I’m writing this article while sitting on my backside on the train. I have some reasonable excuses (a slight sniffle and about four inches of snow on the ground being two of them). But the reality is that if it was only up to me, I’d be riding my bike into work regardless.
The truth is, the bike has been left in the shed because the other half asked me to leave it in the shed. Naturally, a discussion resulted from such a request – some might call it a debate – but in the end, the wife won. But the episode got me thinking – about the perception of how dangerous cycling is compared to the reality, as well as a fair amount of surmising about the reality too, but also about the selfishness some of us show when taking to the bike.
Loved ones are often more affected by a decision to ride to work through busy traffic than the cyclist. As cyclists, we can jump on, push off and become absorbed in the exercise of riding a bike within seconds. Loved ones, however, can only hope that they arrive at their destinations safely.
Without wanting to over dramatise the dangers of cycling in major cities (a BBC documentary already did a good job of that) there is an inherent danger involved in cycling in busy traffic. And while experienced commuters may feel that the majority of those dangers are reserved for newbie riders, this isn’t always the case.
Experienced riders are killed on our roads too.
There’s a stretch of road on my commute that reflects well the attitude many experienced commuters in the UK have. A straight run, the road in question has a perfectly good, two-way cycle path sharing the pavement on one side. A rough assessment, however, would suggest that about a third of those cycling in rush-hour traffic use it. The rest are on the road, inches from a perfectly good, segregated cycle path.
It’s a strange sight and, from the point of view of drivers, quite difficult to defend. As drivers stack up behind cyclists, tutting (sometimes honking and shouting) at them for refusing to use a dedicated cycle path, the cyclists continue regardless, satisfied in the knowledge that use of the path is in no way obligatory.
The point here, however, is not to investigate the moral issues of cycle-path usage, but rather to investigate the psychology of cyclists. I hold my hand up to being one of those who uses the road rather than the cycle path more often that not – one reason being that I have to slow to mount the pavement, another that I can maintain a faster speed on the road, and another that I think (probably incorrectly) that the cycle path will have more debris than the road.
But the crucial issue here is that I’m willing to accept the increased risk of doing so.
That means the prospect of drivers who are potentially angered because of being held up by a cyclist despite the presence of an empty, segregated cycle path (in my experience, drivers pass closer than they do when there isn’t a cycle path – perhaps because they believe I should be on it and, as a result, would only have myself to blame.)
But consider how illogical such a decision would appear to loved ones, or, even, to those cyclists who commute to work by bike in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Loved ones (at least those who don’t cycle) probably think that cycle commuting is dangerous and will be angered if we didn’t take every opportunity to reduce risk, never mind purposefully make choices that increase it.
Those cycling in bike-friendly cities, meanwhile, will simply not understand why we choose to ride with traffic when it isn’t necessary.
If, in the UK, we are to successfully recreate the type of cycling culture that exists elsewhere in Europe, this type of psychology must change – we must accept a drop in average speed and the necessity to slow in order to mount cycle paths. We must see cycling as a means of transport, and not as method of training.
And by doing so, our loved ones would be able to worry that little bit less.
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