On a recent visit to New York City, I witnessed a fight between a cyclist and a pedestrian on Fifth Avenue. The cyclist was furious, even though, it was pointed out, he was going the wrong way through a red light, and over a pedestrian crossing in the dark with no lights on.
The New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has made a big show of making the city more like London by creating wide lanes for cycles only, and adopting a "Boris bikes" scheme. But there are some things that can't be exported. Britain is a cycling nation. It is in our DNA, whether as commuters or as wannabe Tour de France winners. And while New York, particularly after Hurricane Sandy, has embraced the bike, the basic cycling etiquette, which we drill into our children, of at least making an attempt not to run over the most vulnerable road-users is still a generation away from being common practice in the States.
This week, a £1bn investment in cycling in the capital is to be unveiled, designed to encourage the rest of the country to follow suit. So the timing of Wednesday's War on Britain's Roads (BBC1, 9pm) is apt, illustrating as it does the battle between the "two tribes": motorists and cyclists, two factions whose division lines seem both deep and immovable, and who blame each other for all that goes wrong on the roads. I suspect that most people will be watching in anticipation of finding evidence that they are in the right. Certainly, anyone whose blood boils both at cab drivers or Mamils (middle-aged men in Lycra) will find lots of ammunition.
It takes an American abroad, such as the novelist Lionel Shriver,w hose moral compass is otherwise impeccable but who would have you believe that cycling around New York was like the Henley Regatta on two wheels, to lament the explosion in the number of cyclists on Britain's roads. No longer, she claims, can she cycle below the radar through the streets, "getting away with something". As if it were not enough that cabbies are turning on cyclists, we are turning on each other".
It is true that there are more cyclists on the road than ever, with an increase of over a million in the past three years, the result of recessional, environmental and health concerns. It is now a common sight to have 30 or more cyclists lined up and ready to jump the lights before they turn, trying to steal a march on the commuter traffic, but also each other. I should know. I'm one.
And this is the issue that cyclists and campaigners would like us to ignore. Cycling is not just a commute, but a way of life. Most of the cyclists you see at the traffic lights want to ride fast. They don't spend thousands of pounds on the latest carbon-fibre frame to keep it in a box. And they will readily admit that part of the reason for getting on a bike in the first place is to beat the traffic. There is a thrill to riding a bike, to spotting a gap and weaving around apparently stationary cars pretending to be Bradley Wiggins, as though playing some hyper-realistic video game – all the while plugged into headphones, and without licence plates, which make any misdemeanour virtually untraceable. As one interviewee says, it's really exciting to "look down at your speedometer and see that you're going at 30 miles an hour". I'm sorry, but if you're going to travel that fast through busy streets, you are asking for trouble.
As it is, this is exactly what more and more cyclists are doing. Then, armed with helmet cameras, they record their daily commutes, all - posted online in graphic detail. There are now vigilantes, like "Traffic Droid", who take to the street to record dangerous driving, and posr it online to shame the drivers. While it is clear that shaming drivers has an effect in localised incidents, it hardly discourages the "us and them" mentality, nor the feeling that every cyclist and motorist is one wing mirror away from a punch-up.
What the technology and the speed of bikes, as well as their mass availability, have done is foster an attitude of moral superiority: that because they can get knocked down, it is everyone else who should be on the lookout for them. It did not help that earlier this year John Griffin, the chairman of Addison Lee, the private taxi firm, weighed into the row, in the company's magazine: "Cyclists are throwing themselves on to some of the most congested spaces in the world. They leap on to a vehicle, which offers them no protection except a padded plastic hat.
"Should a motorist fail to observe a granny [on her bike] wobbling to avoid a pothole or a rain drain, then he is guilty of failing to anticipate that this was somebody on her maiden voyage into the abyss. The fact is he just didn't see her, and however cautious, caring or alert he is, the influx of beginner cyclists is going to lead to an overall increase in accidents involving cyclists.
"The rest of us occupying this road space have had to undergo extensive training. We are sitting inside a protected space with impact bars and air bags and paying extortionate amounts of taxes on our vehicle purchase, parking, servicing, insurance and road tax."
He concluded: "It is time for us to say to cyclists, 'You want to join our gang, get trained and pay up.'" Cycling campaigners were aghast, but he has a point. You can't expect to take to the streets on a bike and be treated with kid gloves. Cyclists need to be vigilant, not vigilantes.
While the road-rage debate covered in the programme is unlikely to make either party change its point of view, its more profound message covers the story of the fatalities on the road, made more tragic for being so easily avoidable. Following the story of a mother's ingenious campaign to see some good come out of her daughter's death, it focuses the attention on what can and is being done to bring down the number of road fatalities caused by heavy goods vehicles. In her book Pedal Power, Sonia Purnell, Boris Johnson's unofficial biography, showed that simple measures such as investing in extra mirrors and proximity sensors, and additional training for drivers, as offered by one firm cited in War On Britain's Roads, can cut the number of fatalities: 107 in 2011, many marked by hauntingly white ghost bikes.
It was my history teacher who taught us the Highway Code. Her first lesson was to treat every other road user as a moron. And while it might be too much to assume we are going to get knocked down every time we put on our cycle clips, we would be doing ourselves a favour by remembering that motorists don't have our interests at heart. Would it be too much trouble to raise an arm in acknowledgement when a taxi lets us through, or a cement mixer doesn't turn in front of us? It is a reminder, at the very least, that we are human too and that not all of us are idiots on wheels.
Tomorrow morning, I will be getting on my bike with my two-year-old son on the back to take him three miles across town to nursery. Even in the pouring rain he loves it, and having him strapped on behind me has undoubtedly made me a better cyclist, as he is a constant reminder of our vulnerability. He is also a reminder that, as the number of cyclists increases, we owe it to the next generation of road-users to teach them how to behave on the roads. If we don't, we risk undoing all that makes cycling in this country an enjoyable way of passing the time between work and home, and turning it into the nightmare on Fifth Avenue that commuters there live with every day.
Robin Harvie's 'Why We Run: A Story of Obsession', is published by John Murray. twitter.com/robinharvie
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