Our Bicycle Lives

I cycle, therefore I think

Category: On The Road

Space

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.

Not Our Space

Not Our Space

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?

Feeling At Home

Feeling At Home

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.

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Bridges

As a pedestrian, I never gave any of the London bridges a second thought: they were cold and windy places that I walked over quickly. In a bus, I glanced up for a few seconds from my book to look at the view and that was that. But as a cyclist, they have a special place in my heart, apart from the fact, of course, that under a bridge lives the most exciting place in London. I look forward to cycling across the Thames. The full force of the wind gets the blood flowing to my cheeks, it hits me and I hit back as I gather speed on the down slope, and for a short time I live in the moment. Each bridge has its own personality: Waterloo is modern and straightforward, Westminster is in the heart of things, with its sweet but annoying ice-cream vans and tourists, Tower Bridge is monumental and bumpy, Blackfriars strives to live up to its bad reputation, Vauxhall is a dangerous no-no. Judging from other riders’ accounts, I am not the only one who finds these landmarks a fascinating piece of engineering.

I suspect that for many commuters, though, they’re simply a passage obligé, a prerequisite to get to and from work. There’s no way to get around them! Neither the Thames cable car nor the quaint Greenwich foot tunnel are as convenient – nor do they quite possess the same aura. If ‘commuting cyclists outnumber cars for the first time’ on some of London’s busiest bridges, to quote a Sunday Times headline back in 2011, and streams of cyclists take over the space during the rush hour, it’s not out of choice but necessity. One only has to witness the massive knock-on effect and traffic congestion caused by the closure of just one bridge to realise how essential they are.

Bridges have often been singled-out by cycle campaigners, but it’s not good news. The truth is there is a price to pay for the view: they are collision black spots, bottlenecks which sport outdated motorway-style road designs and often dangerous junctions at both ends. They are a bone of contention, a fact epitomised by the months-long Blackfriars Bridge protests and flashrides in 2011. Much as I enjoy riding over bridges, I agree: they can be unpleasant and tricky to negotiate and you definitely need your wits within reach.

Yet. During a brief bout of commuting into Central London last winter, I would cycle slowly up the incline and reach the high point of Waterloo Bridge in the morning, slightly out of breath, to be greeted by the Shell Mex House clock on the other side of the river, which marked the beginning of the end of my ride, another ten minutes North to Oxford Street. This was the highlight of my journey. I would then pause – or at least my mind would, not my legs – and from this modest height survey the view, take in the magnificent London skyline and the wonderful panorama of the river. At night, on the way back, I’d enjoy the sense of space and admire the lights shining along the riverside. Time stood still. Then I would let it go, watch it fly past as I was pedalling away, in my very own road movie.

Then I reached the other side. ‘And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him’ goes one haunting intertitle of Nosferatu, F. W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire film. Bridges are that in-between space marking the boundary between North and South: they both link and delineate the two sides of the city. For a South Londoner, crossing the river signals the arrival into the thick of things, the busy centre, with its crowds and maze of one-way streets. The prospect of going southwards is rather different: I am back on home ground, on familiar territory. Wider roads, more room, suburbia. Bridges put things into perspective. They give me spatial awareness, a sense of where I am in London and in relation to the cardinal points, to world geography. They connect me to the whole city, to the bigger picture. They remind me why I live here and how much I love it.

Parking

Cycle parking is a messy business. It starts with two different names I use indiscriminately, ‘bike racks’ and ‘cycle stands’, which flusters the librarian in me. In addition, they are known by aliases such as Sheffield stands, cycle sheds and lockers, and are occasionally called lampposts, street signs or trees. A row of cycle racks looks messy too, with its jumble of metal and plastic and its bits of bikes sticking out. It is unsightly, which is perhaps why there are none on this vast expanse of space that is The Mall: it would spoil the view. Even empty, a bike rack looks functional and ugly. The cycling equivalent of the car park, it inhabits the same world as that ‘prophylactic against the redistribution of wealth’, to use BikeReader’s definition of locks, and is what TfL adverts don’t show you, the logistics of cycling, the underside. It is hard to make glamorous and fun what is a necessity.

Planet Racks

Planet Racks

Parking makes cycling look clumsy. It’s a faff! It involves so much pulling, pushing, squeezing, stretching and reaching that I spend an inordinate amount of time locking my bike just because it’s better to be safe than sorry. The main difficulty is that purpose-built facilities tend to be positioned close to each other, with little room for manoeuvre, and are two-sided. Like siblings sleeping two to a bed, head to toe, it is not easy to fit around one another: my neighbour’s handlebars are in the way, my pedal is catching their gear cable, and their chain is threatening to leave a grease mark on my trousers. When Matthew Wright was describing cycling as ‘life’s cleanest pleasure’, he probably wasn’t thinking of bike racks. Not to mention that in poorly lit areas, it is hard to see what one is doing. Of course, there are always railings and street furniture but they are less suitable to the two-lock technique and my bike feels more secure in company.

Bike racks are convenient and not convenient at the same time. I use them daily and I am glad to find them by shops, pubs and cinemas, but I daily resent the poor facilities, or complete lack thereof, as a bitter reminder that cycling is not entirely taken seriously in London. Cue the Olympic Park facilities last summer, where I was not even able to lock my bike’s frame, only the front wheel, and where, despite assurances to the contrary, the formidable ladies guarding the entrance had altogether vanished by the time the day’s events finished in the evening. It is as if they were an afterthought on which engineers and transport planners didn’t have enough time to spend. My main grumble is their positioning, which can leave a lot to be desired, too close to a wall or stuck against a hedge, thus making one side unusable.

London: glamorous despite the bike racks

London: glamorous despite the bike racks

Cycle racks, being this sort of no man’s land where abandoned bikes live and the place where I relinquish my bicycle and put it in the city’s care, or rather a CCTV camera’s care, that is to say no-one’s, make me uneasy. My treasured bike, its movement stalled, is temporarily immobilised, vulnerable, exposed in what is the equivalent of a bike thieves’ supermarket, where they can shop around and take their pick. Anything can happen there and that’s unsettling. In short, they don’t inspire confidence. The rusty, litter-strewn cycle shed of an inner London organisation I visited recently felt so unsafe (probably for no good reason) that I secured my bike elsewhere, outside the premises. And what’s worse, no-one cares whether they do feel or are safe, because what choice do cyclists have? It’s not like we can go to the competition.

What we need is a bit of creativity. The colourful and attractive Cyclehoops turned a predicament into a design coup. They certainly do not try to blend in and I remember my excitement when one turned up in my street. And I love the visual impact and concept behind the pink One Car = Ten Bikes design. On an arts and crafts note, a brilliant alternative to sensible knitting is guerilla knitting which brightens up grey bike stands with colourful fitted covers. They’ve been sighted in Cambridge and also in Streatham where ninja knitters operate. But my favourite parking spot is indoors, be it in a bike-friendly office or in a friend’s house, protected from the weather, safe and not far from sight. And best of all, my own private one, my bedroom that I share with my orange bike and where I can gaze ad infinitum at this permanent presence in my life.

Incidents

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.

Incident, Abandonment or Suitcase

Incident, abandonment or suitcase?

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.

Shops

Once upon a time when I was a cycling novice, it would take me a while to muster the courage to walk into a bike shop. I found it an intimidating environment, a place of mostly male competence which had its own lingo and exhibited a bewildering array of tools with a purpose. Just like one is implicitly expected to have a decent haircut even before being attended to by a hairdresser, I felt I already had to know what’s what to avoid making a fool of myself. Faced with this catch-22 situation, no wonder I used to hover on the pavement, eagerly looking at the bicycles in the window, before venturing inside and finding myself surrounded by all things cycling.

I had, in fact, reached cycle heaven! Shiny bicycles on display left, right and centre … parts, accessories and items of apparel for all weather conditions and wallet sizes … I soon realised that bike shops and I shared a passion, even if in their case it was perhaps more a craft, a trade or even a money-making business. Then I set out to find my bike shop, the one that felt right for me. Chains were bright and spacious but fairly sanitised and anonymous affairs. I had more affinity with independent outlets. It took me two years to feel at home in Brixton Cycles Co-operative. An unfortunate first encounter had put me off: a nervous newbie question (‘How long does a chain last?’), an answer (‘How long is a piece of string?’) which made me feel silly and inadequate, a false start. The second time, many months later, I was more experienced. The first thing I noticed was the background music: I recognised the song! Being a musical ignoramus, this never happens to me so it was a sign. I then went back again and again, got to know some of the staff by name and enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere. I also liked that it was anchored in the community: they lent tools to the kids cycling in the nearby skate park and a sympathetic ear to the local eccentrics.

Of course, over the years, our relationship has had its downs. Nothing like what my housemate has experienced though, who is working his way through the South London bike shop directory as he becomes disgruntled with each one in turn. No, I simply had to come to terms with the fact that a bike shop is also a workshop where bicycles are made and mended, a place where dirt and grease abound. Do not, like I did, give your bike a deep clean before you bring it in for repair. Then there is the money question. Occasionally my local shop will be the bearer of bad news, like the time I went in for a new chain and ended up having to replace the whole transmission. I don’t like to fall into this way of thinking though: it is like begrudging money spent on organic food, which I equally see as an investment, be it in my health or in my bike’s health. Besides, everyone has to make a living and I can’t imagine mechanics’ wages are anything near astronomical.

But however friendly they are, to bike shop staff time is short. They are busy. They often have little room for lengthy explanations whereas I like to be taken through the process step by step. Ideally, I’d even come by for the latest cycling news, on a social impulse that sees me frequently patronising that alfresco bike shop, Dr Bike. I have come to realise, though, that the transmission of knowledge mostly falls outside their remit. I deplore it, and so do others as witnessed by the recent trend for DIY bike shops like the London Bike Kitchen. So it happens that while more and more bike shops are opening all over London, my visits to my local have become fewer. As I have directed my quest for information elsewhere and my maintenance skills improve, I am more reluctant to relinquish responsibility for my bike. What if something went wrong? Or if, one of my recurrent fears, the shop got burgled during the night and my bike was stolen? Others feel relieved that their bicycle will be fixed at last; I merely think that it won’t be done as well as I would have done it, had I known how to. Well, that’s the hitch: there is still a lot I don’t know! But if experience has taught me that it would be unwise to rely entirely on bike shops for my numerous cycling queries, I believe they do have a role to play as community cycling hubs. What better way to take the pulse of a new neighbourhood than to pop in the local bike shop for a browse and a chat? And a glimpse of heaven in the bargain.

Lights

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!

Dia Siete, 37

Dia Siete, 37. Photo Flora Coll

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.

Light

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

Potholes

Potholes start small and innocuous, like the French name for them, ‘nids de poules’ (hens’ nests). ‘How quaint!’, one thinks indulgently. A little chip in the road, caused by ‘wear and tear’ or, to put it bluntly, by thousands of heavy motor vehicles charging down the streets of London day and night. A chunk of tarmac dislodged by car tyres. Some loose sand and gravel scattered over the roadway. Nothing to write home about. But the situation quickly deteriorates: lorries, buses, taxis and cars keep coming and going, the hole deepens, revealing new layers in the geology of the road surface. The morning after a cold frosty night, what a pitiful sight! Rainwater has seeped deep down, then has frozen over, expanded and cracked the tar coating. At the end of a long and hard winter, roads look like minefields, with gaps the size of shell holes (well, almost): my neighbourhood has become a war zone.

Potholes may be inert but they are mighty. They are not motionless but rather dormant, like volcanoes lying in wait and biding their time. I dread their power to cause damage and destruction. With its humps and hollows, its depressions and protuberances, an uneven road surface is like an obstacle course. One momentary lapse of concentration can easily result in an impact puncture, a broken spoke or even in a tumble over the handlebars and a concussed head and buckled wheel.

I live in a city. I am a macadam cyclist. I like to feel silky smooth tarmac under my tyres, as smooth as butter. Bring on the powerful smell of freshly laid tar! The road is ‘technology at its best . . . the perfect compromise between civilisation and the wild’ writes Emily Chappell.Whilst I actively seek the wilderness when I am walking or birding, I don’t like to come across it when cycling. I ride a city bike, not a mountain bike, and off-road routes – mud, roots, branches and other hazards – do not feature on my mental cycling map.

Potholes are unsettling because they expose the less than perfect structure that lies beneath the work of civil engineers, designers and town planners. They show the inner workings of the road, its messy layers and crumbly imperfections. Worse still, they lay bare the entrails of our planet Earth. They break the continuity of the road’s protective coating and prove that we are only centimetres away from mud and muck, from chaos and unruly nature (the etymology of the word actually refers to a geological feature in glaciers and gravel beds). Digging deeper, like Buster Keaton plunging clean through the Earth from a diving board in Hard Luck (1921) and emerging years later with an exotic wife and children, we would probably surface down under, on the far side, in a fantasised Southern Hemisphere where people, it is well known, live upside down. A hole in the road is like the start of a tunnel towards the unknown.

For a long time I was welcomed back to my neighbourhood by a giant pothole next to a drain cover at the start of the high street, forever hastily repaired and forever reappearing in a matter of weeks. Then at long last, after a couple of years, this offending hole was finally and durably mended and thankfully ceased to tarnish my image of Brixton. What a relief to go from botch job to skilled workmanship, from approximation to exactness. The road had resumed its core purpose, to enable me to move from one place to another, that is forward rather than down, and to get me with reliable regularity to where I am headed. Until I am able one day, like the pothole gardener, to take time to meander and weave my way through the potholes that are dotted along my route and, rather than make do with them or dodge them like unexploded landmines, make use of them as creative spaces. Plea to all drivers: plant flower pots, not potholes!