Cycling is the ultimate rebuke to big government, to the unnecessary rules, the powerlessness that besets those using other forms of transport, says Andrew Gilligan.
By Andrew Gilligan
Published: 7:14AM GMT 04 Dec 2009
It’s fair to say that Ken Livingstone and I have had a “challenging” relationship. As the chief journalistic tormentor of the former mayor of London during last year’s election campaign, I always thought that our agreeing with each other was about as likely as Imelda Marcos sending her shoes to the mender.
But this week, such was the emergency that Ken and I made a very tiny piece of history. We spoke at the same event – a debate organised by The Spectator magazine – and on the same side: against the motion that “cyclists are a menace”.
There was a big turnout, with lots of people clearly thirsting for cyclist blood. I can see why they hate us. We jump red lights. We wear terrible clothes. Yet we have that ineffable air of smugness – we are saving the Earth for our children, and so could you, if only you were more like us.
But while all that might be annoying, I’m not sure any of it really amounts to being a “menace”. To be an effective menace, you need a lot more hardware. We cyclists have a flimsy contraption of aluminium tubes taking up about one square foot of road. Our top speed is one third of a Reliant Robin’s. Motorists, on the other hand, have 13 tons of German engineering, bull-bars, 235 brake horse power, 140mph top speed, a Jeremy Clarkson tape on repeat, and serious anger management issues.
I’m exaggerating, of course. I’m blaming an entire and vastly varied group of people for the characteristics of the worst. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
But the serious point is that cyclists are a very vulnerable presence on the road. Like the cyclist, a Pekinese may be a rather aggressive animal. But just as very few Pekinese have ever killed a lion, very few cyclists ever killed a motorist: the number of people killed per year by cyclists averages less than one. The number of cyclists killed per year by motor vehicles is around 120.
In other words, we are not a menace. We are menaced. And that explains some of the cyclist behaviour that gets up people’s noses. I freely admit that I sometimes go through red lights – so long as there are no cars or people crossing. I do that because it is dangerous for me to start from traffic lights in the middle of a stream of accelerating traffic.
But I draw a line between that and the behaviour of the minority of cyclists who go too far: riding into pedestrians or other traffic, or riding on pavements and not giving way to pedestrians.
You might say that proves that even if we’re not a menace to other vehicles, we’re a menace to pedestrians. But again, the figures don’t help you. Cyclists make up 1 per cent of the traffic in London, and they also cause 1 per cent of the traffic injuries to pedestrians. Those injuries they do cause are also, as you’d expect, at the lower end of the scale.
So yes, some cyclists are a menace. But saying that all cyclists are a menace is like saying that all Muslims are a menace: it would be outrageous.
I wonder why cyclists, objectively quite a minor road hazard, get so much flak. Perhaps it’s because mass cycling in our cities is relatively new. But I think it’s also because we’re free – and the rest of you are jealous.
Cycling is the ultimate rebuke to big government, to the unnecessary rules, the powerlessness that besets those using other forms of transport. Some rules, of course, are necessary. But we should want as many people as possible freed from the petty and pointless ones. Instead of hating us, you should join us. You have nothing to lose but your trains.