Waiting at a red light on my bicycle in Horsham yesterday (because I am an obedient cyclist, who does not wish to bring vengeance raining down on my collective species – on this, more below), I had to pause for several seconds after my light had turned green, as a number of right-turning vehicles continued to proceed through the junction after their light had quite obviously turned red.
I thought the last of these – a middle-aged lady in a small red Vauxhall – was particularly egregious, and said so, raising my arm disbelievingly, exclaiming with a weary ‘Oh, come on!…’
This earned me a rather pouty scowl, as if it was me that was in the wrong, for having the temerity to question her rather dangerous and selfish behaviour. I even think she might have stuck her tongue at me. It was like being back at school.
She has inspired me to publish some footage I took recently at the junction between Southwark Bridge Road, and Southwark Street, on a Monday evening in mid-March. The video below shows eight consecutive light sequences, over about a ten minute period. See if you can spot the misdemeanours. Answers below.
Sequence 1 : An Audi rolls deliberately into the ASL, rather than stopping before it.
Sequence 2 : A taxi runs a red light, followed by a white car that thinks about doing the same, before coming to a rather desperate halt over the stop line.
Sequence 3 : A white van moves, slowly and deliberately, into the ASL.
Sequence 4 : A taxi runs a red light.
Sequence 5 : A particularly bad red light jump from a black car.
Sequence 6 : Another red light-jumping black car.
Sequence 7 : An ‘amber gambler’, who could and should have stopped quite easily before the junction, rather than moving through it.
Sequence 8 : Yet another vehicle, travelling at a slow speed, who thought it wasn’t worth stopping legally once the lights had turned to amber.
Despite this kind of behaviour – which can be observed at almost any similar junction in the country, particularly at busy periods – it is ‘cyclists’ who, in the eyes of the general public, have the reputation of being ‘lawless’. Why is this?
Undoubtedly, of course, there are dangerous people on bikes out there. While the outrage about ‘pavement cycling’ is quite often misplaced, I do encounter people on bikes who actively endanger pedestrians, usually by travelling too close and too fast to them in pedestrianised areas. But there are many, many dangerous motorists. In fact, I think it is quite reasonable to assume that the proportion of dangerous bicycle users is not any higher than the proportion of dangerous motor vehicle users (setting aside any consideration how ‘dangerous’ that behaviour is, empirically, given the different amount of momentum and energy involved in the operation of the two different transport modes).
So why do cyclists have such a bad reputation? The answer is quite simple. Not many people ride bikes, while ‘everyone’ is a motorist. ‘Everyone’ has gambled their way through an amber light while driving, or glanced at their phone on the motorway, or been caught by a speed camera. These kinds of offences, because they are committed by ‘everyone’, are seen as part of the ‘natural’ make-up of being a road user, in a way that offences committed by a small minority – cyclists – are not.
That is why attempting to give cyclists, and cycling, a better reputation by trying to ensure that no cyclist, anywhere or any when, breaks the law, is a curiously wrong-headed strategy. See, for instance, Stopatred.
Stopatred is a campaign to improve the status of cycling in the eyes of the public and policy-makers alike, and to tackle the attitudes of those cyclists whose behaviour perpetuates the image of cyclists as a low-status social ‘out-group’ on wheels.
Stopatred was created by concerned cyclists, alarmed about how the cause of cycling is being undermined by the reckless actions of an unrepresentative minority.
At the very least, this kind of strategy is doomed to failure, in practical terms – there will always be ‘lawless’ road users, regardless of mode. But beyond that, it fails to address why law-breaking by motorists is not seen as an innate characteristic of being a motorist in a way that law-breaking by cyclists is seen as an innate characteristic of being a cyclist. Contrary to the logic of Stopatred, and like-minded groups, cyclists are not seen as a social ‘out-group’ because of the poor behaviour of a minority of bicycle users. They are seen as such simply because using a bicycle is not an ‘everyday’ activity for the great majority of people, while using a motor vehicle certainly is.
The answer to giving cycling a better reputation lies not in some futile struggle to make every cyclist a saint, but in building a mass cycling culture.
Traffic lights (especially at urban junctions) turn road users into racing drivers blind to everything else than getting through the light. I believe they are one of the biggest causes of dangerous driving in our cities and that they should be replaced where possible with (mini-)roundabouts.
I understand how drivers race to get through traffic lights, and how these junctions consequently encourage aggressive driving, but I’m not so sure that mini-roundabouts would be any better. Risk-takers will still chance their way on to roundabouts in just the same way that they chance their way through amber and red lights. At the very least, a light signal is more unambiguous than a ‘safe’ gap in traffic on a roundabout!
Greater enforcement of red light jumping (which should be fairly easy) would undoubtedly tackle a large part of the problem. At present it seems many drivers believe they can get away with it.
Simple: £1,000 fines for red-light running by cars. Problem solved.
The counter-argument to anyone saying that cyclists should suffer the same penalties is, “OK, let’s include pedestrians who cross against red cross signals as well then”.
The high fine recognises that death/serious injury is often the outcome from the practice of running red lights in a car. But almost never, ever the outcome from doing so on a bike or on foot. (and if it is the outcome, it’s the cyclist or pedestrian who dies, not someone else.)
Perhaps the fines ought to scale according to the momentum of the vehicle running the red light – that would be a good measure of the potential for damage and injury. £1000 for a car would, I think, translate to around £10 for a bike. Significantly more for HGVs, of course.