Why do I put up with it?

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.


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32 Responses to Why do I put up with it?

  1. Catherine Stead

    I don’t know how you put up with this, I really don’t. I don’t think I could. Your presence probably is helping the ‘safety in numbers’, but it certainly is at quite a cost, isn’t it?

  2. Good post.

    This bit in particular:

    “I know that if I stop, there will be one less female cyclist on the streets of London. We are already under-represented.”

    Well, I’m not female, but cyclists in general are pretty under-represented in London. It’s hard, because it is so incredibly stressful at times, particularly when you know straightforward it is in a lot of cases, to take away that stress, but I do feel like bit by bit, cyclist needs and the benefits of cycling are starting to creep into people’s consciousness. And we can change things. We just need to be clever about how we present things and the kind of language we use. It’s about altering long-held and deep-rooted perceptions. And that takes time.

  3. Blimey, I’ve recently moved to London and have been planning to get back on my bike after a gap of many years – this hardly inspires me to do so!

    I think the day London takes cyclists seriously will be the day road layouts start sacrificing car space in favour of bikes.

    For instance, how about turning one lane of the Euston Road into a dedicatedc cycle route? Nope, I didn’t think that would appeal to Boris…

    • rosamundi

      well, if it’s any comfort, you probably won’t have to worry about the sexual harrassment…

      • A very good point – I didn’t mean for my comment to gloss over that side of the article. It’s something I’m lucky enough not to experience, but it’s something nobody should have to put up with.

    • James

      Totally disagree.

      Cyclists just need to be more aggressive and ride properly with the traffic, taking the lane as rosamundi describes.

      I find it staggering that someone would pick a route based on the junctions involved over and above the best/most direct route for them though. Do you think drivers ever do this? Perhaps cycling *should* require a driving license just so that the cyclist is fully comfortable with how junctions work and what all the signage means? I sold my car last year and have been cycling everywhere for 3+ years now: I would never be remotely afraid of any junction or roundabout…

      More cycle lanes just make cars LESS used to dealing with cyclists.

      I’ve lived in Berlin, a fully cycle laned up city and I rode on the road instead 90% of the time, in preference to being stuck behind cyclists doing 12 mph in the dedicated (off the road) cycle lanes that are too narrow for safe overtaking.

      Be careful what you wish for.

      • Paul M

        James, I admire your nerve and yourr verve, and I wish I could be the same – I am getting more nervous and more cautious every day although I am still fairly “vehicular” by many cyclists’ standards.

        However, telling people to “man up” really isn’t the answer to the issues facing cycling in a big city, here or anywhere else. Probably more than half of the population doesn’t drive – children most obviously, people who can’t afford a car and people who can’t find anywhere to park. No doubt some elderly people and some who have mild disabilities which nevertheless preclude holding a driving licence – epilepsy, for example. I dare say some of those have the nerves of steel and a hide like a rhinoceros to ride as you describe, but I’ll bet most don’t. Should they not have the right to personal mobility which a car or cycle provides and which unreliable public transport does not?

        And as for 12mph, many people would regard that as quite fast, or at any rate would not be fuming about being held back if they woudl otherwise have moved faster.

        I think we know what we wish for, careful or not.

      • rosamundi

        But I’m not a vehicular cyclist. I’m a utility cyclist. I go from A to B via C on a Pashley, wearing a skirt, and if I’m coming back from the shops, I’ve quite often got a massive pack of loo roll bungee-corded to the back of the bike. It’s a good day when I get over 10mph.

        I don’t like battling with 40-tonne trucks to make my way to work, or sharing Cycle Superdeathway 2 with bus drivers of the “see if you can do a close enough pass to make her flinch” school of road courtesy.

        I hate cycling aggressively and taking the lane, because the cars behind often don’t understand or appreciate why I’m “getting in their way” and “slowing them down.”

        The vehicular cyclists are mostly already cycling. The people who want to cycle but are daunted by the traffic are not cycling, and we’re not going to get them cycling if they think they’ve got to put up with punishment passes if they ride in a way that minimises the danger to themselves.

        I avoided Blackfriars on Sunday night because purely for my own peace of mind I prefer to negotiate an unfamiliar junction on foot the first time, so I have an idea of the lane divisions and light sequences. It was late, I was tired, I didn’t want to find myself in the wrong lane of an unfamiliar junction with no idea of how to get out of it.

  4. Ashleigh

    I’m so glad that other people are thinking “I’m not sure I should take this, maybe I’ll just take the tube next time”. I am too, and I too keep going. Ladies of cycling – lets keep pedaling together!

  5. Jonny

    I totally understand your frustration (apart from the bit about being the recipient of sexist remarks, but it doesn’t sound pleasant).

    Righteous indignation is what keeps me going.

    It is upsetting that the most democratic, considerate and psychologically rewarding methods of transport, cycling and walking, have become sidelined in London. There are lots of deep rooted problems at work here and they run far deeper than just transport issues.

    I’ve had loads of abuse and violence directed towards me as a result of cycling, and unfortunately I expect much more to come, but I couldn’t just give up because that logic would go hand in hand with giving up other political causes.

    Apart from anything else, cycling makes me incredibly happy. It’s a kind of ataraxic bliss knowing that something which benefits me is also benefitting others, to say nothing of the sensation of gliding (when there aren’t potholes) over tarmac. I’m not giving that up, and whilst I don’t know you, I suspect for all your psychic wounds that you’d miss getting about by bike.

    • Yeah, it’s brilliant isn’t it? That’s what I tell people who think I’m nuts for doing it. The great freedom comes with a price, but it’s worth that hassle. And the benefit to the wallet!

  6. Don’t give up – the more cyclists there are the easier it is for us all.

    I know how you feel though. I was deliberately rammed from behind by an impatient driver who thought that was acceptable because I was holding him up on a narrow road. Luckily I wasn’t too badly injured but it took quite a bit of courage to get back on a bike.

  7. As a female cyclist, I experience much the same in Manchester.

    Unfortunately, I don’t expect public attitudes to change any time soon. I’ve been commuting to school/uni/work for the last 10 years on London and Manchester roads – and I have noticed a huge increase in the number of people cycling. Which is excellent that more people are getting on their bikes, but dismaying that it just seems to fuel more contempt for the cyclist. And with it brings more aggressive driving.

    Aside from the frequent cat calls, general insults and the occasional threat of violence, I’ve also had my bum groped from an open window of a car as I waited at a set of traffic lights (yes, sometimes cyclists do wait at lights!), been spat on, and the dregs of someone’s morning coffee thrown at me. Ah, to be the villain of the city streets!

    I put up with it because I don’t expect it to change. However, I do try to lead by example; I make sure I cycle *really* carefully for my safety and so as not to provoke other, with plenty of high vis and never taking a chance if I’m not 100% sure the driver of a vehicle hasn’t seen me. Plus, the occasional sharp comeback or retort for those who wish to insult/molest me can be a satisfying back up plan.

    I love cycling too much to let them get to me…. plus, it’s pleasing to be able to breeze past guilty parties when they’re stuck in crawling traffic at 5pm on a Friday.

  8. Bash

    It’s astonishing how little respect so many people driving cars, vans, buses have for Cyclists. People passing me, at speed, inches from my handlebars, barely registers. Currently find myself having altercations with drivers who either edge into or drive straight over the bike box at the lights.
    This morning a BMW driver – fat, agressive, very stereotypical – gave me the wanker sign when I dared to ask him to back off when he was pushing into the bike zone between several cyclists.
    Last thursday, a bus pushed right over the bike zone, obscuring the lights from me and a lady cyclist who were previously waiting in safety. We admonished him, and he told us “there’s still room for you”. Which seems to be the logic poeple take… if there’s physically room for a bike to fit, then it’s fair game to pass as close as you can.
    There’s almost no public campaigns for better driver awareness – how to behave around bikes, how much room to give, how to pass safely and calmly.

    If all cyclists are hooligans and law breakers, perhaps all drivers are murderers?

    Sorry, that was rather long but dicing with death each and every day becomes tiring.

    For the record, I adore cycling, even in London, and cannot fathom giving it up.

  9. I was sad to read this post this morning. And have also experienced the rage of motorists on a regular basis.

    But please don’t give up cycling, Londoners!

    The city is much more cycle friendly than it used to be, and by standing/pedalling together we can fight the Jeremy Clarksons of this world 🙂

  10. I was sad to read this post this morning. And have also experienced the rage of motorists on a regular basis, so my heart goes out to you Deborah.

    But please don’t give up cycling, Londoners!

    The city is much more bike friendly than it used to be, and by standing/pedalling together we can fight the Jeremy Clarksons of this world.

  11. Anna

    The harassment really winds me up too, last summer I had the ‘phwoar – you can ride me’ from a bunch of workmen. I was in a shabby tshirt and 3/4 length shorts.

    Or like the fat man in the Merc who last week tooted twice then said :
    ‘there’s a cycle lane over there for you’
    ‘Sure. But that cycle lane is for turning left.. I’m going straight on’
    -silence for a second – ‘well does it really matter??’

    I too have a few retorts up my sleeve, although I try not to use them – I prefer to just smile and laugh.. I think it winds people up more.

    p.s. I’m a driver too, and after being hit from behind by a bus while I was at a give way line, and ending up underneath it… I do think we need to be brave and carry on. It’s all character building stuff 😉

    • Cas

      My cycle to work improved dramatically when the start of my shift changed from 15:30 to 06:30, defending me from all the people who yelled at me, and tried to drive up my back wheel, because I was comitting the terrible crime of riding in the right hand lane, because my next turn was a right handed one, and I didn’t really want to have to cross three lanes all at once to get there in front of afternoon traffic.

  12. Please, please, please sign up for LondonersOnBikes (http://lob.nationbuilder.com/). It’s a brand new campaign looking at how to make the mayoral candidates promise to improve cyling conditions within London. There will be a full launch in the next week or so, but the basic idea is that if enough of us come together to demand that the mayoral candidates have concrete proposals on cycle safety, then they will be forced to up their game on it. It needs support from as many cyclists as possiable to make it happen, but if this is forthcoming, then big things could happen going forwards.

    The sort of changes that are happening in big US cities are the sort of things that we might be able to hope to look forward to.

  13. Hanry

    Yea Gods, another blog to follow, and it comes with loads of links! I need a clone just to read the internet! And I *will* follow this blog, it speaks to me, so to speak.

    I am a male cyclists in London, and therefore generally get less of the stupid remarks in pubs (On behalf of the less adaptable half of a rather stupid race I’d like to apologise!) – but all the other examples are of course shared.

    I am also an occasional car driver, and I must admit that both on my bicycle and in a car I have, at times, been inattentive – and it’s much easier in a car to lose focus, sadly. Ben Goldacre today on twitter hoped for an ad campaign, but I am a miserable person and don’t think that there is much mileage in it – in my experience car drivers (a monstrous generalisation, of course) are only slightly more open to advice and change of attitude than people who feel their gods belittled.

    At the same time, I wonder what your thoughts are on mounting CCTV all over your bike? Some do, and have gotten police involved, and as much as I like the little feeling of vengeance when I read their stories I worry about feeding the constant surveillance which I campaign against at other places…

    I remember reading the wonderful Josie Dew books, in one she describes how on long tours she attacked male idiots exposing themselves to her with bicycle pumps or took pictures of them, both actions seemed to have a profound effect on the perpetrators 🙂
    Dangerous drivers are of course not just in cities – as it happens, she just faced one: http://www.josiedew.com/ (Oh no – *another* blog!)

    Good luck – and may you long find it worth it to continue!

  14. fred


    you, personally, may feel no fear (though don’t doubt that many experienced and confident cyclists have been killed on london’s roads..) and choose to ride fast on the road, rather than slowly and safely on cycle lanes. you shouldn’t, though, prescribe it for others. or try do deprive them of the choice.

  15. Ophelia

    I drove in central London for the first time since the cycling “superhighways” were put in. And OMG they are useless! Utterly unclear whether we’re meant to drive over them or not, since there isn’t enough room for both a cyclist and a car in the space. And half the time those blue lanes go under a bunch of parked cars or are in a bus lane or some such nonsense! I drove mostly in lane 2 since I had always assumed that one does NOT drive in a cycle lane unless turning left. Surely the CS lanes are just training drivers to drive over things that are shaped like bicycles!

    • “Surely the CS lanes are just training drivers to drive over things that are shaped like bicycles!”


      The blue paint is aimed at commuters, and there are legal parking bays weekends (and evenings?). At some points they are only operational 7am-7pm Mon-Sat, otherwise it’s just another lane.

      I cycle because, after the insults and SMIDGAFs, I enjoy it. Saving money and keeping fit are after-thoughts.

      (I have not been on the receiving end of any particularly obscene suggestions, my partner has and she would probably also smack the offenders were they not sheltered inside a metal box).

  16. Apart from the unacceptable amount of aggression which cyclists face in a great part of the world, a lot of what you talk about comes down to subjective and social safety. These factors are ignored in the UK, but are fundamental to why it is that most people in Britain do not cycle.

    Continue cycling if you enjoy it enough, but do it for yourself. Don’t do it because of a feeling that your presence on the roads contributes to other people starting to cycle or an improved degree of overall safety.

    There will be no “tipping point” until cycling becomes a normal, everyday, enjoyable activity for everyone, and no longer resembles an extreme sport.

  17. New fan here. Love your style:)

  18. Paul

    Well-written post.

    Would like to see the driver’s reaction if they had to witness someone shouting such comments at their daughter/wife/sister/mother/aunt/granny………

    No, they wouldn’t like it a jot. Another hypocritical driver.

  19. Anne

    We have similar issues here in Chicago, where we’re just starting to get protected lanes. Female cyclists are similarly underrepresented here. In traffic counts, women have been about 25% of the total. Where I live on the south side (not many rideable connections between neighborhoods), I usually see very few female cyclists riding between neighborhoods. They’re mostly on quieter neighborhood streets.

    I’m hoping that our new infrastructure (to be installed within the next few years) might change that. I hope that you can keep making progress against the idiot drivers. Don’t even get me started about BMW drivers. Grrr!!!

  20. Cal

    The amount of abuse you get always stuns me. I’ve been cycling around London for 10 years, for several of which I commuted 12 miles a day and I don’t think I’ve ever had any abuse from drivers. I did get wolf whistled at once. Either I’m particularly lucky or rather deaf.

    I have of course suffered from poor driving, poor road layouts and, I’m sorry to say, aggressive behaviour, particularly at junctions, from other cyclists.

  21. Pingback: So that’s what that is | Wolfie Stories

  22. katie

    I can’t remember if you knew this, but I had two bags nicked, and one attempt, from my bike while I was on it (!) by lads on bikes/scooters in Islington and Hackney when I lived there. I am still nervous, even though I live in rural pleasantness, about scooters passing me at night when I’m on my bike.

  23. I’m a bloke and I’ve been shouted at and spat at a few times when on a bike. Hit once or twice. I just rode on – they can’t catch you, so you are safe.

    • rosamundi

      I’ll see your being shouted at/sworn at and even being spat at and punched and raise you sexual assault in broad daylight in the middle of the Square Mile. http://rosamundi.org/blog/2011/06/a-difficult-post-to-write-this-one/

      Whilst incidents such as this are (a) extreme and (b) rare, I don’t just do my shoulder checks so that I know if that’s a 10-wheel artic bearing down on me or a sales rep in a hurry in his company car. I do it so that I can assess the threat level of the occupants of the vehicle behind me, and if I don’t like the look of them I will get off and wait on the pavement until they have gone.

      It’s also why I wear a cycle helmet. I should have nutted the little sod when I had the chance, I’d have broken his nose.