Why Bicycles Are An Anomaly
Wednesday, 28 March 2007
THE UK’s traffic and transport system is not cohesive and makes no sense. I aim to show here that bicycles are neither understood nor taken seriously, and that their primary role is merely as a blunt weapon — mainly against the car. The car is the target of hatred by many for all sorts of reasons, even though it is extremely popular (see Why The Car is Best).
Public transport these days tends to be in the hands of private companies, and while there are calls for improved services, the government has already taken action. Very expensive action. This action has two effects: it targets cars and it appears to promote bicycles! (see How To Stop Traffic Jams & Save Lives).
To use the road, a car owner has to pay road tax. Bicyclists are getting their own bicycle lanes, but they do not have to pay road tax. Perhaps the road tax paid by car owners has contributed to the creation of the bicycle lanes and reduction of actual road — causing congestion.
To use the road, a car owner has to have car insurance by law — a minimum of “Third Party Fire and Theft”. Bicyclists do not have to have insurance of any kind. They can injure a third party, they can cause damage to a car, and be involved in a collision with other bicycles — all without any compulsion to have insurance cover at all.
To use the road, a car owner has to ensure that the car passes the MOT test, and is road-worthy and safe. Bicyclists do not have to maintain any standard for their bicycles. Indeed, any home-made creation that is pedal-powered can be described as a bicycle, even if it is large and dangerous to others!
The Highway Code has only nine rules for cyclists:
- At night: use lights;
- On a segregated cycle track, keep to the correct side;
- Obey traffic signals;
- Never carry a passenger unless the cycle has been modified;
- Never hold onto a moving motor vehicle;
- Never ride under the influence of drink or drugs;
- Never ride in a dangerous manner;
- Never ride on a pavement;
- Never cross a cycle-only crossing unless the green light shows.
It is clear that almost anything goes; a cyclist can dismount and walk with the bicycle — effectively becoming a pedestrian in an instant!
A glance at The Highway Code’s advice and suggestions indicates that a “cyclist” is someone who wears a helmet and has special clothes. It is not the law to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle, but it is the law to wear a helmet to ride a motorcycle or moped.
Thinking about clothes and helmets shows that there is no such thing as a cyclist; there are different types of bicycle user, and this has never before been acknowledged as far as I can determine — so let me do that right now in the hope that pedestrians, road users and governments take them into consideration. Maybe someone will change The Highway Code to something more relevant!
First of all, there are people who ride bicycles as a hobby — they are enthusiasts; they enjoy cycling or want to keep fit. They have invested a lot of money in their equipment and ancillaries. By and large, these people want the freedom to cycle at speed unhindered by traffic concerns, and cycle routes have been devised and cycle lanes created with such people in mind. Think of “The Tour de France”.
These enthusiasts travel great distances, and either return to their starting point or else require a shower and a change of clothes. Often a bag, pannier or lockers are required for the change of clothes (some cycling enthusiasts cycle to the office).
Other cycling enthusiasts include trickster kids with mountain bikes or BMX bikes. These kids tend to wear helmets along with knee and elbow pads. A lot of their cycling is off-road, either in nature — muddy hills and rocks — or else in man-made concrete parks. The Highway Code and the law seems not to recognise this type of cyclist — for the whole point of their endeavour is to drive dangerously, often on pavements — and stairs, benches, walls and more!
Mode of Transport
But there is a very important group of people who use bicycles merely as a way of getting from A to B. They are not enthusiasts, they do not spend a lot of money on the enterprise, and they do not ride in such a way that they need a change of clothes! A helmet is out of the question too — where to put it?
Not keeping fit, not doing tricks, not cycling for pleasure — we are talking about the overwhelming majority of people who use bicycles around the world. Think of Delhi, Beijing, the Netherlands or Sweden.
Think of rickety old bikes ridden slowly by old women, with a basket on the handlebars for groceries, a vicar trundling along the country parish lanes, a student, a schoolkid. Not a stitch of Lycra to be seen!
This type of bicycle-user is going to school, university, work or the shops. They require a basket, saddlebags or panniers and a method of locking the bicycle to a fence or lamp-post. They are too slow for the open road, and too slow for the cycle lanes. In fact they are considered an annoyance by cycling enthusiasts!
As a result they ride on pavements and cross at traffic lights — they have weighed up the risks and decided that they are in less danger to themselves and less of a danger to others that way.
Riding on the pavement carries a penalty of £500, but riding carelessly is £1000 and riding a bicycle dangerously on the road carries a penalty of £2500. It’s a no-brainer. Plus there’s a lot of grey areas — for example the Toucan Crossing allows cycle crossing along with pedestrians which implies that the bicycle is on the pavement beside the pedestrians!
Bicycles are used as a main form of transport abroad, far more than here in the UK. Can this be down to the climate? I do not believe so; bicycles are more popular in Northern Europe (Holland, Sweden, Germany etc) than the warmer Southern Europe. It is more of a culture thing; there is less shopping in big out-of-town supermarkets, less living in suburban areas, less cache for possessions like cars. They are less embarrassed by the bicycle than the Brits. I can vividly recall leaving a trendy and popular nightclub in Uppsala some years ago, and being greatly amused that everyone went home at 3am by bicycle! Can Brits ever get to that stage? Not without a complete rethink of The Highway Code, cycle lanes and cycle routes!
There is a movement in the bicycle manufacturing industry to promote bicycle use by ordinary people — as a mode of transport, rather than being a hobby. The bicycle itself is being re-designed with “real people” in mind. Raleigh USA’s site (www.raleighusa.com) show the effect of The Shimano organisation (bike.shimano.com) — who seem to be leading the way by making low maintenance bikes with automatic transmissions and coaster brakes. Trek (www2.trekbikes.com), and Giant (www.giant-bicycles.com) are all making bicycles with big chain guards and upright riding positions.
What I am trying to get across here is that the group that actually use bicycles the most do not use (or need) bicycle lanes or tracks. People need to get about efficiently, and so they will prefer a direct and short route to a scenic cycle route every time. Cycle lanes and cycle routes have cost millions of pounds to create, but they serve a small specialist group of enthusiasts. The bicycle is a real anomaly.
Let’s face the truth, cycle lanes are not really promoting cycling at all — they are all about creating congestion and slowing down traffic (so-called traffic calming). Less a defence of the bicycle and more an attack on the car!
- Here’s a website by a cycling enthusiast in Glasgow, Scotland. With photographs to illustrate the point, this chap shows how poorly these cycle routes are at serving any kind of cyclist. There is only one conclusion to be drawn: cycle lanes are there as a traffic management measure.
- There’s a fabulous site of photographs of Amsterdam’s millions of cyclists, on phones and doing all sorts of mad things – www.ski-epic.com/amsterdam_bicycles/