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Cyclists and motorists, unite

Inner London boroughs decorate their roads with first red and now green cycle lanes. Lanes run between the kerb and the flow of traffic. A new innovation is a special cyclists' box at junctions that runs across the whole lane, forcing drivers to wait while we wobble off unsteadily.

With a quarter of a century in the saddle, man and boy, I can say that cycle lanes are no help to cyclists. Their real purpose is to snarl up the traffic. And that stops cyclists, too.

According to Islington council the lanes are a response to the increased numbers cycling, but it is also clear that the council is less sympathetic to motorists than once would have been the norm: 'We can't stop them, but we don't encourage commuter traffic.' The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions is equally coy about the real reasons. Its stated goal is to quadruple cycle use, saying cycle lanes 'make cycling more attractive - and if that makes traffic slow down that's an added benefit'.

Benefit for whom? Not cyclists. Once the traffic bunches up, cyclists cannot weave their way through. Most cycle lanes are irritatingly short, meaning that if the traffic has been jammed it is unlikely that any cycle lane will take you all the way past - even if it has reduced the available road width.

Doodling on the roads with green chromium (at a quoted cost of between £8 and £45 a square metre) is no substitute for a real transport policy. The proliferation of information painted on road surfaces only confuses the issue. With green cycle lanes and red bus lanes, drawings of bikes, and special boxes, motorists can be forgiven for not knowing whether the instructions are compulsory, just advice or graffiti.

The unspoken cyclists' secret is that we are more susceptible to road rage than anybody else. Put your back into it and the adrenalin starts pumping. Being more exposed to harm than any other road user, cyclists are outraged by cars pulling out, or (the cyclists' nightmare) doors opening into our path. All cyclists hate cars and their drivers, instinctively. That makes us a ready stage army for the government's campaign to reduce car use.

Leo Chapman at the Islington cycling campaign protests 'the motorists have taken over the roads'. But roads are built and paid for by motorists. Thirty million car users pay £16 billion worth of tax every year for, among other things, the upkeep of the roads. They subsidise our free cycling and much else besides.

Cycling in any city can be pretty frightening even to the most confident cyclist - and that fear breeds a hatred for the motorist. But the truth is that cyclists depend upon car users to look after them. More than most, cyclists rely on the unspoken social contract that lets 30 million people avoid death on the roads every day. Unable to protect ourselves physically, we devolve the responsibility for our safety on to motorists, announcing our vulnerability in Day Glo materials and blinking safety lights. On top of that we jump lights, overtake on the inside lane, and position ourselves at the head of the traffic queue at junctions.

The left-hand cycle lane and its junction box are an imitation of the bad behaviour of cyclists. But all that bad behaviour has been indulged by motorists out of a basic sympathy for the bike. That reservoir of sympathy will evaporate if cyclists are set up in conflict with the car.

London boroughs have rolled out first a red and now a green carpet to cyclists, inviting them to the front of the traffic queue. In themselves these privileges are worthless. As Leo Chapman says, existing cycle lanes offer little protection and lull cyclists into a false sense of security. Drivers put up with cyclists pushing in, wobbling all over the road and sneaking through traffic. But in instituting that behaviour as a right, London boroughs are only building up resentment. The authorities are using cyclists to hurt car users, but however unlikely it seems, drivers are our friends.
James Heartfield

Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998

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