Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Cycle of Life - I cycle and I drive - shock, horror

I used to live in the heart of Forest Gate. If you don’t know that area, imagine Stratford but shitter (I know, it doesn’t seem possible). If Forest Gate were a B movie, it’d called something like, The Land The Council Forgot.

Whilst Stratford was lavished with Olympics Regeneration cash, Forest Gate got bunting. Seriously, I don’t know if Newham council could have come up with a more decorative ‘fuck you’ to the people of Forest Gate than a mile and a half of teeny, tiny coloured flags.

Despite its less appealing associations such knife crime and Ricin factories, I liked living in Forest Gate. I soon grew to appreciate the charm of the chicken shop, betting shop, launderette high street. We actually have a fantastic local park and I was a stone’s throw from Wanstead Flats, a huge green space which somehow has managed to swerve having a hundred Barratt homes shat on it.

My only problem was transport. The 'simplest' way for me to get to a tube line was a 20 minute walk to Stratford or a bus ride.  

If you’ve seen any of my stand up, you may already be familiar with the infamous mode of transportation that is the no.25. which dissected Forest Gate, meandering through East London from Ilford right into the heart of the West End, terminating just behind John Lewis.

Until recently, the 25 was one of Mayor Ken’s bendy bus routes. Known affectionately as the free bus, it was a pleasant if rare experience to see people pay to ride it. These things had three doors and one driver. It didn’t take Steven Hawking to do the maths.

During off peak times, it was quite a pleasant ride into town as, once you got past Aldgate East, this route gave sightseeing buses a run for their money, taking in Bank, The City, St.Pauls and the West End and at the weekend, swinging by Tower Bridge and The Embankment.

The problem was, if you were one of the poor suckers that travelled on the 25 at peak times. To say the bus got packed was an understatement. Battery-farmed chickens would have looked at us passengers and thought, “Now we know why we get such a crappy deal. Look how they treat each other”.

And sadly, some of the bus users weren’t the most community-minded of people and did little to make it easy for others to board (or breathe some days. Would a little swizz of deodorant kill you?). 

So eventually, after giving it a fair crack of the whip, I bailed on the charming squeeze-onto-a-human-sardine-can ritual and opted for cycling instead.

I’d never really cycled before so it was a huge learning curve. I had to learn the rules of the road all over again (I hadn’t driven for a while either), I had to get my arse down to Decathlon and get kitted out. I had to learn how to read a map. My original plan was to cycle to Stratford station and leave my bike there but when I realised I could kill two birds with one stone - get to work and get some exercise, I decided to go for it.

It was great. I was arriving at work exhilarated every morning. I was chuffed that I’d made it in alive but I was also so proud of myself for taking on something that I’d always been too scared to do.

It took me 50 – 55 minutes to get from Forest Gate to Bond Street. Door to door, that’s pretty much how long it took me on the tube but the difference was, I was totally in control of my journey time, I was getting exercise and I wasn’t crammed onto a smelly tube train.

As exhilarating as it was however, the first few weeks were also quite hairy. The sound of a taxi or bus rearing up behind you, at first, was terrifying. Sometimes I wondered if I was hearing the sound of a no.25 hunting me down. “If you don’t travel in me, you’ll be under me!”

I was stunned at how close people would drive to me. Most often it was male, commercial drivers, people who drove for a living and perhaps had a little bit of history with two-wheeled road users.

One evening I was cycling home down Romford Road, the main thoroughfare in Forest Gate and after I’d pulled away from the lights, a car came so close to me, it clipped my jacket that was tied round my waist. I pulled over, shaking. This was my first near-miss. Literally two more inches to the left and they would have knocked me off my bike.

I didn’t say anything to my mum. It would have upset her. I also didn’t say anything about the time another car nearly knocked me over as I was coming through Stratford roundabout. I kept quiet about the cars that would speed up to overtake me at a junction so they could turn left in front of me causing me to nearly fly over my handle bars. I thought I’d best not mention the pedestrians, mainly teenagers, who would step out into the road without looking (usually listening to headphones) causing me to swerve to avoid them. I hope she doesn’t read this and hear about the many times I’ve nearly been run off the road by cars trying to squeeze by me even though the road is too narrow for a car and a bike. She’d only worry.

It wasn’t like I was an angel though. As a newbie, I picked up bad habits. In particular, I was a red light jumper. I wasn’t thinking about safety (though that was the justification I used). I was thinking about getting home as fast as I could.

One evening, a fellow cyclist stopped me and told me I could get fined.

And it really got me thinking. Aside from the money, as a road user the lights are there for me too so I should adhere to them. Also, when I really started thinking about it (hmm that’s not like me to over think something – it totally is. I hope you’re not judging me. OK, I don’t mind), I realised that a) red lights cause breaks in traffic further up the road making it easier for drivers trying to make a tricky right turn at a junction with no lights, and b) when cyclist go across crossings when there’s a red light, it causes confusion for pedestrians going the other way.

I stopped jumping red lights.

I also stopped cycling on pavements. Unless there was absolutely no one around, I would stay off them. I realised, as a pedestrian, how irritating it is when someone comes hurtling towards me on a bike as I’m walking somewhere so why would I do it to others?
I think adults who regularly cycle on pavements are dicks.
In fact, here’s my dick list

Andi’s road user dick list
  • Cyclists who jump lights
  • Cyclists who go on pavements
  • Cyclists who don’t dismount in parks when there are signs asking them to
  • Cyclists who don’t use lights at night
  • Pedestrians who don’t look before crossing the road
  • ALL drivers who drive too close to cyclists (you are in a 4 wheeled vehicle that could destroy that human being and you’re more concerned about being fast than considerate??)
  • ALL cyclists who ride like maniacs near pedestrians i.e. pedestrianized zones and at junctions with no traffic lights
  • Drivers who try to squeeze past cyclists when there’s no space
  • Drivers who stop inside the cyclists box at lights
  • Taxi and bus drivers who drive so close to cyclists they’re practically entering them
  • People who express anything other than sadness when they hear that another cyclist has been killed on London’s roads.
My heart hurts when I hear that yet another cyclist has lost their life just trying to get from one place to another. I’ve cycled many times over and under the Bow Flyover where, most recently there have been a number of fatalities and I can attest to how dangerous this place is for cyclists. I used to ride through it in a heightened state of alert as you’re surrounded not just by buses and cars but a large number of heavy goods vehicles heading towards the Blackwall tunnel. I used to breathe a sigh of relief once I got through this area.  

I don’t know the specific details or circumstances surrounding the deaths but I believe most cyclists try to be as safe as they can when they’re on the roads. When I’m on my bike, I see everything. Even when pedestrians aren’t looking out for themselves, I am. And the advice I was given was, ride like everyone’s trying to kill you (and believe me, some days it feels like that).  

I think sometimes, drivers lose touch with the vulnerability of the cyclist, how little protection they really have and how a bit more thought is required when navigating the roads they share with them.
 There are, of course, many truly generous drivers who pass by cyclists slowly, make eye contact before making a manoeuvre that affects them, keeping a safe distance and generally acting like a decent human being.

In fact, most people are decent and because of this I simply cannot understand how cyclists have become hate figures.  Cyclists are people we all know. Perhaps in your family or circle of friends. They may be work colleagues. Hey, you know me. We’re people with loved ones and families, and needs and wants, likes and dislikes, pets, a CD collection, family photos, stuff. I have many friends who cycle, they have children and mortgages and cars. They’re just people. 

And while some cyclists can make driving a little more challenging, it seems only fair that drivers, as they’re in the bigger and safer of the two vehicles, cut cyclists just a little slack. Part of living in a society is about making allowances and doing your bit. 

There are thousands of cyclists on the roads ever day – not cluttering up the tube, not polluting the air, not taking up parking spaces. That doesn’t make them saints but it is a good thing. Motorists can give them a little leeway.

When you’re in a car and on the rare occasion you see a cyclist do something you don’t like, be patient. Breathe. Don’t yell at them or drive up close to prove a point. That behaviour keeps the motorist vs cyclist war alive. (Equally cyclists, don’t be dicks). If an opportunity arises to say, in a non-aggressive way to a fellow road user, that their behaviour was dangerous, of course take it, but telling someone you’ll see them next Tuesday solves nothing. However, pulling up next to someone and saying “Next time you go through that junction, could you let the cyclists go first. It’d really help. Thanks” or “Do you guys mind cycling in single file, it makes it easier for drivers to pass you, cheers” is much better and everyone gets to carry on having a good day.  

We’ve all got horror stories of inconsiderate behaviour from fellow road users but do we judge future encounters based on previous ones? No, because we’re grown ups and we remember that we’re all just people trying to live our lives and get from one place to another in one piece, all of us.

I write this as a road user, a daughter, a sister, a friend. I am a tube user, I am a motorist, I am a cyclist, I am a pedestrian and I am a Londoner. 

3 comments:

  1. Very topical (but I guess that's the point), I have cycled our roads before but very quickly retreated back to my car when I realized what a frightening experience it can be. We live in a society where 4 wheels are given priority over 2 wheels and cyclists are seen as little more than a nuisance. I'm not a dick (I hope) but I have also jumped red lights (as a cyclist), swore at cyclists for being "stupid" while in my car and when I was younger cycled on the pavement. I didn't purposely do these things to be an asshole but in today's culture of rush rush rush sometimes we should step back and think about what we are doing and how it might affect others. Any death on the road is a death too many and it really is time for the whole bicycle v car "war" to stop. The last week or so in London has really hit home how dangerous our roads are, especially in out cities and the "knee jerk" reaction of some people is a damning indictment of today's society. As you rightly point out these are people like you and me NOT just an annoyance whose only purpose is to wind up car drivers. The next time I see a cyclist on the road I will certainly think s bit more about what I am doing around them and I hope other people will do the same. Out of interest Andi how does cycling in America compare?

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  2. I think that cyclists should be allowed to use the pavements provided they're not going too fast - perhaps 8 mph, i.e. running speed.
    Unfortunately, with so many road users, there are bound to be many drivers and cyclists who are a danger; but there are currently few effective ways to identify and handle them. The social implications of such a capability could be pretty terrifying too.
    Peter C

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  3. Cool blog - when I saw the title I though "oh dear - here we go!" but I was pleasantly surprised. I've been bike commuting for about 10 years now and been hit by a car three times. Surprisingly never my fault. I never cycle on pavements and I always stop at red lights, I also carry 3rd party insurance, but the number of people who start any argument by stereotyping me as a red-light jumping lycra-clad menace is quite depressing. Strangely these diatribes often start with "Hey I'm not anti-cyclist, some of my best friends are cyclists..."!

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