I’m sure, if you’re in the UK, you’ve seen, or at least heard about, the BBC documentary ‘The War on Britain’s Roads.’ I watched it on iPlayer the other night and though I didn’t have high hopes for it anyway, thanks to the startling revelation that the BBC, who aren’t exactly showering themselves in glory at the moment, and seem more keen on pushing a left wing agenda then reporting the news, had used footage from a six year old commercial video that showed a race by idiotic stunt riders. When the preview version ran with the over laying narration claiming ‘not all cyclists jump red lights but for some it is a way of life’, it became clear that, far from doing what the documentary was actually claiming to do, ie show everyday scenarios from Britain’s roads, it was simply going to be a trendy, sensationalist, tabloid piece of tripe that served no real purpose other then further stoke the flames of the ‘war’ they had declared was raging the streets of the nation.
And who was leading ‘cyclists’ (because of course the documentary had to draw lines – you were either a cyclist or you were a motorist: you couldn’t be both, you had to pick a side, because otherwise, how could there be a war?!) into battle? They appear to have picked someone with a bit of an ego problem judging from the hour of footage shown. We were introduced to Gareth Williams, a web engineer, ie ‘CycleGaz’ who records and uploads his commutes to YouTube to show bad driving and close calls. Today the papers were reporting he had received death threats for his ‘arrogant’ and ‘snobbish’ outlook, and frankly, even as a cyclist, its not hard to see why. Personally, I don’t think the taxi driver Michael, who was game enough to come on the show, did anything that bad – it certainly didn’t warrant the faux applause and chanting of ‘mug’ from Mr Williams, not that Michael the taxi Driver was ok in his reaction either. But the combination of yelling ‘assault’ because someone pokes your camera, especially when you’ve just hit their car, combined with his odd necessity to peer down over his nose and generally appear a bit egotistical didn’t really give the best impression for Mr Williams, and thus for cyclists in the program. I’m not suggesting he is at all, I should point out – merely that the aesthetics of the program and his attitude, which are fairly important in the context given the ‘i didn’t see you’ excuses etc, didn’t combine to give cycling the best ambassador.
In fairness, it was drivers who were on the receiving end of the program – whenever cyclists were in trouble, it was either the aforementioned faked footage posing as ‘ everyday’ or cyclists themselves were combating the problem. The program still had two serious flaws though. For a start, the program was called ‘The War on Britain’s Roads’, but anyone from outside the country expecting a lazy tour through the, er, scenic cities of Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, etc would have been disappoine, as the program makers had instead decided that ‘Britain’ translated as ‘London and one roundabout in Glasgow’. Right.
This has always annoyed me – London is not Britain, and before I came to London as a student, I always frowned at those who claimed cyclists skipped red lights, as being in Newcastle upon Tyne and Northumberland, I’d never seen it happen – everyone stopped at them, and if anything, it was cars charging through. However, in London, as I’ll come to later, it seems almost obligatory to go through them, and stopping draws venom from your fellow cyclists who bemoans how you ‘got in their way.’
But the main issue was simply, what was the programs point? Whilst it showed many clips of cycling near misses and accidents, presumably to cater for some blood thirsty audience who watch the Tour de France in the hope their is a crash, it didn’t offer anything in the way of solutions, unless we take the final taxi drivers sarcastic remark ‘don’t drive and don’t cycle’ to heart. We had the bereaved mother who had worked tirelessly to improve the safety of turning lorries, but no mention of the most commonly heard slur from drivers, ‘you dont pay road tax.’ For a prime time show, surely 20 seconds could have been spared to dispel that particular myth once and for all, although of course it takes a special kind of moron to claim he’s entitled to try to injure and knock you off your bicycle because you haven’t paid to use a road (in their head). The program also failed to point out that there was nothing wrong with sitting in the middle of the road on your bike, an action allowed and encouraged by the HighWay Code, but toned by the narrator as if it was a risky, illegal procedure. In short, the program offered nothing but tabloid sensationalism, extreme characters far removed from the ‘everyday’ it claimed to portray, and offered no solutions bar the cynical for diffusing its self styled war.
As a student who commutes through London by bike, I have to say its not actually that bad to be honest, and that in reality, it’s the other cyclists on the road, and pedestrians, whom you have to watch out their. Arriving at a junction as a cyclist now goes like this – you arrive at the read light. You stop. you’re about 5cm from the solid white line of the bicycle box. Now, two or three cyclists will come past you anyway, give a quick glance in one direction, and head across through the red light anyway. You tut and sigh about how they’re giving you a bad name. Then all the other cyclists arrive, and carnage ensues. Everyone, it seems, thinks they have the right to be at the front of the box, so they move around each other and pile up until they’ve spread across two lanes and are into the junction. When the lights go green, some will already have anticipated them and gone already (illegal), but the rest will move off at so sluggish a pace that the people who were going faster, who were at the front when they lights were red but are now at the back because people are selfish and rude, now want to overtake them. Everyone thus spans across the carriageway, and you’re left with angry cyclists, angry drivers who suddenly find a mass of cyclists moving across the road, and no one particularly happy. It’s madness.
And then there’s pedestrians. Happy to bemoan an cyclist who jumps a red light, they’re quite content to jump the red man on pedestrian crossing and step into the way of cyclists, or step into the road off the pavement with out looking, or worst of all, push the pram containing their child into the road, the look, then retract the pram and give you the eye as if you;d attempted to murder the child. There’s a junction on the Strand and Waterloo bridge they’ve redesigned with pedestrians in mind which is now a death trap, as cars and cycles now come from behind the pedestrians who were previously held back by a barrier, but as they’re too lazy to look behind them, they just step into the road. Oddly enough, I’d rank them the most dangerous people on the roads, followed by white vans and buses. Taxi drivers in London are actually very pleasant, and give plenty of room from my experience, presumably because a) they’ve got some common sense, b) they know driving badly with a customer won’t go down well.
This is going to be the problem in a year or so. Encouraging cycling is all well and good, as is, to some extent, highlighting the problems they face in programs such as the BBC documentary. But there has to actually be provision for the people you are placing into the road. The ‘cycle super highways’, otherwise known as blue paint, are not exactly the best solution, given they often end in the back of a parking spot or take you to a busy round about and cast you in merrily, laughing at your misfortune. They are already pretty congested at peak times and need to actually work at junctions. Without some serious lessons and some serious implantation of common sense , as well as notching down the egos of both cyclists and motorists, the phoney war is set to continue for a while yet.