Look at a photo of any city in the 1960’s with its wide near-empty streets and you’ll see straight away how fierce the competition for road space has become today. Not that there is less of it, just that there are too many of us. Or are there? People on bikes don’t take much space: we make up 42% of vehicles on Blackfriars Bridge in the morning rush hour but only take up 12% of the space, so if transport engineers would care to do the maths, they’d realise the huge potential for growth in traffic. The more we are, the more vehicles roads will be able to accommodate. Not that motorists give it a thought though! Anyone who attended the LCC Big Ride last year could marvel at how many cyclists can fit in a limited space and co-exist together harmoniously despite different speeds and cycling styles. It’s perhaps because we are bodies first, rather than machines: we can see each other so it all is very human and personal. But overall, road behaviour remains irrationally, primitively territorial. In the animal world, competition for food resources, i.e. for survival, explains territorial behaviour. On the road, it has no basis whatsoever but it endures. A lot of the aggression focuses on our right – or lack thereof – to be there: ‘You don’t pay Road Tax so get off my road’ tactics. Considering that originally roads were not built for cars and that as a cyclist and non-driver, I pay doubly – for maintaining the roads I don’t damage (through general taxation) and for bike repairs caused by poor road surfaces – I feel short-changed.
We should be thankful, though. We have our own space: cycle lanes. I used to be against separate facilities, since I considered myself entitled to the road too. Several years down the line, I find that vehicular cycling, such as taking the lane, requires an assertiveness that gets tiring at times. Having to face up to the bullies daily is not pleasant and in this context, so-called segregation begins to sound like the Holy Grail. Even if what little space is reluctantly devolved to us isn’t very appealing: narrow, inconveniently located in the gutter, poorly designed and maintained, littered with debris and glass, regularly flooded (no drainage) and used as an emergency parking space. Cycle lanes suffer a lot of wear and tear and more often than not seem a pathetic, token gesture of good will, when they are not qualifying for the Warrington Cycling Campaign’s Cycle Facility of the Month title or simply getting branded as a crap cycle lane.
I suspect that in the UK, many cycle lanes are designed to keep cyclists out of motorists’ way. Infuriatingly, if the only one I come across regularly, near Waterloo Station, is just as regularly encroached on by vans and taxis, it’s not only that they feel the need to mark their territory but also because they know they can do so with total impunity. To quote the Invisible Visible Man, ‘the shape of a city’s infrastructure does more than anything else to forge the culture of its roads.’ Allocating space to and prioritising needs of some road users over others are decisions which are not neutral and they will have a big impact on individual behaviour. The oft-heard argument that London streets are too narrow for a Dutch-style infrastructure is a poor excuse, given the ease with which Olympic Lanes were put into operation last year. ‘Give London’s cyclists their fair share of the road’ asked one Evening Standard headline, but the question is: what is a fair share?
After six years in the saddle and 17 in shared houses, I like to dream about what it feels like to have one’s own space: a space where I feel safe and at home, where I have room to manoeuvre and to breathe, where I can relax away from the pressure of other traffic and find my own headspace, a space I won’t lose if I don’t occupy it. A space bigger than an Advanced Stop Line box, more permanent than the few occasions a year when central London is closed to motor vehicles and taken over en masse by people and bikes of all shapes and forms. Not just a few cycle lanes in Bloomsbury, shared bus lanes and a park or two but a real vision for our future environment. Take a moment to visualise the streets you cycle or walk through every day, how worn out and neglected they look. No wonder we rush through as fast as possible. They are nothing more than a commodity, a no-man’s land where all is fair, a space to conquer rather than to care for. But we do have a choice: either we treat them as nobody’s space, or as ours.