Good Chaos

There have been a lot of cyclists killed on the roads of London lately. I am not a road safety expert, and I don’t know the circumstances of the deaths. Nevertheless, these fatalities make me, as much as anyone else, wonder about what’s to be done to make cycling safer.

It seems a lot of the cycling-safety-related debate, when coming from the cyclist side of things, hinges on cycling lane provision. There’s any amount of evidence that shows that government, local or national, either can’t or won’t do anything sensible on that front.

Setting the question of cycle lane provision aside, on a couple of short-ish, too-cold-and-windy-to-be-much-fun-rides this week, what I found myself wondering about was what would make cycling safer anyway.

I think we know that in the big scheme of things, the more cyclists there are on the streets, the safer cycling becomes. Other road users get used to cyclists; cyclists become a larger presence collectively.

I used to live in Oxford where there are cyclists galore and I still visit occasionally, mainly for gigs on the Cowley Road. It was often hectic when I lived there; nowadays whenever I’ve been there, it’s chaos. There are cyclists all over the show, pedestrians criss-crossing everywhere and all sorts of motor vehicles, large and small, trying to pick a way through it all. However you’re travelling, you ain’t going anywhere in a hurry.

It can appear, if not intimidating, then certainly a bit daunting. But once you get used to it all, accept that you’re going to have to go slow, and go with the flow, it’s OK. To the best of my knowledge, Oxford’s certainly no worse than anywhere else for cycling fatalities per mile ridden and I’d be happy to bet it’s probably a lot better.

And so, I found myself wondering whether we’re approaching this issue from the wrong angle. Perhaps, rather than segregation and close management, what we need is more uncertainty – in effect, less of a feeling of ‘right of way’ on any road user’s part and as a result more caution.

(Of course there’ll always be idiots who get frustrated by that, but you’ll get idiots whatever system you have in place.)

To bear this out, just local to me in Reading, a busy slalom of a through-road with lots of parked cars on it (Rotherfield Way) has recently been resurfaced and hasn’t (to date) had its central white lanes repainted. This, it seems, is a good thing: people I know who live there say it has slowed drivers down. And, interestingly, I gather there are moves afoot for the centre of Caversham to also create ‘uncertainty’, with exactly the same aim.

So, perhaps some ‘managed chaos’ might be an inexpensive, achievable way forward; let’s make all road users have to think.

When It All Gets Too Crowded

New Forest Woodland

Boring bosky dells – and other delights to ride by

To the New Forest for a holiday with, naturally, the intention that some days should include some cycling. I think I’d read somewhere that there are 100 miles of cycle trail in the national park and so we went equipped for some off-road riding.

We found plenty of trails … we found woods and we found heath. What we – Charli and I – also found was that it was all terrifically controlled and, well, tame.

Now, neither of us are tough off-road riders willing to risk life and limb in the pursuit of speed and ‘getting some air’ or whatever it is that braver people than me say when they’ve both wheels off the ground: I’m old and wise enough to know how much falling off hurts. I might be fat but I don’t bounce like I used to.

However, the New Forest trails are at the other extreme. I can see their appeal for riders who want a quiet traffic-free pootle-about and I’m not knocking that. I can see that it must be a horrifically busy area peak season and so managing the riders to prevent erosion is probably very necessary. But it is all just a bit boring as a result.

A sobering through is that, given the way the population is increasing, it’s probably a glimpse of the future – especially if you add in to the equation our increasingly risk-averse culture.

Lights On Bright Days (Just For Cyclists)

I’ve ridden with LED lights in daylight before, but generally only on murky days. However, I’m adopting them all year round now.

LED Light on a bike

Flashing for safety

No, I haven’t suddenly decided cycling’s a terribly risky thing to do. It’s simply because the other day I was out cycling, I was going down a lane that was partly in shade, partly in bright sun, and I didn’t see a cyclist coming up the road.

There wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t even a near-miss – it was plenty wide enough for the two of us – but I didn’t see him until we were almost level. I was genuinely shocked … and I’d say that by being out in the open I had far better visibility in those circumstances than someone in a car.

Hence the new attitude to lights (Knogs, if you’re interested), and today’s ride was the first with them. Pleasingly, the experience I’ve had before with riding with them – by and large you get given a wider berth – remains true even on decent days. All the observations I had about them last October are still true.

So, no, I don’t subscribe to the view that cycling’s some terribly dangerous way of getting around that requires as many ‘safety aids’ as possible: I think a lot of that attitude arises to assuage the consciences of drivers and those that make and enforce the rules for drivers. But I don’t mind applying some (for me new-found) common-sense to my own visibility.

Observations And Reflections On Using Flashing Rear Lights Whilst Cycling

I’m very fortunate – I’m able to do most of my bike riding during the day, on (relatively) quiet roads. On the whole I don’t feel I need lights, high-visibility clothing and so on; I don’t feel that vulnerable. (I would have a very different attitude if I was riding in towns / commuter traffic.)

Lately though, the days are just not brightening up and there’s a lot of general murk around, and so I’ve been riding with a flashing red LED back light on at all times.

The interesting thing about this is that I’m pretty sure it does make the average driver give me a wider berth as they overtake me. For that I’m grateful – it all contributes to making for a more pleasant ride.

The very interesting this is that the average driver is giving me a wider berth but often taking quite significant risks to do so – going over the central line despite approaching blind corners; in some cases despite approaching traffic.

I don’t know how I feel about that. On the one hand, I’m still the winner – I’m getting a wide berth and if drivers are taking risks to do so, that’s their look-out.

On the other hand, it would appear that by riding with a flashing back light I’m creating a conflict in drivers: they feel compelled to give me more room than they might otherwise, but they can’t fight what seems to be a deep-seated urge to get around me even at considerable risk to themselves.

No, I don’t think I would feel guilty if, in overtaking me, a vehicle takes a risk and they don’t get away with it. I can’t be responsible for another’s actions and, surely, it’s reasonable to expect competent adults – especially those judged capable of driving a vehicle – to be able to exercise a degree of foresight. They can easily wait for a safe spot to overtake me.

That said, I drive a car too, and I know how deep-seated the urge is to get around something that’s going very slow; how innate that urge seems. I’ve been there – I’ve felt it.

The upshot, perhaps, is that we need to look at the expectations that are somehow engendered in drivers, of driving; what is it that makes the urge to get by something slower so strong. Is it over-crowding – are we feeling too pressured, too hurried to cut anyone any slack? Is it the image of motoring that’s ‘sold’ to us – the very attractive myth of forging ahead on an open road?

I don’t know, there could be any number of reasons, but I know the problem’s real, and I know that while I might not feel guilty if a car overtaking me foolishly then crashes, it’s not going to be a life-enhancing event for anyone – me included.

And the other upshot? Using flashing red LEDs at all times seems sensible. While we wait for a solution to the urge to overtake, perhaps cyclists will have to learn to live with witnessing accidents. Witnessing is better than being involved.

Bravery In The Fading Light

The coldest night of the year so far, followed by a very slow-to-warm-up day – blighted by lots of patchy cloud. It wasn’t quite that foul uniform blanket of grey that’s enough to depress anyone, but it was doing its best to bring you down.

I suppose in my defence I can say that riding in cold weather has played havoc with the general chronic sinus-related grief I’m cursed by, so my wariness about going out when it is in the low 40s Fahrenheit, or lower, is justified.

So it was that I rolled out at around 2pm, just as it reached 46F, with the intention of getting in a 40 mile trip.

I don’t go well in the afternoons. I don’t really like riding after lunch at all. Needs must – it’s a full week this week with a patchy weather forecast too. And in truth I did OK for the most part, but at about 30 miles the light started to drop rapidly and I had to make a judgement about whether to keep riding with just a couple of small ‘safety lights’, or whether to call it a day and call on a friend for a lift home. I went for prudence and called Charli; I carried on riding and we met up at about 33 miles. It was very dull by then, and the decision was the right one. By the time we pulled in to my place it was, well, late dusk and dusk is probably the worst time to be out on the roads – it’s a far more dangerous light than when it’s properly dark.

So, why this humdrum tale? I thought the unbidden considerations that just turned up in my mind as I was wondering whether to stop or not were interesting, albeit in a not very satisfying way. For a start, I don’t think anyone would ever call me proud but I was wondering whether I’m somehow failing for giving up. I wondered, too, whether I was being somehow cowardly or a bit of a wimp, but I’ve never thought prudence was cowardly nor the prudent wimpish.

Initially I thought the question to consider is where do those thoughts come from; why do I give them any mental time when I know I disagree with them. But really, I guess, that’s easy enough to answer: ‘macho values’, for want of a better shorthand, are all too commonly held desirable, particularly for males. On the whole they’re stupid but that’s never stopped a notion from having currency.

Perhaps a more interesting angle to ponder is why I was happy to ‘fail’ and ‘wimp out’. I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe it’s age and the lessons of experience, but I’m not sure I’d have behaved any differently 20 years ago. Perhaps it’s rooted in the way I’ve rarely felt the need to prove myself to anyone other than myself – I just never have. (For that matter, I’m not interested in competing with others either; the only person I ever feel a need to beat is me and all the limitations I come with. If I beat someone else at something – so what?)

Perhaps I’m really very macho; perhaps it would be more sensible if we all recognised that knowing your limits, knowing what’s prudent, knowing when to stop as well as when to carry on, is harder than just ‘toughing it out’ or ‘carrying on regardless’. Perhaps.

And then you read of someone like Tommy Godwin, who in 1939 set the record for the most miles ridden in a year – a record that still stands. His utterly staggering 75,065 miles – yes, seventy five thousand – makes any notion of effort, endurance, bravery or anything else on my part that I might even vaguely think of as laudable into a permanent and very deep shade.

Variable Density Mizzle

Allegedly, there was a 20% chance of running into rain today. I spent 35 minutes of two-and-a-half hours riding in either light mizzle or something very close to a soaking but light rain. At least it’s still quite mild. Cold is one thing. Wet is another. Cold and wet together is when it gets genuinely unpleasant – hard to dress for and hard to ignore.

By and large it was only enough to make the roads greasy, not enough to kick up a proper spray. Damp roads can be reasonably evil to ride on. I don’t like slippery stuff – snow, ice and what-have-you; skiing has never appealed and even as a kid I was never one to like snow slides or similar. When I’m out on greasy roads, on or off road, I don’t know if I’m overly cautious and imagining it’s more hazardous than it is, or whether I’m genuinely in touch with and sensitive to the conditions. I can readily believe either.

Today saw what might well have been a misunderstanding on my part. I had a BMW behind me along a lane for a while; I had no where easy to pull over so he had to wait for a few minutes before he could get around. As the road widened he hit his horn twice and pulled up to go past. From the sound of the horn, the way it was hit, I presumed he was angry and said ‘what’s your problem’ as he went by. He shouted back that he ‘was only being polite’. Maybe he was, in which case I owe him an apology. The trouble is, so many BMW drivers are aggressive, it’s hard to shake off that preconception. That he had his window down on the passenger side, and that he was so ready with his reply, also made me suspicious. Perhaps I’m too suspicious. I don’t know. Apologies if apologies are due.

Not long after, near Hook End, I came across three older ladies walking abreast and filling the lane. I said ‘good morning’; one of them heard and turned, said something to the other two and they stood back to let me pass. Fine. It just struck me that their expressions summed up so much. One was smiling at me; the second seemed mildly bewildered at what was going on and the third appeared reasonably irritated, if not angry, at having to get out of the way for a cyclist. I know looks are very deceptive and I’m probably totally wrong in how I judged them by their expressions, but a better summary of the typical range of encounters available on the roads is hard to imagine.

Assumptions about mental states are dangerous to make, and it’s unwise to use facial expressions to base them on. The second lady probably was no more bewildered than anyone else; I probably look tense on a bike on greasy roads when I’m only being cautious. I do wonder, though, what it means to have assumptions made about you all the time – what the long term consequences are.

There was a report in The Telegraph today about MPs suffering from mental health problems because everyone nowadays presumes they’re fiddling their expenses – that is to say, presuming guilt. The validity of the report I’ll leave aside. Let’s imagine it’s true. What strikes me is that if that’s how MPs are feeling, and obviously that’s not a good thing, then isn’t that how a large proportion of the population is also feeling too? After all, significant aspects of the way legislation and the bodies of the state operate presume guilt, whatever the ‘rule of law’ might say. Look at business and tax law, look at anti-terrorism laws, look at how the police treat all sorts of people – photographers being good examples – that don’t bring up any questions of race or creed. Look, even, at something so theoretically trivial at the TV licence and their whole attitude of presuming you must have a TV and therefore are lying if you say you don’t need a licence. (Charli has first hand experience of this.) All of this is the result of legislation, a legislative attitude. If MPs want to moan about being presumed guilty, if it’s damaging their mental health, then perhaps they’d elicit more sympathy if they’d thought for a moment about the health of the population at large.