This article was published in 2015, in Newsletter 119.
Wednesday 1 October 2014. I gained the privilege of looking vertically upwards at the tops of the lime trees on Parker’s Piece, courtesy of the cyclist who had slammed into my side (after jumping a red light). As the adrenaline settled, and while licking my wounds over the next few days, I wondered: what can be done about this? I’d captured the incident on my action camera. Should I post online and shame? Do we need a name-and-shame-type website? How can we cyclists self-regulate? I’ve been cycling regularly for about 30 years. In the 1980s the UK felt very car-centric. Out on country lanes, cyclists were often a curiosity to drivers, who would slow down and gaze as they passed – much as they would were we a group of elk or llamas wandering down the lanes. Cue Le Tour on Channel 4, Chris Boardman and ‘that’ bike winning gold, the rise of the mountain bike, Le Tour en Angleterre, Millar, Wiggins, Cavendish, Froome and hey! We are now mainstream. The number of miles cycled on our roads has increased around 20% in the last 15 years, and the number of people commuting by bike in Cambridge has reportedly increased by around 5,000 over a similar period. Cycle-specific infrastructure is also increasing, and I feel spoilt today with so many cycle lanes and paths aimed at traffic segregation.
Yet, in spite of the increasing numbers, anyone can still wander into a bike shop, buy a bike then jump straight out onto a busy road. It is especially pronounced in Cambridge, where every year a new influx of people from around the globe arrives, many having never cycled regularly before, many with no knowledge of UK traffic laws or – perhaps more dangerous – with knowledge of different traffic laws from their departed country; and – of course – when in Cambridge, one cycles. If anything, I’m surprised there aren’t more serious accidents involving cyclists. I’m also a regular car user, and I have to say that I drive differently – with a different mental perception of my car – in Cambridge compared to other places. In the past I’ve both driven and cycled around many parts of the UK. Yet Cambridge is certainly unique. My daily commute from the north end of Cambridge, through town and out to the Babraham Research Campus five miles to the south, throws up the same frustrations and observations daily.
The argument goes that cyclists behaving badly are primarily a danger to themselves. If you get into a tangle with a car, you’re the one who will come off worse. In reality, the injuries suffered during cycle-on-cycle crashes are more shocking than you might expect. I can tell you that the battle-of-momentum I fought with that gentleman (who looked as though he’d just come from the rugby training ground) left me dazed for days – in spite of it being a relatively low-speed crash. On some level, self-regulation is probably key to protecting our freedom. The value of this cannot be over-stressed. We especially want to encourage younger people to take up cycling: regular cycling from a young age can instil both better health practice and increased road awareness. For example, by the time I started learning to drive I already had at least eight years’ road awareness under my belt, so could focus more on mastering the car; indeed, more motorists with a cycling background would surely benefit everyone? An externally or over-regulated cycling infrastructure would certainly put people off. I need to retain my sense of freedom to cycle, exploring the British towns and countryside at will, under my own power and at one with the elements. Having become a father myself recently, I also want to make sure that my daughter can enjoy safe cycling with that same sense of adventure and freedom that I’ve enjoyed. So what can we do? More higher-profile cycling courses would help. There are at least two national websites detailing accident hotspots (see the campaign website by The Times at www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/cyclesafety/ and www.cyclestreets.net/collisions). Perhaps more engaging would be a Cambridgeshire-specific site where people can report accidents and near misses. This might assuage the powerlessness felt after such incidents, while allowing the identification of repeat offenders and accident hotspots. A simple page on a social media site would provide a start (although it would require careful regulation), and in the meantime I’m looking into producing a menu-driven site for anonymous and purely factual reporting (if one does not exist already).
I dream of a day when colleges and employers both encourage their staff and students to cycle, while also providing guidance on how to. I long for a cycling proficiency style course in every institute and college – maybe part-sponsored – where for a fee of, say £30-50 you get a half-day’s training and set of lights. It might not be perfect, but it would be a start. I am certain it would save many injuries caused by cycle-on-cycle accidents, while helping to divert the spotlight away from any unhelpful regulation and ensuring our future freedom.