A lot of people seem to have a problem with cyclists. Under this Mail Online article, a commenter says "cyclists in London in the main are brain dead". While it would be foolish to judge the mood of the nation by the hyperbolic standards of Mail Online, bicycle users also attract opprobrium from less hysterical quarters.
I am a regular commuter by bicycle and I ride at weekends. But I am also a frequent driver in London and I have experienced the disconcerting feeling of being behind the wheel and seeing a bicycle appear out of nowhere. I recently watched a cyclist make for a tiny gap on the right-hand side of a coach trying to pass a lorry; when it swerved back into his path, he narrowly avoided being hit. I imagine the cumulative effect on a driver of dealing with cyclists rapidly changing position is a buildup of enmity and mistrust.
But some drivers take their annoyance out on law-abiding cyclists, who I believe are the majority. A van driver recently sped up behind me as I approached traffic lights, revved his engine and sped past me so closely as to almost fell me. Presumably this aggression was justified for him because I am a cyclist. In the past, I have at times felt almost forced off the road by taxis and buses leaving far too little space and overtaking irresponsibly. I was also once knocked down by a driver who didn't look and admitted so. Other cyclists report similar experiences. However, most drivers are careful and give cyclists a wide berth, which raises the question of whether the problem is more one of perception.
A Transport for London study from September 2015 found that the main reasons people give for not cycling in the capital include perceptions of danger, fear of collisions and too much traffic. Eight out of ten people feel cyclists are vulnerable and traffic makes people afraid of cycling. Conflict with motorists is the second most common reason for not cycling, behind busy traffic conditions.
On the flipside, 47% of non-cyclists believe cyclists are dangerous. This mutual fear explains a lot. As does TfL's finding that 72% of cyclists admit using pavements, the legal status of which is complicated. Trepidation is not confined to non-cyclists or those just starting out. The former world champion Chris Boardman, Manchester's cycling commissioner, has said he does not ride on British roads because, although they are statistically safe, they "don't look or feel it". He may have a point, with 3,339 cyclists killed or seriously injured in the UK in 2015, and the number of road deaths in general at a five-year high. In that year, two pedestrians were killed by cyclists.
The main takeaway from the TfL survey is that cycling in London is seen by many as something to be scared of. A large proportion of road surfaces are appalling, cycle lanes appear and then disappear, and some pedestrians step into the road without looking. Buses often squeeze cyclists into the sorts of tiny spaces where accidents happen, and vehicles regularly occupy cycling boxes at traffic lights and junctions where bicycles should go. Or traffic blocks the route, leading cyclists to take circuitous and potentially risky detours to avoid being stuck in a 10-car queue surrounded by toxic fumes.
From the opposite perspective of danger, a not insignificant minority of cyclists routinely run through red lights, an offence usually punished by an on-the-spot fine, but only if the individual is caught. Doing so at major crossings can be deadly and fuels the belief among non-bicycle users that cyclists believe they can act with impunity. As can overtaking HGVs, which for the most part cannot see cyclists and have, regrettably, been involved in several fatal incidents over the past few years. I believe many cyclists find running red lights and other bad habits, such as not wearing a helmet, overtaking without looking, not having lights at night, using phones while cycling and riding on the pavement unnecessarily, as annoying as other road users.
The TfL study found that only 20% of Londoners have had some form of cycling training, and sometimes it shows. Clarifying cycling laws could be useful, but not with the intention of kowtowing to the vocal anti-cycling lobby. Outrage-peddling columnists scream that cyclists should pay road tax, but such a thing does not exist. The extensive media coverage of Charlie Alliston's wanton and furious driving offence has perpetuated the negative and largely unfair stereotype of careless, arrogant risk-takers with no regard for the safety of pedestrians or the law. Parts of the media see "lycra lout" cyclists as a menace and always will do, inculcating their readers to feel similarly.
So attitudes must change. Cycling is a potential solution to many problems, including the obesity crisis, pollution, traffic and overcrowding on public transport. It should be encouraged and made easier wherever possible. But building cycle superhighways and putting more Santander Cycles on the street is only part of the answer. What is needed is much less ill-informed pontificating on the opinion pages, and a bit more mutual understanding of the complaints and fears of cyclists, pedestrians and drivers - who are often one and the same.