backpacker, so I decided to do it every day.

Doubtless you're waiting to hear about the hideous bike-buckling, skull-crushing accident that befell me shortly after adopting the bike as my main mode of transport in London.  Well, thankfully there wasn't one, because in the three years I spent cycling to work across London I used to regularly break the law when it meant reducing the risk.

As The Times has made plain, should you choose to cycle across London there is no way, wherever your destination, to avoid tranches where you literally have to take your life into your hands, grit teeth, pedal frantically and hope.  In these cases if there is any means to reduce the risk of being killed you take it.  At traffic-lit junctions I would get to the front of the waiting traffic, and go the moment the transverse traffic stopped, therefore always jumping the red-light that corresponded to me.  In so doing I would get a split second headstart on the front-of-queue vehicle ensuring vital visibility, particularly if that vehicle was a left-turning lorry.

I would knowingly go the wrong way down one way streets and frequently ride on the pavement when it was the safer option - e.g. no cycle lane, just a bus lane, which, when you have an irritated bus driver who's behind on his timetable and thundering down on you, is not a pleasant place to be.  To let the frustrated bus pass you have two options - to veer right into the general traffic lane and run the risk of being sandwiched between bus and car, or mount the pavement on the left if that's possible, flatten yourself against the railings if not.  Dare prevent a bus driver from passing you and you run the risk of provoking this.. irate bus driver takes out cyclist

I would also regularly flout the rules in London's parks and ride my bike on footpaths rather than cycle paths.  That's because London parks are huge and the cycle paths tended to circumnavigate them whereas the footpaths cross them, are wide and inhabited by few enough people to navigate.  Where there were people I'd slow right down, occasionally get off and walk.  There was/is no logic to separating walkers and cyclists in parks.  It's bordering on patronising. I was not a kamikaze cyclist who enjoyed running into people, and I believe that of most cyclists.

That said I did see some incredibly stupid cycling out there.  There are those who refuse to wear helmets, for fear of it flattening their hair, who never wear any reflective gear (again vanity before safety), who would pedal their £600 Brompton across two lanes of traffic in neither of the above and 4-inch stiletto boots. There are those who listen to personal stereos while cycling, those who cycle too fast to stop if child/dog steps off pavement, someone opens a car door, car turns right into path etc. and those who see other road users as The Enemy, are universally hostile and cycle with an aggressive defensiveness that's guaranteed to rile anyone on a short fuse - 95% of London's rush hour drivers.

There are also sadly those cyclists who naively think they can follow the usual rules and be ok. To those and anyone cycling in London my advice would be to never ever be on the left hand side of a lorry - brake if you are; never sit adjacent to vehicles at traffic lights, position yourself in front of them, in full view, and go as soon as the crossing traffic stops even if your light's red; where necessary, mount a pavement, and never assume cycle lanes are safe - some beggar belief.

I would also ensure you have a functioning, easy-to-operate bell (refer to aforementioned pavement, parks, pedestrians) and have come to the conclusion that a wing mirror of some description would not be a bad idea either - turning your head to look at what's bearing down on your backside can create major wobble.

It's worth acquiring The Knowledge - like that once painstakingly acquired by anyone driving a cab in London, now usurped by satnav - to know all the quiet little back routes and cycle paths that wherever possible take you away from heavy traffic - surely there's an app that does this?

And finally, if you ever need to negotiate the junction from Hyde Park turning left into two-lane Bayswater Road, then right 50 yards later across two lanes of fast approaching traffic into Sussex Gardens, or any of the myriad London junctions like it, grit your teeth, pedal like billio and pray.

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