Thursday 6 December 2012

NOT a response to BBC War on the Roads

Enough talk about BBC War on the Roads documentary on Twitter and in other blogs already.

This is not a blog entry about that. Although I am going to mention it a bit.

This is an amble around some of the issues, specifically on the differences between London and Cambridge.

Most of the footage last night was in London (and its endless suburbs), with some from Scotland. London is the most congested, aggressive road network in the UK - we complain incessantly wherever we are of course, but seriously, go to London and have a look around. You'll feel happier on your own roads afterwards.

I should think that most of us would agree that London (and to a lesser extent other cities) breeds a certain cycling mindset - or, rather, its a road network that for the most part weeds out many subtypes of cyclist. I pondered on why London cyclists seem different to Cambridge cyclists for a long time, and I think the answers are clear now. Most people I know who ride in Central London have relatively long commutes - that means they tend to favour road bikes, being practical for longer journeys. For the most part it ain't hilly so fixies and single speeds are common. You don't see many clunking old bikes like you do in Cambridge where beat-up chic is the norm - you could buy ten of these second hand squeak machines for the price of any one of the bikes I saw last time I was in London. If you're on a longer commute in hostile traffic then you can't afford such a machine that might let you down.  And when you're on roads that are THAT congested you do need to be assertive - its the right way to cycle in those conditions. More London riders are assertive, primary position types than in Cambridge. 

All of that mounts up -whereas Cambridge is largely a city of sedate, relaxed cyclists, London isn't. Even the most chilled out of London cyclists seem more pumped than most cyclists here.

They're also FASTER down there. To cope in London speed is a tool most cyclists find they must use. Longer commutes, hostile traffic, going fast in London really helps. In Cambridge with typically short journeys on roads that are congested but at least moving, I see fully togged out rapid cyclists maybe once a week. Yes, you get plodding riders in London, but not like you do here. I invite London cyclists to Cambridge to experience the (contact sport) slightly faster than jogging speed commuter peloton.

Add all these factors together and you find that there is simply more adrenaline pumping in London than in Cambridge. You can't fail to spot it - push a pedestrian crossing button in London, wait for the green man, and watch the face on the motorist who has stopped. As often as not you're looking at the puffed out, pale, angry visage of an aggressive, stressed, high blood pressure individual who has through immersion in their own problems lost any empathy for other people on the roads (and lack of empathy was the main message I took from last nights documentary). If you don't empathise with the cyclist in front of you as another human being then why would it occur to you that they're not just trying to antagonise you by being on the road?

So, people in London (and across Britain) are taking to putting cameras on their heads as they ride their bikes. It isn't surprising really.

I might go back and re-examine how this point was ignored in last nights documentary later - that it isn't seen as surprising any more when a motorists gets out and yells at a cyclist. Its not even something that arouses particular comment on Twitter when someone videos it and shares it, its too common. Its not even that re-tweetable when someone overtakes a cyclist within a foot and a half - in fact motorists are genuinely shocked when a cyclists reach out and bang on their cars, despite the obvious truth that if the cyclist can reach them they must be too close. 

There are surprisingly few helmet camera riders in Cambridge, despite the fact that this is by far the most cycled city in the UK - I know of a two 'active' ones, inlcluding me, and I take my camera out less than half the time. It isn't that this is some kind of cycling heaven. It just ain't London. Its not as enormously hostile - and cycling isn't a 'lifestyle choice' here, its a way of getting about (although its still Britain - and motorists are still aggressive). We have what Dave Brennan (or @magnatom as you may know him) briefly lamented they don't have in Glasgow - a cycling culture. People don't film their bike rides for the same reason they don't film their bus rides, because for the most part these journeys are mind-numbingly uneventful.

That I guess is why we won't see such a documentary picking up on how in Britain we can get cycling right. Cambridge has its problems - objectively considered only a fool could say we get cycling infrastructure or law enforcement right here. But there are some things we do very well, and one of them is that we've developed a cycling culture that the rest of the UK could do well to emulate. What the rest of the UK (especially London) can learn from Cambridge is very similar to what Cambridge can learn more of from, say, Sweden - that cycling isn't a frightening, alien culture, its an extension of human behaviour. That cyclist in front of you? He's not doing it to piss you off. He's just going to work.

Which is what I have to do now. By bike. Without the camera today, I think.

1 comment:

  1. I used to ride a lot in London and Cambridge, having a couple of university outreach jobs ( and where it was just the most practical way to get between multiple local universities and local high tech businesses.

    I'd completely agree that London commuters are as hyped up as you say. Both the drivers and the cyclists are on a mission from God to take revenge for all the petty insults that they are going to have to handle during the working day. The social differences within London are horrific. A banker pulling down a bonus of several million is cycling past an illegal immigrant who is barely managing to cover the cost of a converted garage. Both of them are working in the City, and have to get there from remote suburbs.

    Cambridge is just a lot more integrated, both physically and socially. Distances are tiny, because the colleges and the Green Belt dictate that nobody can create urban sprawl. The major social divide here is between people who live IN Cambridge, and the poor buggers who have to GET there from remote Fenland towns where there is no work. The former cycle, the latter drive. But because traffic is unbelievably congested, maximum speed in the centre is far short of the 20 mile an hour limits posted everywhere.

    Comically, having said how DIFFERENT these two cities are, I found cycling around them between clients in the middle of the day very very similar. London is brilliant to cycle when all you are dealing with is taxi drivers (in my experience, uniformly extremely professional and knowledgeable chaps) and other low-stress folks who aren't trying to get to work in a hurry. Even white van drivers aren't that bad, generally just professional drivers who want to keep their licence clean and get their deliveries done. Cambridge, the same.

    So I think the real issue here is the stupid UK commuter culture. People who wouldn't say boo to a goose in the office get suited up in Lycra or a BMW and become Attila the Hun. You see it in their Tweet streams too. They are taking out the frustrations they feel in their home and work lives on other road users. That is as true for stupid cyclists going down pedestrian passages full-tilt as it is for imbecile BMW speed merchants.