by Our Bicycle Lives
Wouldn’t you love to describe your cycling commute as ‘the sheer pleasure of riding a machine that just works, on a route system that just works, on a surface that is silky smooth’, to quote an Utrecht resident? And then comes trouble: incidents, accidents and collisions which encompass a wide array of phenomena, from falls, crashes and near-misses to attempted and perpetrated theft, in fact anything unpleasant and out of the ordinary. They even include being arrested by the police, as happened to one of my more adventurous friends at Critical Mass last July. My own five-year record is meagre (I am not complaining): one fall on ice without damage; one night-time encounter on a narrow ramp with two teenagers on one bicycle. ‘The thing is, mate’ said one of them, ‘we have two bikes. Wanna swap?’ Then, deflated: ‘Oh, you’re a woman.’ I am not short of near-misses though and of potentially serious mishaps averted not by my quick thinking (heaven forbid!) but most likely by my slow speed.
Incidents are not something I dwell on: they are after all extremely rare. The adverse cycling conditions – poor road surfaces, bullying and the constant need to be on the lookout for dangerous behaviour – prey on my mind considerably more. Of course, this is the view from the inside, from my experience in a small area of London and there are disparities with the rather formidable statistics I read in the press. Although they are open to all manners of interpretation, I fear they nevertheless indicate an underlying trend, and over the past two years they have not looked good. On 5 September alone, four people were killed while cycling in the UK. So the dilemma is whether to broach the matter frankly and put potential cyclists off, or whether to paint a rosy picture like the recent TfL posters (Freedom! Fun! Easy! Family Time!) and get people on bikes under false pretences. Incidents may well be the exception rather than the norm but too-afraid-to-cyclists will see this explanation as a casual dismissal of their own perceptions and they are right.
Back in 1936, Jean Renoir in The Crime Of Mr Lange had already filmed a young cyclist being crushed between two lorries and spending two months in bed with a cast on his leg. Later on, he’s back to no-hands cycling around the Arc de Triomphe! Some people do indeed get back on two wheels, others sadly never will. This is the untold story of the high cyclists’ turnover rate, with nearly as many people giving up as taking up cycling every year. How many cyclists does just one unpleasant occurrence put off for good? A friend’s minor fall just after she had learned to cycle effectively ended her cycling efforts. Even for those who keep going, a serious incident can have lasting physical, mental and financial consequences.
So in a sense, public perception is right: incidents stick out because they are tell-tale signs of a wider problem. Pointing out that they seldom happen should not be the same as dismissing their importance. Unfortunately, they can often be the only cycling-related news that Joe Public will come across. Negative events disproportionately capture the imagination, a colleague knocked off her bike and left badly shaken, a bicycle lying painfully twisted in the middle of the road, a front wheel locked to a railing missing its bicycle rather than the pleasantly uneventful day-to-day. Reported incidents may appear to be the tip of the iceberg, except that the iceberg doesn’t exist because what you see is all there is. But they are in the public eye.
Incidents travel far and wide. They are good tales to tell, perfect conversation pieces. As anecdotes, they provide room for righteous indignation and commiseration without having to think too hard about the bigger picture, the ins and outs of the situation and what we can do about it. Like a Sun headline, they are consensual, comfortable shockers. When sharing experiences, with cyclists and non-cyclists alike, I find it requires a concerted effort to think beyond them. Because the legal and policing approaches are necessary but are not enough. An incident is the visible sign of something, be it road design, signage or transport policy, that doesn’t work. Town planners, road safety experts and behaviourists should act together before it becomes a fatality.