Even though I’ve been working away here at MicksGarage.com for almost two years this is oddly enough the first time I’ve put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) for this hallowed institution known as ‘The Filter’. It certainly had nothing to do with the fact that there’s an internal staff pool going related to blog posts and view counts this month. Nothing at all. That said, I decided that the best way to gently ease myself into the world of high caliber e-journalism was to pick something safe, non-controversial, and totally unlikely to polarise readers.
Let’s talk about cyclists.
(Disclaimer: I usually cycle to work, but laziness generally prods me toward the heated interior of my car for longer journeys or if it looks like there might be any kind of inclement weather AT ALL)
In Dublin, like most places in the world, cyclists (and ESPECIALLY urban cyclists) generally get a pretty bad rep. Everyone has a story about a near miss with a cyclist (or indeed a non-miss), so it didn’t really come as a surprise that during my research for this post I came across a fairly staggering number of blogs dedicated entirely to rants about encounters with cyclists (including a bewilderingly common view that owning a bike was somehow comparable to membership of the Nazi Party). One good aggregator of cyclist-themed vitriol is the Twitter account @CycleHatred, which provides a mere glimpse into the level of ire we’re dealing with here. That’s not to say that this is a trait unique to drivers (and/or pedestrians); a quick dip into any cycling themed forum quickly uncovers individuals with almost fanatical beliefs about the positioning of the bicycle on the imaginary road user hierarchy, as well as some impressively creative interpretations of the basic rules of the road.
So why this divide? Surely there’s a space for all of us, in our world of segregated bike paths, bike-to-work schemes and toned, lycra-clad rears? To tackle this issue I’ve tried to break down some of the common arguments levelled at cyclists and see if I can dispell any of the myths (or support valid points, as they may be).
Cyclists Break Red Lights/Run Stop Signs
Fairly common one this, and park yourself at an intersection for a few minutes during rush hour and you’ll come away thinking this is a universal truth. There’s no way of getting around the fact that breaking a red light isn’t necessarily the smartest thing you can do and cyclists do seem to be disproportionately guilty of this particular indiscretion, at least anecdotally. That doesn’t mean that they’re alone; on my drive in today I saw a massive Mercedes sail through two junctions which were displaying pedestrian crossing lights, drawing a few shouts of protest from the people who’d already stepped off the kerb.
The problem with bikes and red lights is a bit more complicated than it is for cars. While I don’t condone sailing out across a busy junction, or cutting over pedestrian crossings, there IS the undeniable fact that being on a bike at the head of a line of traffic is at best a bit intimidating, and at worst bloody dangerous. Cars accelerate faster than cyclists and the logic used by some cyclists is that a bit of a head start jump before the lights go green allows them to get to a speed which allows them to safely share the road with larger vehicles.
When you think about it, this does make sense! A head start would certainly help avoid the common sight of a shoal of cyclists frantically scrambling for the pedals while a row of taxis, busses and other cars guns the engines and tries to squeeze past. In fact, this idea makes so much sense that as we speak a new system of bicycle lights is being rolled out across Dublin which will do exactly this. While there isn’t really any condoning blatantly running a red at a busy junction just to avoid a two minute wait, there’s no denying that giving cyclists a little leeway at junctions can improve traffic flow and the safety of everyone if it’s handled properly. I don’t think any of us have any time for serial light breakers though.
Cyclists Don’t Pay Road Tax
This is another common one I’ve come across here, both in speaking with people I know and reading tweets/articles (I think everyone and their mother has seen stuff like this). Some drivers bemoan the fact that cyclists don’t have to pay road tax and see this as an argument for dismissing cyclists as second class road users. The funny thing is though, they’re right. Cyclists DON’T pay road tax.
But neither do motorists, at least in Ireland or the UK.
If you drive you pay tax on the emissions produced by your engine, known as motor tax, with a higher charge being applied to larger or less efficient engines. If you drive an electric car you don’t pay any motor tax; congratulations, you’re now a driver who pays the same amount of motor tax as an emission-free cyclist. You pay VAT when you purchase a bike, the same as with a car.
Upkeep and building of roads is covered by council tax and income tax, something completely unrelated to your chosen mode of transport. This idea of there being a special tax that motorists pay to subsidise cyclists use of the roads is a complete myth. I’ve also seen calls for cyclists to fund cycle lanes themselves since they don’t pay this imaginary tax and it’s a waste of money. I’d counter that with: should we be charging pedestrians for using the footpath?
Cyclists Have a Bad Attitude
Another common sore point is that cyclists have a holier-than-thou, road warrior attitude, which some argue can even be a cause of road rage. It’s true that some cyclists seem determined to intentionally get into altercations with other road users just to prove how reckless and stupid these filthy motorists are (ironic, I know), but not all cyclists are going to be like this. Similarly, every cyclist with a GoPro or other camera system mounted to their helmet isn’t militantly seeking fodder for their ‘I Hate Cars And Everything With An Engine’ YouTube channel.
I was personally involved in an accident caused by motorist inattentiveness where a camera might have helped me identify the driver of the green Jag who sped off without bothering to make sure I was ok (Dublin, 2007, just outside of George’s Street Arcade heading out of town… if you’re reading this I hope your paintwork was an expensive repair). I have a number of very easygoing, non-confrontational friends who each have their piece of footage showing a car cutting across them, ignoring their right of way or running a red light. Helmet cams are there for the protection of the cyclist and the fact that some users seem intent on creating sensationalist videos shouldn’t diminish this importance. Likewise, I think that dash cameras in cars are a fantastic idea, and as more vehicles and bikes are equipped with this gear (on-board cameras will almost certainly become a requirement by insurance companies before too long) we may see a decrease in the general mistrust most motorists and cyclists seem to have for each other.
Cyclists Don’t Pay Enough Attention
Some people claim that cyclists don’t pay attention before overtaking or carrying out another maneuver, and there’s no denying that a quick glance over the shoulder is a poor substitute for an array of mirrors and sensors. Pair this with the lack of airbags, seatbelts and other vital safety measures and you’ll realise that cyclists have to be hyper-aware of their surroundings if they want to avoid serious harm. And if they’re not, well, more fool them. This is why the sight of cyclists with massive headphones astounds me; surely muting traffic noise cuts off one of your most important senses and leaves you even more vulnerable? When you think about it though, this really isn’t that much worse than pedestrians doing the same (or fiddling with their phones) while crossing at random points on a busy road.
I’ve even seen drivers with headphones in, which despite being totally illegal just seems like a really reckless thing to do. Don’t even get me started on people who drive one handed with a phone pressed to their ear or loosen their grip on the wheel to reply to texts…
Cyclists Are Selfish Road Hogs
I think this one is mostly directed at cycling clubs and is an understandable frustration voiced by anyone who’s been stuck behind a large group cycling two abreast on a winding country road. It’s annoying, right? If they were single file you’d be able to squeeze past them.
There lies the problem, though, because legally you’re supposed to leave as much space overtaking a bike as you would a car, at least where there’s no bike lane (I couldn’t find a link to the relevant piece of Irish legislation but trust me, it’s the same story). While it’s tempting to get mad at a single cyclist in the middle of your lane, you should remember that even if they’re not being considerate (many cyclists will give way if they feel they’re holding up traffic), they’re not doing anything wrong.
Groups of cyclists (especially clubs) double up in order to reinforce this often ignored rule, but also because they often know that they’re taking up a large part of the road and they’re trying to be considerate. After all, if you’re leaving enough space to overtake, it should be easier and safer to pass a small group of paired up cyclists than it would be to pass a long line of single file riders.
This has been a really long post and I haven’t broken any ground that hasn’t already been walked a million times before. I don’t think there’s any quick solution to the ‘us and them’ mentality beyond a gradual changing of attitude and a bit more consideration towards your fellow road users no matter what mode of transport you’re using. Pretty much all of the arguments I’ve seen levelled against cyclists can be applied to other road users, and while cyclists might be guilty of being more likely to break a red light, motorists are more likely to speed or cause an accident after consuming alcohol. If you’re using a bike to commute to work and you’re sick of the ire unfairly directed at you, you should be asking yourself ‘am I really being as good as I could be?’ At the end of the day there are many inconsiderate and reckless people in all walks of life, and just being a cyclist doesn’t (usually) make you any more likely to endanger other people by behaving poorly on the road.
Really, when it all boils down to it, I think there’s an argument that says it doesn’t matter if you’re in a car or on a bike…some people are just arseholes.
Words by Rob H