by Our Bicycle Lives
I cycle past a lot of lights in London but unlike in City Lights (1931), the Chaplin film where they are synonymous with the attraction of the big city, the ones I meet are the more prosaic traffic lights. Traffic signals are timed to the speed of motor vehicles and, not being a boy racer, I am slower so will often be met by red light after red light. I need to come clean though: I am an ‘assiduous red-light stopper’, to quote London Cyclist columnist Zoe Williams. Not only that, but I enjoy it too. I like the shift between green and red colours, between onward movements and waiting times: red traffic lights are a great spot for people-watching!
Red warns us against danger and retribution: don’t do it or else. But, in nature as on the way home, red also acts as an attractive signal (think cherries and blackbirds) and a red light can turn into temptation for risk-prone cyclists. And into an impediment for others who choose a mode of transport for its performance and whose life philosophy is ‘no time for detours’. This plethora of red and constant loss of momentum does get a little tedious at times and I occasionally find myself longing for a Dutch-style ‘green wave’ where series of traffic lights are synchronised on cycling speed. Unfortunately, in London this is still pure science-fiction.
I once heard Mark Ames, the man behind the influential blog ibikelondon, use the euphemism ‘going against the colours’ for running a red light, the most frequent grievance brought up when polite conversation turns to cycling. That’s one instance when cyclists are, finally, extremely visible but it’s such an obvious infringement of the highway code – unlike going over the speed limit, for example, which is a lot harder to pin down – that it has become emblematic of all the cycling wrongs in the world. The stage is set for a grand entrance: cars are waiting like an expectant audience before the red curtain, then out of the blue a bike appears and swiftly cycles through. It is fair to say that poor road designs regularly fail their more vulnerable users and often breed these reckless behaviours. An overly long wait for a green light or a lapse of time too short to go through encourage risk-taking. My pet hate is Kennington Triangle where opposite lights change all at once and I risk being caught between four lanes of traffic unless I pedal like my life depended on it. But even waiting in front of motorists who are revving their engines in unison and getting ready to speed off on green can feel like the starting line of a Formula 1 Grand Prix: rather unnerving. I understand why other cyclists would want to skip that part of the play.
But what about bike lights? Technology has evolved since I first bought a set of lights for a grand £13 (the front one was a feeble green!). I have a fond memory of Critical Mass one December evening where myriads of bike lights amidst the Christmas decorations formed a magical procession in the cold and dark night. From powerful LED lights to quirky frog lights, there is a range of options that make us fairly conspicuous. I have been asked why I don’t also wear a high vis jacket: I’d rather be reflective and bright in the other sense of the word!* Seriously, do I really want to add to the widespread view that cyclists are ‘idiosyncratic marginal people who dress strangely’, as the Guardian Bike Blog put it? I’d rather play down my otherness and emphasize that we are people on bikes but could well be people in cars another day: we are, above all, people.
This brings up again the issue of our (in)visibility. You would think that being out in the open on a bike would make me a visible and human presence. But, as road safety adverts have pointed out, you can only see what you are looking for. We have all heard the ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you’ apology, which CTC even turned into a campaign. I wonder if our otherness, our body armour and reflective clothing, reinforces our invisibility? Lights, jackets, bells, none of that will be sufficient if other road users don’t expect us there and don’t want to see us there. There is some way to go, and many traffic lights along the way.
*’Cyclists are perhaps the most intellectually sophisticated of road-users’, ES Magazine, 2011