Metropolitan life: On their bikes, on your nerves?

Cyclists may be environmentally sound and morally superior, but some people are starting to hate 'em, says Simon O'Hagan
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There can't be anybody who would dispute that, in principle at any rate, it's a mode of transport to be encouraged: quiet, clean, socially beneficial, a two-wheeled rebuke to the tyranny of the motor car that, given the chance, could bring humanity and sanity to impersonal, frenzied and dangerous streets. Yes, we all approve of cycling - it's just cyclists we can't stand.

For pedestrians, the car will always be the No1 danger and therefore the No1 enemy. Increasingly, however, a secondary battle is being fought, between those on foot and those on bicycles, in which the invasion of the former group's territory by the latter has become a thoroughly unwelcome feature of modern city life. The result is what you might call pavement rage. And with so many cyclists behaving the way they do, who can blame pedestrians for wanting to let their tyres down?

Nobody who lives in a city can fail to have noticed that most cyclists, when it suits them, now regard the pavement as their highway. To hell with anyone who might be foolish enough to think it's only for walking along. Pedestrian crossings are likewise no longer safe just because the little man's turned green. When did you last see a cyclist bother to stop at a red light? Cyclists, it seems, know nothing of the rules of the road, and care about them even less.

Motorists and cyclists have long since antagonised each other. There was a time when one's sympathies would have been with the more obviously vulnerable of those groups, but now that the high street has become no more than an asphalt black run against which cyclists can test the limits of their recklessness, who can blame drivers for complaining?

Criticising cyclists has always felt a bit mean, not to say politically incorrect. But when the London magazine Time Out dared to carry a virulently anti-cyclist article recently, it was noticeable how many readers, their feelings running equally high, wrote in agreeing with the author.

A lot of this read like a long suppressed reaction to the perceived self- righteousness of cyclists, for many of whom riding a bike seems to be not just about getting from pavement A to pavement B but the adoption of a cause, a political statement, an expression of defiance in the face of all-powerful forces , ie cars and the transport policy-makers who still allow them to clog up the roads. Fair enough. Maybe there has been some moral justification for cyclists taking the law into their own hands, but things have got so out of hand that pedestrians just aren't buying that any more.

"Cyclists on pavements have become very much more of a problem," says Ros Weatherall, co-ordinator of the Pedestrians Policy Group. "Most people would admit that there are situations when it's not dangerous for cyclists to come on to the pavement, but what we don't want is for pavements to be eaten up. It's very frightening when a cyclist roars up behind you.

"One of the problems with inner London is it's such a hostile area to ride around that the only cyclists who come in are either extremely brave ones or they are cycle couriers - and because they are under a time pressure they are charging about, on and off pavements, and setting a very bad example to people."

Even cycling organisations are recognising that something must be done. At yesterday's annual meeting of the London Cycling Campaign, a pressure group furthering the cause of the capital's cyclists, a workshop addressed the question of "shared space" on pavements, a tacit admission that the present state of reluctant co-existence is highly unsatisfactory. None the less, the campaign is sensitive to criticism of London cyclists and disputes the view widely held among pedestrians that the vast majority of them are a downright menace.

"I would argue that the problem is not as endemic as people make out," says the campaign's Sandra Velthuis. "You hear figures such as 80 per cent of cyclists break the law, but how true is that? Most often it's just young teenage lads. It doesn't help having this argument; there are bad road users of all kinds, full stop. But cyclists don't kill pedestrians on pavements, whereas something like 400 pedestrians on pavements are killed by cars every year. You have to remember that people feel alienated in a big city. They have no control over the traffic, so when they do see a cyclist jumping a red light it's something they can focus their anger on. Cyclists are scapegoats."

Most of the cyclists I spoke to one morning in central London last week made no attempt to deny the accusation that they nearly all rode where they liked, regardless of pedestrians' rights and safety. But they all pointed out that, in the absence of special lanes, they were riding on roads that were simply not designed for cyclists, and had to adjust, ie break the law accordingly. "I think jumping red lights is one generalisation you can make," said Wayne Templer, 41, a researcher, who has cycled in London for eight years. "I can well understand pedestrians getting het up. I'd like to think I do it judiciously, but at traffic lights we don't want to have to pick up our momentum again so most of the time we'll go straight through. I would agree that cyclists often infringe on the pavements, but it's probably the younger ones and the couriers who ride on the pavement with abandon."

Trying to stop a cycle courier to put these points proved, by its nature, to be rather difficult, but when I did, Mark Brackley, 35, turned out to be perhaps the only sensible one in London. "I tend to avoid going through a red light because if anything happens to you you haven't got a leg to stand on from a legal point of view." Nor, possibly, from a physical one either. "People naturally get stroppy if you ride on the pavement, but you see some of the lads and they're on and off the pavement all the time."

Cyclists' attitudes are clearly underpinned by their sense of a shared plight. Wayne Templer told me of an incident in which he saw a tourist coach pulled out in front of a cyclist and, when he started banging on its door in protest, other passing cyclists joined in.

Lindsey Brown, 24, a student, said she and her friends regularly swapped stories of the perils of London cycling. The black cab was their bete noire, as it were. "They're always trying to drive us off the road." To invite an opinion on cyclists from a black cab driver is to risk being swept away on a torrent of vitriol. "A lot of them seem to want to get killed," one told me.

Brown freely admitted to riding on the pavement "because often it was the only safe way of getting around". She's probably right, and the answer to all this must be to build the lanes that will get cyclists out of motorists' and pedestrians' hair. In the meantime, they might like to note that as they fast turn into the bullies as much as the bullied, they are creating another oppressed grouping that is beginning to find its voice.

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