I was away at the weekend. I went down to my parents on the south coast, and, since the place is so car-centric that some form of wheeled transport is almost essential, I took my new bike (which is, I have to say, much easier to get on and off trains than Zephirine, if slightly less characterful and not as comfy a ride).
The weekend was fine. I finished a sewing project. Dad’s a lot better than he was at Christmas. I loaded the bike up, cycled to the station, slung her on the train (that sign says “space for three bicycles,” not “space for your ridiculously-oversized suitcases,” so don’t get sniffy with me when I move them), and headed home from Waterloo to Rosamundi Towers via the South Bank, walking over the Millennium Bridge and round St Paul’s. CycleStreets suggested I use Blackfriars, but the redesign has given me the fear and figuring out a strange junction in the dark when I’m tired didn’t strike me as the best idea I’ve ever had.
I made it home, and the following is a copy of the text message exchange I had with J:
“And I’m home. Only the two punishment passes and the one obscene suggestion from a stranger, so we’ll class that as ‘home safely.’”
“What’s a punishment pass?”
“If a cyclist is riding to prevent you overtaking, because it’s not safe, when you can overtake you drive as close as you can whilst shouting abuse.”
“How do you put up with it?”
“I have no idea.”
The two punishment passes were because I was riding out of the door zone past a line of parked cars. The first instance was because the mini cab firms along the Mile End Road think that a cycle lane on a red route is the perfect place to park their cars on a Sunday evening. The second instance was because one of the new build blocks of flats near Bow Interchange was built with inadequate car parking so everyone parks on the street in the cycle lane. Quite what was stopping the first car moving into the empty second lane and overtaking from there, I do not know. Another driver seemed to think that “having cars parked in it,” is no excuse for me to be out of the cycle lane, but he just contented himself with hooting and shouting something unintelligible as he passed.
The obscene suggestion just made me giggle because after cycling from Waterloo to Stepney, I can’t imagine I’d have been the most fragrant of companions. Still, takes all sorts.
So, yes, good question. How do I put up with it? And, possibly more to the point, why do I put up with it?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
Why do I put up with cycle infrastructure which is trumpeted as an improvement, but which has, in fact, made it worse for cyclists?
My choice of transport genuinely worries people. Dad did a proper dad panic when he read about the female cyclist killed at Bow. She was my age, she wasn’t named in any of the reports, and because I was on the Tour du Danger when he read about it, he couldn’t get hold of me all day. Some people on Twitter are quietly relieved when I check in of an evening.
Why do I put up with it?
If you said “wanna ride me instead?” to me in the pub, I would feel perfectly justified in smacking you into the middle of next week, so why, just because I have the nerve to commit the terrible crime of being female and on a bike on my own, do people think this sort of behaviour is acceptable? Maybe it’s alcohol-fuelled bravado, although I’m not sure that explains the times it’s happened on my morning ride or at 5:30 in the evening or on my way back from the shops on a Saturday lunch time, or…
Why do I put up with it?
Yes, I’m saving £100 a month in tube fares and about £30 a month in gym membership that I’d never use. Even with the costs of servicing, and buying decent-quality kit so I’m not tempted to take the tube on days when the weather is being spiteful, I’m over £1,000 ahead in a year. I can carry more shopping on a bike than I can on foot.
Most days, I enjoy my riding my bike. The miles rolling away under the bike’s wheels to the steady rhythm of the pedals. Knowing that I can change my route if I want to. The freedom to visit places which are not on sensible public transport routes, and not being dependent on the goodwill of others in areas which are not well served by public transport.
But the actions of others do make it less pleasant than it needs to be.
Dangerous close passes by drivers and other illegal manoeuvres that put me at needless risk.
Cycle infrastructure that could have been so much better than it is.
Deciding that “no, I’ll not use that route today,” because I have to make the choice between dangerous-but-well-lit and quieter-but-too-dark-to-be-safe.
Having to assess every group of males for possible menace.
Taking flak for every cyclist that runs red lights or goes the wrong way down one way streets or rides in the dark without lights on, no matter how much I protest that I don’t do those things.
Every time that happens, I think, “Is it worth it? Is it still worth it? Is this the week that I stop? Shall I fill out the season ticket loan application form this month?”
Currently, the answer is “Yes, it’s still worth it. No. I’ll not fill out the loan application.” Will the next testosterone-fuelled comment, the next carelessly disposed of cigarette that is flung at me from the pavement or a car window, the next “all cyclists are hooligans,” the next punishment pass be the last straw?
I know that if I stop, there will be one less female cyclist on the streets of London. We are already under-represented. The percentage of people who cycle in London is already low, and whilst 50% of the population is female, only 25% of cyclists are female. Is my presence encouraging others to make that step? Do I add to the “safety in numbers,” that might be the tipping point to get more people cycling?
Am I prepared to put up with all this for much longer pour encourager les autres?
I don’t know. Watch this space.