Who has a right to the road? With all the news lately about air pollution, roads overcrowded with buses and cyclist deaths, it’s clear not everyone does in London.
I desperately want to cycle in this city. As I expounded on profusely a couple years ago as a new regular rider, there are so many benefits to cycling and I miss them dearly. When I lived in Chicago, bike share was my primary mode of transportation–for commuting, for socialising, for errands, spontaneously and in any season. I do not by any means consider myself a hardcore cyclist, nor is Chicago any sort of cycling utopia a la Copenhagen or Amsterdam. But Chicago has gone through considerable investment to make the city cycle friendly for more people; and it’s their investment in physically protected bike lanes and inexpensive, well-managed bike share that propelled me into being a committed rider. And the beauty of these types of cycle infrastructure is that they’re not reserved for only the hardcore lycra-clad road cyclists (MAMIL-middle aged man in lycra, as they’re called in Norway) or the hipster fixie set, they’re meant for me and all the other regular people out there who just want a faster, cheaper, healthier way to get around.
But then I moved to London. Between the lack of a straightforward street grid and absolutely no space on narrow roads for legitimate cycle lanes (let alone protected ones), I was already wary. But so many people here cycle. All my colleagues do. Full lanes of streets on my commute are filled with cyclists. Mayor Boris Johnson is an avid cyclist and he and Transport for London recently unveiled plans for new “cycle superhighways.” But then there are near weekly headlines of cyclists dying under the wheels of lorries. Friends warn you to practice your commute on weekends (so much for spontaneous travel). You see daily others having near misses in front of you.
A few weeks ago, the London Evening Standard featured a front page article trying to make sense of why most of this year’s cyclist deaths have been women and most of them have been at the hands of lorry drivers. The article states that “every woman who has died on a bike in the capital since August 2011 was hit by a truck — 16 in total.” It’s a startling statistic. Those women could have been me. In fact, I’m even more at risk, as most of them were seasoned London cyclists. Despite other commonalities such as the fact that most happened at major roundabouts and bridge approaches or that many of the lorry drivers were driving with violations, the article chose to focus on what the women cyclists were doing wrong. This level of victim blaming is not only wrong, but irresponsible.
It may be true that women cyclists may tend to be slower, more tentative or follow rules, all of which may make it easier for vehicle drivers to kill them, but a system that not only penalises, but kills people who follow rules or cycle conservatively is not a system that supports cycling, or frankly, people. There are different types of cyclists, just as there are different kinds of vehicle drivers. You wouldn’t expect a football mom in a minivan or pensioner in a station wagon to be able to navigate race car tracks and obstacle courses, nor should you. When you send your teenage child out to drive as a learner driver, you don’t expect them to die because they’re new or your grandmother to die because she drives slowly, why is that the expectation for cyclists? And does that mean children, slow riders, people who can’t afford fast cycles, new riders, tourists and other regular, rule abiding people like I am aren’t meant to be on the road? Because that’s what it feels like.
Research shows that when cyclists don’t wear helmets, cars tend to give them more space. This isn’t an argument not to wear helmets, but perhaps the London cyclist culture of aggressive, rule-breaking puts car drivers not in the mindset of sharing the road with vulnerable users, but instead competing for the road against equals. This might work for the subset of people willing to and physically capable of aggressive cycling, but leaves out the rest of us regular people. And if as a society we want to promote low carbon, sustainable modes of transport (which we must, for air pollution, climate change and other reasons), then building a cycle network for that small percentage won’t work.