A debate hosted by the Spectator on whether cyclists constitute a road ’menace’ brought together some unlikely political bedfellows
The love and hatred of cycling can bring together strange bedfellows, as demonstrated last night at the Spectator magazine’s debate on the subject, chaired by the broadcaster, Andrew Neil. Arguing against the motion that “Cyclists are a menace” were both Ken Livingstone and one of his least favourite journalists, Andrew Gilligan – a man who has referred to the former London mayor as “dishonest” and “arrogant”.
As Gilligan put it: “Us agreeing with each other seems about as likely as Imelda Marcos sending her shoes to the menders rather than buying a new pair.”
But on the other side too there was a strange alliance, between wild-eyed Daily Mail writer David Thomas and Labour MP Stephen Pound. From Thomas we had the usual joyless speech about “lycra loonies” and “louts”, “driver baiting” and fevered images of lines of poor motorists stuck on country lanes behind plodding cyclists.
“Motorists are an easy target,” he lathered, because of their licences and insurance – while cyclists get away with whatever they want. “To a cyclist, a red light is merely a way of bringing a dash of colour to a city street.”
Few here will subscribe to Pound’s arguments either I suspect, but his entertaining rant was good theatre and at least had a dash of originality. He denounced the headphone-wearing “lycra-clad velociraptors” who speed around the streets. “Who knows what they are listening to? The Killers certainly. Definitely not the Archers.” And he implored reasonable cyclists to turn on the antisocial minority.
On the pro-cycling side of the debate, the arguments were less colourful, but ultimately more convincing (although as a cyclist, I suppose I would say that). Cyclists make up around 2% of the traffic in the London rush hour but they cause just 1% of injuries to pedestrians – almost all of them minor. And of the 204 people killed on London roads last year none was killed by a cyclist. In fact a cyclist has not been responsible for a road death in London for the previous eight years either.
That alone demonstrates cyclists are not the road menace they are sometimes painted as, said Gilligan. “To be a real menace you need more hardware.” And he implored the non-cyclists in the crowd: “Instead of hating us, you should join us. You would have nothing to lose but your trains.”
Livingstone confided that his special branch officer had advised against cycling. “[He said] I really don’t think you should ride a bike because so many people hate you. Someone is bound to run you off the road.” But he predicted that once cycling reached a critical mass, a step change would occur in terms of attitudes to cyclists by other road users – as has happened in cities such as Cambridge and Copenhagen.
The proposing side’s secret weapon though was Baroness Sharples, who famously accosted a cyclist with her bag because he’d illegally sped through a pedestrian crossing outside Parliament.
“I didn’t hurt him. It was a very small shopping bag and it was very light,” she said. Her point was that cyclists who don’t follow the rules of the road are frightening to older people and those with limited mobility. She wanted to see more courtesy from everyone.
On the night, the audience trounced her side of the debate, voting by 96 to 45 against the motion that “cyclists are a menace”. But I suspect few people would argue with what she had to say – particularly if she was carrying a handbag.