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Road Lice?

I missed Pedal on Parliament this year due to an unfortunate birthday party clash. Still, it is something I wholeheartedly support so when I saw an article on the BBC Facebook page, I read it. Then I read the comments below the article. This was a mistake.

I knew it was a mistake when I clicked on it, so I really don’t know why I clicked on it. I knew that it would be the usual comments about all cyclists riding on pavements, jumping red lights and not paying ‘road tax’. I knew that reading the comments would leave me annoyed.

But I still read them. And once I started, I couldn’t stop.

As I said, I had a good idea what the majority of the comments would say before I read them. Yet I was still shocked by the sheer levels of vitriol and aggression in what people had written. The one which really stayed with me was very simple ‘road lice’.

I was shocked to realise that some people really do view cyclists as parasites. They really do see me and my children as parasites.

I cycle everyday. I cycle for lots of reasons. I cycle for transport. I cycle for fitness. I cycle because I love cycling. I cycle because it is the easiest way for me to transport my children to school. I cycle because it doesn’t pollute.

I do not cycle to annoy other road users.

I also do not view every driver as having got into their car just to annoy me. Even though they do sometimes annoy me.

I wish that more people would cycle for all sorts of reasons. I would like to help enable those who would like to cycle, to do so. But I do accept that for many people, for many reasons, cycling is not an option. I believe that I show respect to other road and path users, although I will not be intimidated or bullied on the roads.

I am surprised at myself just how much the comments I read upset me. But the more I think about it. the more I realise that I should have expected vitriol and aggression. After all, I cycle every day. And here’s the thing:

Not a single day goes by without me being on the receiving end of

vitriol and aggression on the roads.

One memorable occasion this week saw a car indicate to pull into the left lane, where I already was, on my cargo bike with my daughter. I waved at him to make my presence known. He kindly then refrained from driving into me. But he did sound his horn to get my attention, so that he could stick his fingers up at me whilst shouting something I did not care to hear. He had children in the car with him while behaving like this. To me this behaviour is certainly aggressive and borders on violent. In my view it’s not a great example to set for your children either.

When I tell friends about incidents like this on the roads they are shocked. They are also shocked that I am no longer myself shocked when things like this happened. After cycling every day for many years, I have come to see aggression on the roads as the norm. Every day, people drive at me, squeeze past me, shout and swear at me, blare horns at me, rev their engines behind me. I expect the aggression and abuse

And most of the time, all I am trying to do is get to where I am going. Just the same as the drivers are.

None of this is ever going to stop me from riding my bike. But I find it very sad that it does stop many people, especially women, from getting on their bikes. I also really struggle to understand where this attitude comes from. I hear the reasons which the writers of the angry comments offer but I still fail to understand.

These are the reasons I have difficulty understanding:

  • Cyclists ride on the pavements.

On the whole I do not do this. There is one pavement which I do ride on, almost every day. It is beside a 4-lane, extremely busy road and it is the only way I can get from my house to the cycle route. I ride on it because I cannot find a safe alternative. I ride on it because pushing a cargo bike takes up more space than riding it. I ride on it in the manner of someone who knows they should not be there. If there is anyone walking on it, I stop. I never ask a pedestrian to move to let me past and I never ride past a pedestrian. I wait if there are others using the pavement because I know that I really should not be there. I just do not see a choice.

I also wonder if the people who write comments about cyclists riding on pavements really think through what they are writing. If all the cyclists are on the pavements, how can they also be jumping red lights? Surely there are no red lights on pavements? How can they also be holding up the traffic? Unless you are driving on the pavement that is.

  • Cyclists jump red lights

I can honestly say that I do not do this. Not ever. My main reason for not jumping lights is that I believe that cyclists should obey the laws of the roads if they want to cycle on them. But also, jumping red lights on a bike is seriously dangerous as it means that cars are now legitimately driving at you. I do not want to die on a bike.

  • Cyclists hold up the traffic

Sometimes cars do indeed get stuck behind me. I acknowledge that this must be frustrating for drivers. It must be especially frustrating for drivers when I am deliberately preventing them from overtaking me. However, I only ‘take the lane’ and prevent drivers from passing me when there is not enough space for them to safely pass me. I have a (possibly slightly odd) habit of counting the seconds a car is stuck behind me when I do this. I have never yet got to 25 seconds. Incidentally, 25 seconds is how long the traffic lights on my local cycle path are set to wait before they allow cyclists and pedestrians to cross. That’s 25 seconds for the crossing on each side of the road.

  • Cyclists don’t pay road tax

I am pretty sure that everyone reading this already knows that there is no such thing as ‘road tax’. We pay car tax for our cars. I know this because I pay car tax for my car. I pay it because I have a dirty diesel (we didn’t know what we know now when we bought the car…). I think it is £20 per year for my car. For a lot of newer cars it is £0. If I gave somebody who truly believes that ‘cyclists should pay road tax’ £20, would they treat me any differently on the roads?

I do not believe that cyclists should pay ‘road tax’ because they do not cause any pollution or damage to the roads. But I do think that it would be interesting to see if driver’s behaviour towards cyclists changed if cyclists did pay such a tax. Would Audi drivers suddenly start passing with more than half a centimetre to spare? Really?

Changing Minds and Changing Behavious

I do not think that everyone should cycle. Not everyone is able to, not everyone wants to. But I do think that everyone should have the right to cycle if they want to, and to feel safe to do so. For this to happen, we need to see a big change in attitudes on the roads. I think that this change is coming, but very slowly. More people than ever are cycling in the UK. In some areas, cycle paths which are fit for purpose are even being built.

But it is not enough to sit back and wait for this to happen. If you want to see a change you have to keep pushing for it.

But how?

I have always believed in standing up for what I believe in.

In my teens and twenties, this often involved standing up, waving a banner, and shouting about what I believed. Occasionally it involved sitting down, shouting about what I believed, and refusing to be moved.

I would like to believe that all that shouting made a difference.

But I have my doubts.

I didn’t want to hear what the man in the car sticking his fingers up at me was shouting. I know that he was angry and I know that he was shouting something I didn’t believe myself. I don’t care what because he is nothing like me and I don’t care what he has to say.

Is this the same attitude I inspired in others with all my youthful angry shouting about what I believed?

In my forties I have sometimes felt like I have given up campaigning for change. That I have ‘sold out’ and became a version of my parents with my husband and children and comfortable middle class lifestyle.

But I haven’t.

I still believe in change. I have never stopped believing all the things I believed in my twenties. I am still often angry about how our society operates. But I don’t shout about it any more (although I am still fond of a good rant to anyone who will listen). Instead of shouting, I lead Breeze rides to encourage more women to cycle, I work with my local primary school to promote cycling, I set up bike maintenance courses so folk feel more confident to be out on their bikes, I run beginners cycle coaching sessions, I run an after school cycle club.

This is what campaigning is to me in my forties:

  1. Ride a bike. Show that it is possible.
  2. Talk to people. People who want to listen, that is. I have found that lots of people would like to cycle more, but they are just not sure how to get started.
  3. Be a ‘role model’ for cyclists. I do not know who these red light jumping cyclists are as I really don’t see it happening around me. But if you are one of them, please do us all a favour and stop. Cyclists have to be seen as courteous co-users of the roads. That means we have to be courteous even when other road users are not. I struggle with this sometimes to be honest, but I am trying.
  4. Be assertive, not aggressive. Audi drivers (perhaps I am wrong, but in my world it always seems to be the Audi drivers) – you may stick your fingers up at me all you want, I still won’t ride in the gutter or allow you to pass where it is not safe. And I will resist the urge to gesticulate back at you.
  5. Ignore the trolls. For every ‘they should pay road tax’ comment under that BBC article, there were at least two ranty cyclist comments about why cyclists should not pay tax to use the roads – these comments were often as colourfully worded as those they were responding to. Nobody’s mind got changed in any of these exchanges, they just reinforced existing prejudices (on both sides). Rant in your own head by all means, rant to your loved ones (they are probably used to it, just as mine are). Just don’t rant online.

I am still fully in support of Pedal On Parliament and I will plan children’s parties better next year so we can be there. Pedal On Parliament is not about angry shouting. It is about a positive display. It is about communities and families cycling together in support of cycling. It is about showing the powers that be that cyclists are people from all walks of life. It is about asserting the rights and needs of cyclists. It is not about anger and aggression and shouting.

Incidentally, my musical tastes have changed since my teens and twenties too. Maybe my motto for my forties should be less punk, more hippy.