Apple founder Steve Jobs once wanted to call the Macintosh computer “the Bicycle”. He was that amazed by the two-wheelers’ efficiency. He was right: bikes are incredible machines. You can cycle five miles expending as much energy as it would take you to walk one.
Bikes don’t pollute our air. They don’t clog our roads. If our cities had more bikes, they would be cleaner and safer. We would be fitter. Our neighbourhoods would be more sociable, because you can stop for a chat on a bike in a way that you rarely can in a car.
Yet somehow we have convinced ourselves that cyclists are the enemy. “The moral superiority of cyclists has to stop,” read one UK headline this week. “I can’t keep abreast of what cyclists want,” ran another. Years of similar coverage have contributed to a general contempt.
What prompted the latest outpouring was a proposed change to the Highway Code, which makes clear that, when riding in larger groups on narrow lanes, “it is sometimes safer to ride two abreast”. If you’re upset by that, wait till you hear about everything else in 2020.
In cities like London, some residents are also angry that roads have been blocked off by flower planters — to create “low traffic neighbourhoods” that put pedestrians and cyclists ahead of car-users. The short answer is: tough. A revolution requires a few barricades. Our cities need more bikes and fewer cars and taxis (or whatever Uber’s legal department calls its vehicles now).
Framing this as a battle between cyclists and drivers misses out a key group: those who would like to cycle, but don’t dare. I don’t really identify as a cyclist. I cycle a bit, I drive occasionally, mostly I walk and take public transport. But I’d like to cycle more, and I’d like others to feel safe enough to do so too.
In Copenhagen, half of people commute by bike; in the UK, it’s mostly just crazy people like Boris Johnson before he became prime minister. Lockdown gave a glimpse of how much nicer our streets might be if cars didn’t dominate.
Yes, I know that there are bad cyclists. Sometimes they jump red lights. Often they wear Lycra. I wish they didn’t. But there are also bad motorbike riders too, who act like our eardrums are non-essential items.
Of all road users, cyclists pay the highest price when things go wrong: last weekend a cyclist had to go to hospital after being hit by an SUV driven by Labour leader Keir Starmer. Imagine if a fraction of the outrage aimed at cyclists were aimed at the drivers who killed 98 cyclists in the UK last year, or all the others who fill our lungs with particulates.
If we want cyclists to be less annoying, then we should build proper infrastructure for them. In Denmark, where cycle lanes are common, a study found only 4.9 per cent of cyclists committed a traffic offence at a junction.
I hope that we build cycle lanes, pedestrianise roads, and demand better behaviour from cyclists in exchange. But why should cyclists be forced to wait decades for that to happen? How does that help us tackle the air pollution that kills 30,000 people a year in the UK, or the fact that two-thirds of British adults are overweight or obese?
Drivers — myself included — need to recognise that we are the problem. We are the ones who need to get off the road. Failing that, can we not wait a few seconds, even minutes, behind a group of cyclists?
Low traffic neighbourhoods and the Highway Code change aren’t a bridge too far — they’re a bridge not far enough. The reason many streets can’t fit cycle lanes right now is that they have parked cars down both sides of them. Motor vehicles take up enough prime real estate. Let’s make amends. Wherever someone has to give way due to the width of a road, it should be them. Cyclists should have priority.