The perils of two-wheeled oiks in lycra

‘The cyclist’s pent-up hostility and cavalier attitude to rules finds its apotheosis in confrontations with pedestrians’

Samir Shah

Last month, Boris Johnson gave the green light to the HS2 rail link. He sugared the pill by waxing lyrical about his plans to boost cycling. Johnson promised that we would see “mini-Hollands blooming across the country like so many tulips”, and spoke of “a new generation of cyclists” who would “pedal safely and happily to school and work in tree-dappled sunlight on their own network of fully segregated cycle paths”. I am afraid the Prime Minister has been drinking too much Kool-Aid when it comes to cycling. 

He would be better off focusing on making life safer for walkers. Indeed, last month also saw the launch by the charity Living Streets of its Manifesto for Walking. It wants to make London “the world’s most walkable city”. There are loads of good ideas: create a central London walking network, which could be replicated in other town centres. Living Streets argues that by investing in street improvements, it’s possible to simultaneously “cut congestion, reduce air pollution and ensure walking is easy and safe”.

The facts are compelling: one in four trips in London is made on foot. More journeys are made each day on foot than by tube or buses. One in three trips made by car or public transport in London could be walked in less than 25 minutes. Two thirds of Londoners say they would walk more if streets were more pedestrian friendly.

Even more compelling are the comparisons with cycling: 58 pedestrians killed in London in 2018 compared with 12 cyclists. And 1,309 pedestrians seriously injured in London in 2018 compared to 770 cyclists.

Whenever a cyclist is killed, it is almost always covered by the local news bulletins. But not so the death of a pedestrian. That passes by unremarked upon, despite the overlap in causes such as left-hand turns or failing to stop or yield. And, finally, this: figures revealed by the Department for Transport in 2018 revealed a 15 per cent increase in collisions between pedestrians and cyclists.

We all know about the MAMIL—the Middle-Aged Man in Lycra. I witness them in their hundreds on my journey to work along Victoria Embankment and Millbank. Four or five abreast, weaving in and out of the blue cycle strip, racing (each other or themselves?), overtaking on the inside, no bells, no lights and on a hair-trigger—ready to fly off in a rage at any moment. And now we have all wearily accepted that they ignore every rule of the Highway Code: breaking the speed limit, cycling in the wrong direction on a one-way street and jumping red lights. But since none of this really poses a threat to cars, buses, taxis or lorries, the bad behaviour is left unpunished. 

The cycling lobby does have a trump card and they play it mercilessly: the simple fact that they do not use fossil fuels or pollute the environment. What it has done is breed a high horse on which cyclists mount as easily as they do their bikes. And let us face it, they have won. Cars and other motorised transport are on the retreat. Harnessing the power of the climate change lobby has made cycling almost unassailable. The problem is that their trump card has now become a get-out-of-jail card for cyclists to do as they please.

Even so, it is time to call out cyclists on behalf of a group occupying yet-higher moral ground—pedestrians. Once they were allied against the internal combustion engine, but try running into a cyclist now. Shorn of the reality-check of a ton of metal, the cyclist’s pent-up hostility and cavalier attitude to rules finds its apotheosis in confrontations with pedestrians. 

What is going on inside their collective heads? Ten years ago, writing in this magazine, Lionel Shriver attempted an answer:

Why are our cyclists so cutthroat? The number of bikes on the road here has tripled in the last decade, and that’s the official estimate . . . That means a high proportion of new converts. Converts are fanatics. Converts don’t simply cycle; they are cyclists. With whole identities on the line, no wonder neophytes will churn to the point of stroke to overtake veterans like me. 

The growth in neophytes is exponential. But I believe there is another reason. The ability to be anonymous on social media platforms has revealed just how ghastly people are—with hate, prejudice and unspeakable behaviour reaching astonishing levels. So it is with cyclists: they do not need licence plates and can therefore act with impunity. And the police? Don’t make me laugh. Misdemeanours by cyclists can be added to the growing list of offences they do nothing about.

It turns out that 20 years ago fixed-penalty notices were introduced precisely to deter irresponsible cyclists from cycling on pavements. The Labour peer, Lord Wills, pointed out in a question to the Government that fixed-penalty notices are hardly used now: 12 out of 38 forces issued none at all in 2017-18.

Another Labour peer, Lord Winston, called for cyclists to have number plates after he was kicked and abused for challenging a woman not to ride on the pavement. Last year, he tabled a question in the House of Lords asking ministers whether they were considering licences and third-party insurance for cyclists and was told it was too complicated. Predictably, the Guardian weighed in on the side of the cycling lobby with a thoughtful piece by a Peter Walker (sic) who wrote that Winston’s idea was “an utterly silly, pointless thing to suggest”. Well, that told one of the most eminent scientists in the country. 

Yet the momentum for regulation is growing. Our vulnerable pedestrians—disabled people, pensioners, mothers with babies in pushchairs to name a few—need protection from these “hoodlums in lycra” (Lord Wills’s phrase). It is time for pedestrians to take on the cyclists. We need to put a stop to this reckless and macho cycling culture and encourage law-abiding behaviour. We should demand some basic regulatory control: a licence based on passing a road test and knowledge of the Highway Code, bells, lights and mirrors. And, most importantly, plates. At a stroke they will no longer be anonymous. At a stroke, feral behaviour will be replaced by a more civilised cycling culture. Everyone will benefit: pedestrians, cars and, yes, cyclists themselves.

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