Toward the end of 2013, after six London cycling fatalities in less than a fortnight, officialdom’s response was predictably lame and insulting. Boris Johnson tut-tutted about cyclists who spurn helmets, run traffic lights and listen to headphones. The Met instituted a quota of summonses per officer to be issued to cyclist scoff-laws, and sent police squads to pull over even law-abiding cyclists and chide them about helmets and high-vis jackets (not required by law). Excuse me. Of the six deaths that set off this mayoral censure and police crackdown, five occurred in encounters with lorries or buses. There was no evidence available that any of the fatalities were due to an absence of helmets (which aren’t much use under the wheels of a cement-mixer), headphones or the victims’ violations of the Highway Code. The only faction being punished was the one getting killed.
Safely organising big cities for a mix of road-users is complicated, and London presents an especially hard nut to crack in this respect. Many roads are too narrow to accommodate separate bike lanes, and high-demand parking compromises the lanes that have been installed. Infrastructure solutions in a densely packed, eternally crumbling metropolis are bound to be expensive, inadequate and slow in coming. Yet what interests me as much as the logistical challenge is the cultural one. The trouble with traffic in London — and many other Western cities — is emotional.
If we focus only on feeling, London cyclists are entirely culpable. Indeed, I’ve written before about the cut-throat cycling culture in this city, for push-bikers in the capital regard one another as enemies to be vanquished. There’s no sense of being a part of a community: “fellow” cyclists are rivals to be left behind in the dust. Amid any clump of London commuters revving in toe-clips at lights, the dominant emotions are loathing and contempt. If motorists find cyclists’ self-destructive behaviour inexplicable, there’s often an obvious reason why, say, 15 cyclists just veered in front of a bus on Waterloo Bridge: they’re trying to get ahead of each other. They’re not even thinking about the traffic. They’re operating in their separate adrenalin-pumped, cog-eat-cog world.
This emotional problem — getting about town in a state of sustained rage, regarding all other road users as adversaries and feasting on disdain for the countless manoeuvres of manifest idiocy we witness along the way-is not exclusive to cyclists. The gestalt of London traffic is universally hostile.
Given the competition for limited space, I might have regarded this Darwinian mindset as inevitable had I not had opportunity last October to appear in a literary festival in Bali. An increasingly popular tourist destination, this small island has built a host of new hotels, resorts and restaurants without having significantly improved its infrastructure. Roads are narrow, pavements nonexistent. Especially with a large festival in Ubud, traffic was often bumper-to-bumper, while cycles and swarms of scooters filled every interstice. With no proper parking spaces, a pulled-over minivan immediately turned a two-way street into a one-way street with two-way traffic (a situation Londoners know well).
But the drivers were so patient! Long lines of tailbacked cars would systematically take turns filing through the single lane around an obstacle, without the help of cops. Although scooters made frequent moves that might seem foolhardy, no one scolded or shouted or cursed. The whole ballet was executed at such a sedate pace, and in such a state of live-and-let-live serenity, that I didn’t see so much as a prang. When I asked my driver why the motorists never got angry, the young man explained, “When you stress, you hurt your health. If I get sick, I cannot support my family.” Broadly, the Balinese believe that it’s in one’s larger interests to rise above.
Cultural change doesn’t come about by fiat, and London motorists, cyclists, lorry drivers and motorbike riders are unlikely to experience any overnight conversion to a miraculous inner calm. But since my return from Bali, I have experimented with an accommodative tranquillity on a bicycle that makes my journey not only more pleasant but probably safer to boot. A pedestrian steps in front of me? No problem, I brake. Another bike wants to overtake? Go ahead; I’m not in a hurry. A car cuts me off without signalling? At least I detected that the car was turning left in time, and no one was hurt.
Oh, no doubt my half-baked Hindu happiness won’t last. Still, whatever our mode of transport, we could all stand to dial back emotions in traffic that increase risk-taking, aggression and abuse of others’ rights of way. Hypertensive seething, chronic consternation and violent dislike — if not for individuals, for motorists or cyclists as a class — help to explain why people on London roads are getting killed.