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.



6 Replies to “Road Lice?”

  1. Nice piece!

    I and my kids cycle on pavements quite often because the roads round us (Perth) are busy, a minority of drivers are dangerous and I don’t want to sacrifice my kids to almost certain death to prove we can do it. In reality, going round town we do a mix of road, snickleways and alleys (what a historical godsend these are), pavement and shared use. We don’t always stop for pedestrians, though we give way but then we’re not in a cargo bike. I feel bad about the pavements. I feel a bit guilty, especially because there are three of us and although my boys are generally aware of people and know to get off or give away, at the end of the day they are boys on bikes and they get told off pretty often. But more, I feel we simply don’t have a choice because as a family we don’t have safe space. I feel pedestrians have a place, cars have a place and bikes don’t really have a place. So, when we’re on the pavement I feel trapped between two bad choices.

    I used to jump red lights years ago (long before Boris bikes) in central London (before kids) because it was the only way to get ahead of the traffic. It was the only way I felt safe cycling . When I was surrounded by all the lycra-clad men on their commute I sometimes felt like practically the only woman who rode a sit up and beg bike in normal clothes in central London. I don’t jump lights now. I might still though (alone, in London), if the conditions were the same as then but I hear cycling’s better there now.

    We’ve had one accident with a driver last week and two near more misses in the last month, all within a few streets of our house in the city centre. A car nearly hit us as it came round a corner, a car revved at speed directly at us and a car couldn’t wait for us to turn and overtook us as we were turning right. That could have been horrendous. Each time we braked and one time my son crashed. See I try to get my voice heard but so far there’s been a deafening silence from the powers that be. When we went to get our bikes looked over at the fantastic Stirling Active Travel Hub on Friday I felt really down because of the accidents and because we’d been yelled at and jostled by passengers on the train just for trying to get two bikes off. I felt like giving up our bikes. But I can’t because that’s our life. I felt like moving to the Netherlands, where I’ve cycled quite a bit or to Germany where I grew up with cycling but although I would love my kids to have that feeling of being outside, free and much safer from traffic, that isn’t our life. I feel trapped again because on the one hand that’s our life and on the other, if we don’t give it up one of us could end up dead before long at all. I’ve cycled all my life so it would probably be one of my children.

    I don’t ride a bike to show people it’s possible because it’s I feel it’s possible only at a significant risk to our lives. That’s also why I’m not a Bikeability supporter. I would be, if there were safe ways to get to schools. But certainly when we tried it, it was anything but safe and we stopped. Now we homeschool.

    You are right not to get angry. I did get angry with two of the car drivers who nearly killed us. I don’t think it’s a disproportionate reaction to seeing your kids nearly hit car by a car, I’m no saint and I certainly don’t want to end up a silent, dead cyclist martyr. But it isn’t a good example especially with so much intolerance around so, until I have a better idea I think we’d better get a headset camera.

  2. We are currently in Spain ( Girona)
    The attitude here could not be more different. Cycling is completely embraced. Drivers are considerate and 99% of the time give the required 1.5 mts clearance ( there is occasionally the odd one who doesn’t but it’s very rare) It is possible to ride into and around the city centre with no problem at all.
    There are bike paths everywhere but for a road bike it’s safer and quicker on the road. In Valencia region we road on miles and miles of bike path as wide as our single track roads. It’s seems that wherever a new road is built( and there are many) the old road is turned into bike path or service road. These service roads often run alongside major roads and motorways. So cycling is embraced from the very top level of government right down to town / area councils and then onto individuals. So, I think therein lies the problem in the UK.

  3. Wow, that’s quite a post…. As an older cyclist who doesn’t cycle with children and hasn’t been subjected to this kind of behaviour it’s good for me to read how cyclists like yourself who cycle with children are affected it. Being an admirer of Josie Dew I have often read her rants on this behaviour too. I have though, often had drivers overtake me far too close and in unsafe places.

    I also appreciate what the above two commenters have written. My older son lived in Germany for some time and so I have heard how much better cyclists are provided for over there. And I’ve read about how safe cycling in Holland is a comparatively recent thing, whereas I always thought it had “always” been like that.

    I have cycled on and off since my childhood but have only started to do it regularly and to go longer distances since circumstances almost forced me into it a few years ago, and now I love it and would far rather cycle than use a car. But so often I hear people say “oh it’s dangerous, I couldn’t do that” or “Do take care!” (as if I wouldn’t….). And off they drive in their car making the roads a lot less pleasant for us cyclists…..

    Whenever I am passed by someone who knows me, in a car, I really hope that just by seeing me on my bike they might think about getting on a bike themselves.

    I joined Cycling UK recently partly in order that my subscription might help make them make a difference. I hope it does but when reading rants like your own I really think I should somehow get out there and try to help in more active ways. So thank you for going to the trouble of writing this post.

  4. Thanks for the post :-).

    Can I also add there are many other ways to get involved. Edinburgh has recently had to major road developments go before planning: Picardy Place and Trams to Newhaven. Neither of these developments are suitable for pedestrians nor cyclists. And Edinburgh is certainly not the only place this is happening. The only way we can change this in future is to keep the pressure up; comment on the plans; contact you councillors; join a community council; support organisations like Living Street & Spokes. We are up against very large lobbying organisations and undeserved privileged, only way is to keep the pressure up.

  5. Agree with most of what you said, a few comments.
    Often cycling is simply an extension of walking and for some a cycle is a mobility aid. The most recent anti cycling report, sorry I mean investigation into how we can attack people on bikes with harsher laws whilst utterly ignoring the real problem (that being motorists) but described as a cycling safety review, had a little known fact tidily hidden away at the very end with no reference to it despite being massively important.
    It stated that in pedestrian/person on a bike incidents that resulted in death it was actually pedestrians who were at fault, 50% more. In 6 years there were 4 deaths were a person on a bike was at fault from the 20 deaths, it fails to mention how many people on bikes were killed by pedestrians and motorists.

    I don’t agree with your summation that people on bikes need to take the high moral ground, we already do everyone a favour, yes obey the laws as they stand but often the laws don’t actually apply to people on bikes as they are really made for killers in big metal boxes with massive amounts of kinetic energy.
    Going through a red light isn’t as dangerous as you think, not a single person on a bike has died because of this action, not even in that there London, also cities like Paris and elsewhere are changing the laws to allow going through a red in some instances for people on bikes, a recognition that sometimes it not only makes it safer for the vulnerable person it aids traffic flow too.
    Not being aggressive, sorry but when someone deliberately aims 1.5tons or more of mass at you it’s normal to react, when as you say this is a daily occurrence this can and does build up, human beings will eventually crack and do something far more overtly aggressive if they don’t let off steam at the time. In fact not reacting at all gices the impression everything was okay when in fact it wasn’t, might it make a situation more antagonistic, maybe, however the facts show that no more people were killed due to sticking two fingers up or swearing at a driver or even confronting them at the next set of lights to explain what they did wrong/ask them what the feck they were doing.

    I don’t do as you and label X type of vehicle, it’s just humans doing criminal things that threatens other humans, for me as a commuter since the mid 80s I don’t see it as a particular marque, crap drivers drive everything and anything, equally considerate drivers do too.

    Safe cycling

  6. I really enjoyed your article. And I’ll be honest, I found it because I was frustrated with cyclists. Where I live, the cyclist culture is very much “everyone get out of my way!”. I noticed that joggers, skateboarders and other walkers are all able to co-exist and get around each other on the same path in the park but the cyclists come through screaming “on your left! on your left! EXCUSE ME! on your left!” And their expectation genuinely seems to be that everyone else is supposed to yield to them. Quite frankly it startles me when I’m out walking with my children and somebody comes up yelling behind me. It’s also frustrating to feel like I’m supposed to violently snatch my children out of the way so the cyclist doesn’t have to move around us when they come up from behind. I appreciated reading things from a cyclist perspective and it genuinely took my feelings of frustration and made me a little more empathetic.

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