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Why are London cyclists so badly behaved?

Why are London cyclists so badly behaved?

Too many think they are above the rules of the road. But an influx of amateurs and an improvement in infrastructure is forcing them to buck up their ideas

Too many think they are above the rules of the road. But an influx of amateurs and an improvement in infrastructure is forcing them to buck up their ideas

Leo Mirani | September 29th 2017

One of the questions on Britain’s theory test for prospective car drivers is in the form of a photograph. It shows a cyclist signalling right while approaching a roundabout in the left-hand lane. Why, ask the examiners, might the cyclist be exhibiting such confusing behaviour? The candidate must select the correct statement from the following options:

a) It’s a quicker route for the cyclist
b) The cyclist is going to turn left instead
c) The cyclist is slower and more vulnerable
d) The cyclist thinks the Highway Code doesn’t apply to bicycles

If you have been a pedestrian, a motorist, or even a cyclist in London, you will know that the answer is e) all of the above. London’s cyclists are often

a) selfish in their use of the road
b) opaque in their intentions 
c) badly served by the city’s streets
d) convinced they are above the law.

As someone who walks to and from work and pretty much everywhere else, I have long been annoyed by the unwillingness of some cyclists to yield to pedestrians. As a novice driver, I resent their unpredictability on the road. And as a recent convert to cycling, I dislike them more than ever – a few inconsiderate cyclists make all of us look bad. 

According to the law of the road, published in Britain’s “Highway Code”, the least vulnerable must make way for those most at risk. So lorries give way to cars, which in turn are careful about cyclists, who should in theory watch out for pedestrians. Most London cyclists are law-abiding folk, but a few think themselves above all this. They feel put upon by motorists. They look down on pedestrians. They see traffic lights as street decorations and zebra crossings as just so much paint on the road. They make our streets more dangerous for everyone, including the cyclists who do follow the rules. Some of the worst offenders are too cool for bike lights, helmets or reflective gear – endangering themselves as well as others. 

There is nothing intrinsic about cycling that engenders these attitudes. I have lived in Denmark and in the Netherlands, two countries where cycling is well-entrenched. Sure, cyclists in Copenhagen and Amsterdam get annoyed when clueless pedestrians stray into their lanes. But overall they are considerate of their fellow road users, and tend to follow rules. It is not simply a matter of our continental counterparts being classier. Cambridge, where I have spent a great deal of time, is a cycling city, and a civilised one, where riders rarely run a red light.

There are, as far as I can tell, three reasons why Londoners are particularly badly behaved. First is a lack of practice. Cycling in London is not something that children learn and never stop doing, but a skill that is acquired in childhood, abandoned, then picked up again when people are well into adulthood, as a way to keep fit or to save on commuting costs. The vast majority of cyclists in London are men in their 30s and 40s. This means that they do not have a lifetime of good habits inculcated in them. (Too many fall prey to the idea of cycling as a “lifestyle”, complete with expensive branded clothing and special cafés, rather than simply a healthy and enjoyable way to get from one place to another – but that is a rant for another time.)

A second, related reason is that cycling as a mainstream activity in London is still a relatively new thing, and the infrastructure, though improving, remains patchy. So cyclists must share the road with inconsiderate drivers and dangerous big vehicles. Some argue that disregarding traffic rules is a survival tactic. But this excuse falls flat because of the new dangers cyclists introduce to pedestrians, other road users and themselves through their unpredictable behaviour. 

The third reason is the sheer size and population of London. It is silly to compare London’s infrastructure to that of Copenhagen or Amsterdam. London is much bigger and has millions more people. It is not uncommon for cyclists to commute ten or 15 miles from their home to work. They have to contend with double-decker buses and lorries. Big-city living breeds a big-city mentality, and that is often rougher around the edges.

None of these reasons pardons bad behaviour. But they do suggest that the problem is fixable. As the number of cycle journeys continues to rise, the more police and traffic authorities will enforce existing rules (such as a £500 fine for riding on the pavement). As London’s cycle infrastructure improves, cyclists will have less cause to complain of mistreatment (segregated bike lanes also make breaking the law more difficult). And the more mainstream an activity it becomes, the less socially acceptable it will be to create havoc on the streets. This is already starting to happen. More casual riders, dressed in everyday clothes and pootling along at a sedate speed, have joined the lycra-clad men who give cyclists a bad name. 

Some of London’s cyclists will no doubt continue to be annoying, aggressive, impolite oafs. If you spot a cyclist breaking the law, suppress the urge to mumble obscenities and instead politely but loudly suggest they “READ THE HIGHWAY CODE!”. There is nothing quite as effective, in England, as suggesting that someone acquaint themselves with the proper way to do things.  

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