Yesterday I read for the first time since I came to the UK the Rules for cyclists on the Official Highway Code. I learnt about the different ‘Musts’ for the cyclists. I was somehow aware of their existence, but never bothered to read what the legislation says about them. Although I have been riding for 8 years now in the city (Bucharest, then Lancaster), I never knew all the traffic rules. Not in Romania, not in the UK. I am not a driver and I have a relative understanding, or better put, consideration, for the concept of ‘traffic’. It may have to do with the experience I acquired in time as a ‘road user’ and also with the increasing courage of getting ‘in the traffic’. Most of the time my riding in the city is based on a continuous negotiation with the motorists. I look them in the eyes and try to guess what their next move will be. Sometimes I run the red lights when I find it safe, ride on the pavement when I find it necessary. I rarely bother about wearing a front light during the night as I think that I can always see the car coming from the front. Here are some of the ‘Musts’ for cyclists in UK that I wasn’t quite aware of and that I didn’t necessary comply to. I am still not convinced that I will start to respect all of them.
- At night your cycle MUST have white front and red rear lights lit. It MUST also be fitted with a red rear reflector (and amber pedal reflectors, if manufactured after 1/10/85).
- When using segregated tracks you MUST keep to the side intended for cyclists as the pedestrian side remains a pavement or footpath.
- You MUST NOT cycle on a pavement.
- You MUST obey all traffic signs and traffic light signals.
- You MUST NOT cross the stop line when the traffic lights are red.
Needless to say that I have seen plenty of other riders, both in the UK and even more in Romania, breaking these rules. Also needless to say that these rules either don’t exist or are substantially less drastic in countries such as the Netherlands or Denmark. Just to give you a recent example. Last weekend I have attended a bicycle seminar in London, organized by Rachel Aldred from London Cycling Campaign. Peter Vansevenant from the City of Ghent presented the bicycle policies in the Belgian city. Among the interesting things he said about cycling in Ghent, I chose the following:
- On one-way streets, the bicycle is allowed on the counterflow, even if there isn’t a bike path. Such bike paths are no longer needed, because the drivers already know that cyclists are coming from the opposite direction.
- In Ghent there are a few so-called ‘Fietsstraat’, streets where cars are ‘the guests’. The cars cannot overtake bicycles.
- The cycle lights are promoted on a positive way (see this ad, for example), without putting pressure on people. Cycle lights are promoted once a year, when police is giving free cycle lights to cyclists they stop.
- Cycle lessons are compulsory in every school in Belgium. The 12 years old children have to pass a cycling exam.
- City of Ghent is experimenting with allowing cyclists to jump the red light in intersections if they are turning right.
The aim of this comparison is not to criticise the UK for not being a bicycle-friendly environment and Belgium to be, in contrast, a cycling paradise. It is merely an attempt to present two relatively different ways of addressing the problem of safety measures for cyclists.
It is important at this point to understand first and foremost why cyclists keep on ‘breaking’ the traffic rules, in UK and elsewhere. Is it because they don’t consider themselves all the time as being ‘traffic’? Is it because they perceive the Highway Code as something that is not properly addressing their needs? Is it because they don’t feel safe enough on the roads and, by breaking the law, they put themselves out of possible dangers?
More recently, the death of the 6th cyclist in less than two weeks in London, in November 2013, led to a initiative to add even more ‘Musts’ for the cyclists. The mayor of London called for a ban on wearing headphones while riding a bicycle. Instead of applying more restrictions to cycling on the public roads, it is necessary to understand how and why cyclists are not obeying the existing road rules. Simply looking at these cycling practices as ‘deviant’ or ‘suicidal’ is not the answer to the problem; a closer attention should be paid to how they are socially and culturally produced and reproduced.
The question is: what kind of tools should be deployed for understanding this apparently so common ‘negotiation’ of one’s own place in traffic? Is this only a personal strategy or is it something more common?