Report by a local safety campaigner
One day this week I cycled to do my weekly shop in a nearby supermarket, a round trip of around three miles.
I’m approaching the age when I won’t be able any longer to claim I am middle-aged. I choose to cycle this errand because it gives me some healthy exercise during an often desk/zoom-bound day, and to avoid using my car for a short, local, journey when there is a workable alternative, and I doubt the car would be materially quicker. Doing my bit for air quality and traffic congestion. Walking wouldn’t work, because of the distance and time, and because I can’t carry on foot nearly as much as I can pack on my bike. I should make it clear that I have been cycling for over 50 years. I am a qualified driver too. I am cautious and I am experienced at anticipating poor behaviour by other road users.
I resumed cycling in summer 2020 when Croydon Council put in place a number of healthy or low traffic neighbourhoods. (I had stopped a few years before after several scares, including a driver threatening to kill me for no apparent reason other than he objected to my presence on the road.) The one I live in, and one nearby, provided me with a nearly traffic free cycling route to the supermarket. Unfortunately, the council was panicked into dismantling the one in my neighbourhood after just six months. The planned modified scheme has not been implemented, five months after the council Cabinet signed it off. So roughly half my journey is now on back streets carrying main road volumes of traffic.
What happened to me on my shopping trip…
- Approaching a junction to turn right, an Ocado van driver turns right into the road from the opposite direction, on the wrong side of the road. I have to swerve quickly to the left to avoid being hit by the rear of the van. Fortunately there is no vehicle passing me on the left, as there might have been. Dangerous incompetence and a driving test fail.
- Approaching a mini-roundabout, a car and a van driver ignore my priority. No real danger here, I can see them and wait, but still a driving test fail. (In fact I failed a driving test doing pretty well that!)
- On a road which residents have desperately festooned with home-made signs to emphasise the universally flouted 20mph limit, riding at 15mph plus, a driver approaches me at speed from behind. Unable to pass because of parked cars both sides, he hangs off my back wheel, revving his engine. As soon as he is able to pass, he swerves in front of me, I’m sure as some sort of punishment for the second or so my presence added to his journey. Driving test fail – in spades.
- Near the supermarket, turning left, the driver of an SUV decides to overtake me as we are both turning the tight corner. Rear of vehicle swings perilously close to me. Driving test fail.
- On the return trip, driver pulls out in front of me from a side road. I don’t think she even looks in my direction. Not that close, but enough to force me to brake. Driving test fail.
- The worst the last. Approaching my home, my right arm out to signal turning right into my entrance, a van driver overtakes me, at speed. Extraordinarily dangerous, and an instant driving test fail, surely.
I admit that today’s round trip was worse than usual. But on any short trip I take on my bike in my neighbourhood, this kind of thing happens at least once or twice.
We all have a duty of care to other road users, however much it may hold us up. But the common feature of all these incidents is that drivers were either negligent or wilfully reckless in ways which put me in danger, but gained, at most, a second or so on their journey times. On a typical journey they will lose far more time to traffic congestion, a major cause of which is too many people feeling they have to drive, rather than walk or cycle.
I think I’m now done with cycling in my neighbourhood unless and until Croydon reinstate the low traffic neighbourhood. Despite my careful and skilful approach to cycling, it is only a matter of time before some useless or malicious driver injures me, as at least four of today’s could have, but for my observation and experienced reactions. I have professional and voluntary commitments, two other people depend on me for care. Physiological fact, my body is less resilient to injury than when I was younger. I also don’t think I could honestly encourage anyone else to take up cycling, most of all inexperienced riders, children, or people my age or older. A fellow campaigner’s child fell off his bike recently evading just the same kind of reckless driving as I have described. Praise be that he was unhurt physically, but he was upset, and what parent is going to allow a child to cycle after that kind of incident?
Some would argue that the answer is more policing. It is true that most, if not all, if the incidents above involved drivers breaking the law, but with current police resourcing, the level of proactive policing needed to tame the volume of everyday dangerous driving we see is a fantasy. The overstretched police are aware of the problem, but understandably look to the council to fix the problem at source.
Traffic calming? The neighbourhood is already full of speed humps. They don’t stop the majority of drivers speeding, nor can they do anything about behaviour like reckless turns or deliberate harassment of cyclists and pedestrians.
Cycle lanes – proper ones with physical separation? Very expensive to put on neighbourhood streets, and, at best, could only be fitted in the street widths with all parking banned. That is fantasy too. In any case, no help to pedestrians, who also benefit so much from neighbourhoods with low traffic.
We can’t take all cars out of a neighbourhood, and there will always be a percentage of bad drivers. No, but when through traffic was restricted in my neighbourhood, there was three quarters or more less of it. On the simple law of averages, that makes it a lot safer. Hunch, not proven, but I also think that rat-running is associated with a reckless driving style, less so people, many of them residents, accessing properties in the area.
If they’re not driving dangerously in my neighbourhood, they’ll be driving dangerously somewhere else. Maybe, but main roads are better engineered to mitigate human folly, traffic lights, for example, rather than give-way junctions. But, most important of all, at least I have the option of cycling away from most of the dangerous drivers. It’s striking that last week I could cycle six miles from Elephant and Castle to Crystal Palace, largely through neighbourhoods from which rat-runners have been excluded, thank you Southwark Council! Croydon Council, are you willing to create safe conditions for the last three quarters of a mile to my home? Or will you give in to a noisy minority of selfish locals with no serious evidence to back their claims that minimal constraints on their driving choices are some kind of existential injustice, backed up by vested interests with nothing to do with this neighbourhood?