Misconceptions of Cycling

30 Oct

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There are many misconceptions regarding the behaviour of cyclists, many of these stem simply from a lack of understanding between those who choose to drive and those that choose to ride a bicycle. These simple misconceptions are often preyed on by the media and blown wildly out of proportion. The fact is that headlines such as ‘War on the Roads’, sell newspapers and it pays well for media outlets to encourage argument above rational debate. For the purpose of this post I will use the terms ‘cyclist’ and ‘motorist’, but these are far from homogeneous groupings and it is important not to fall into the trap of tarring all those in one group with the same brush (for one thing, most cyclists do also drive) . Each of these groups is composed of many different and unique individuals and personalities, and just like any other subsection of society will contain its fair share of both good and bad apples. As such, many of the points should be seen as an explanation of the behaviour of those ‘good apples’, and are not intended as a sanction of the behaviour of the bad ones.

There are many cyclist behaviours that are demonized by the media, in this post I will seek to explore and explain these for the benefit and understanding of those behind the wheel.

One of the top misconceptions about cyclists is that we “think we own the road” and are basically “arrogant and elitist hippy snobs”. However many behaviours that are attributed to this, are based merely on the average cyclist’s wish to arrive at their destination in one piece.

  • Road ownership– While many people think otherwise, cyclists do actually have an equal right to be on the road: road maintenance, repair and development is funded from general taxation. The mythical ‘road tax’ was abolished in 1937, the current ‘car tax’ or vehicle excise duty (VED) is based on emissions produced. Meaning vehicles that produce little or no emissions, such as electric cars are exempt (as bicycles would be, if taxation were to be extended to them). Therefore paying VED does not confer any right to the road, and those cyclists seen on the road are merely exercising the same rights accorded to motorists.
  • Riding in the middle of the road– There are a number of reasons why cyclists avoid riding in the gutter and sometimes even ride in the middle of the lane. There are numerous hazards associated with riding in the gutter. As well as the dangers of slippery drain covers and high kerbs, a lot of the debris commonly found on the roads tends to accumulate at the sides. Such as; leaves, branches, broken glass and litter, all of which pose a significant danger to the slim wheels of a bicycle. Riding too close to the kerb also makes it difficult to avoid other hazards such as potholes and manhole covers, without swerving out into the traffic flow. Whereas remaining a decent distance from the kerb, provides a cyclist with room to avoid hazards, a decent safety margin in case of careless overtakes and increases their visibility.
    Cyclists often move into the middle of the road and ‘take the lane’, this is intended as a visual reminder for following drivers not to attempt an ill-advised overtake as it makes it clear that there is no room/it is not the right place to overtake. Common places where a cyclist might ‘take the lane’ include narrow roads, pinch points and junctions, a careless overtake in these areas may endanger the overtaking driver, oncoming traffic and/or the cyclist themselves.  The best thing to do in these situations is to hang back and patiently wait for a safe point to overtake, this is unlikely to affect your journey time by more than a couple of seconds. Shaving a few seconds off your journey time, is really not worth it for the damage you could potentially do to another human being (link not for the fainthearted).
  • Weaving through Traffic– This is known as filtering and, provided it is not done dangerously, is perfectly legal. This should be considered roughly similar to motorist’s desire to keep their average speed up by overtaking slower moving cyclists, and as bicycles are more compact this can sometimes speed up your journey by increasing junction throughput (just imagine if all those cyclists were in cars of their and sitting in front of you in the queue).
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While these are all common behaviours seen in cyclists, what the mass media really latch onto is law breaking. While there are those that just have a flagrant disregard for the highway code, for others there is often a reason behind their decision to bend the laws.

  • Red light jumping– This may not be as common as the media would have us believe: a study in London of 7502 cyclists, found that on average only 16% of cyclists ran red lights. I feel that the reason why this is blown out of proportion so often, is that when cyclists run red lights the do so much more visibly than motorists. While the cyclists that run lights often do so in the red phase and in front of stationary traffic, car drivers are much more likely to try to squeeze through in between amber and red. So while both users jump red lights, the cyclist is obviously the more noticeable one. While the majority of drivers are motivated to run red lights out of a desire to conserve momentum and travel time, this is often not the central reason for cyclists.
    One of the main reasons that cyclists run red lights is to get a head start on the trucks, buses and cars, so as to prevent left hooks, dangerous overtakes and tailgating while in the junction. One of theories put forward for the gender skewed HGV-cyclist casualty numbers, is that women are less likely to run a red light and are therefore more likely to be in the vicinity of a HGV when they conduct their turns. It often boils to down to either running the red light in between traffic streams, or staying and dealing with impatient and/or inattentive drivers behind.
  • Pavement cycling– I would say in the majority of cases the choice to cycle on the pavement is motivated out of fear for the cyclist’s own safety. Given the choice between cycling on the road, and therefore riding with multiple tonnes of metal propelled to high speeds, and cycling on the pavement, it is no surprise that so many cyclists choose to risk a £30/£60 instead of their lives. That so many people choose to put up with the inconvenience of cycling on the pavement and putting up with dodging pedestrians, street furniture and road mouths, really says a lot about the safety of our roads.
  • Not using cycling infrastructure– While this has long ago been overturned as a law and is now down to the cyclist’s individual judgement, the perception that this is illegal and unsociable still abounds. The central problem with the majority of so-called ‘cycling infrastructure’ is that it is at best inconvenient to use and at worst downright dangerous. On-road cycle lanes are often narrow, filled with debris, parked cars and drains, and encourage cyclists to cycle into the areas where they are most at risk (such as those that run right into the blind-spots of HGVs). Off-road cycle lanes are often in even worse repair; filled with surface defects, wet leaves and are strewn with numerous barriers and obstacles (not to mention pedestrians). Once again cyclist behaviour comes down to one theme; the desire to get from A to B in safety.

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For the average cyclist a trip along British roads is fraught with a huge number of decisions that effect their chances of arriving at their destination safely. Often balancing their own safety against the convenience of the motorists around them. It is no surprise therefore, that this makes them such an opportune target for the media. However this in no way sanctions the day to day discrimination, abuse and threats leveled at those people who choose to get from place to place by bicycle. If you substituted the name of any minority group with the word ‘cyclist’ in many rants and articles, the law courts would be flooded with cases of discrimination, racism and hate crime. That person on the bicycle in front of you is someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, daughter or son, all they want to do is get to the end of their journey in one piece. Cyclists have an equal and base right to be on the road. If you really want to get cyclists off the road, build us some proper infrastructure (and while we’re at it, the idea that cyclists should not get infrastructure because of the actions of a few, is completely absurd. It would be like the government no longer building motorways because so many drivers speed, use their mobile phones or behave like idiots).

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