Thursday, January 2, 2014


The first time I realised I was a Public Enemy was one evening in April 2012 in a civic centre in Isleworth. I was dutifully attending a public meeting with Ken Livingstone, desperately trying to snatch back City Hall from Boris Johnson. Question time came round. I wanted Ken to look good, so I thought I'd bowl him a slow full toss.

'What will you do to help cyclists?' 

I might as well have asked him 'What will you do to help criminals?' Heads jerked round; eyebrows shot up; glances were thrown. Then they started. 'They go through red lights.' 'They ride on the pavement.' 'They don't look where they're going.' All (sometimes) true; all wrong. Next came the madder complaints. 'They take up space on the road.' (Cars don't?) 'They don't pay road tax' (Actually Vehicle Excise Duty, payable only by vehicles which produce emissions.) 'They slow down traffic in Richmond Park.' (Where there is a 20 mph speed limit). 

My naivety was to think that cyclists were gentle, unassuming, herbivore people who sacrificed the warmth and dryness of a car in the cause of making London a cleaner, safer place and reducing their burden on the NHS. Not in London; not these days. Armed neutrality between motorists and cyclists is the best you can hope for. Ken, ever the careful politician, picked up on the mood of the room and fashioned a careful response that left the stigmatisers' righteousness untouched. Now Boris, stepfather of the Boris Bikes, is blaming cyclists who wear headphones for HGV deaths

It's an old one, repeated throughout history: take a group that's weak, find an example of bad behaviour by one or more of them, and win the approval of the fearful strong by generalising it with the simple addition of the third person plural. 'They all ... [insert complaint] ... so we needn't feel bad about maintaining our advantage over them.'

Tensions have got worse since cycling got cool in London. The number of cycle journeys doubled between 2000 and 2008, and has doubled again since. 
Bella Bathurst, in her brilliant The Bicycle Book, casts a deservedly mordant eye over what she calls the Serious Men, who text each other photos of derailleurs, earnestly debate the pros and cons of fixies over double espressos in Hackney cafes, and arrive at work 'gleaming with sweat and self-satisfaction'. I've done it myself (actually, only the last one.) Iain Sinclair, in a snarky but revealing essay in the London Review of Books, argues that the bicycle, once the escape route of the working class, is now the badge of a smug metropolitan elite. How many cyclists can't afford cars?

And yet ... Bella Bathurst also writes about souplesse, the sheer untrammeled joy of riding a bike. If I go too long without getting on my bike, I get itchy. Almost all my best ideas have either arrived or been perfected on the saddle. And the simple material facts remain: no matter how badly cyclists behave, they pollute less, take up less space, demand less infrastructure and kill fewer people than cars. 

Sometimes it's just a numbers game. When I was at school, there was one Asian boy out of a hundred in the year, and racism was endemic. When I went back to teach there eight years later, Asian boys were one in five, and racism had gone. The more people cycle in London, the better they will have to treat us. So get on your bike.


  1. You will have realised by now that I enjoy commenting! I have taken to cycling in the last few years but I am too scared to go on the roads - luckily there is a cycle path along my section of the A4. Wouldn't it be fantastic if we could have one day a month with no cars except emergency vehicles? The only time I enjoyed riding on main roads was during the Olympics when QingQing and I rode down to see the races through Twickenham and because the roads were closed I had the most wonderful ride into Richmond and back. I suppose that will never happen again.

  2. I remember that glorious car-free morning in Richmond too, when my daughter and I whizzed up and down the route of the Women's Road Race. There was a wonderful community feel about the race, too. Be careful, Elizabeth, but do get on your bike, otherwise nothing will ever change!

    The London Cycling Campaign is a great organisation to join;

    and this is a great blog:

  3. This article made me remember the freedom my bicycle brought to me when I was a kid. There was nowhere we couldn't go and our parents were quite happy for us to "go and play outdoor" so they could get on with reading their newspaper or watching Richard Dimbleby. In the late '50s the country roads where we lived were virtually empty compared to the nightmare they have become today. Even walking down a country lane in Kent with my sister makes me feel like I have lost my mind and have wandered onto an area where pedestrians are prohibited. Where I live now cyclists are common, they ride assertively, covered in flashing lights, reflective patches and often out in the road, instead of crawling apologetically along the shoulder flinching at every passing car. It seems we are in a halfway place: walkers, bikers and drivers sharing the road as representative in their manners as all the rest of us out there over-packing our days with must-dos and have-tos..