Cars vs Bikes: 6 handy tips for the London motorist

It’s no secret that cars and bicycles are not the best of friends.  But cycling commutes have doubled in the last decade, and as numbers continue to rise, it’s only going to get worse.

In the great Cars Vs Bikes debate, everybody thinks they’re right, and holds pre-established, largely unfair notions about the other.  Angry motorists frequently shout “Get a car” or “Get a driver’s licence”.  I’ve got a licence, and I owned a car for twelve years before I moved to central London and the astronomical cost sent it straight to AutoTrader.  Then again, as a driver, I also know how irritating cyclists can be, whether it’s a holier-than-thou attitude about saving the planet, or ignoring the rules of the road.

With these attitudes, nobody can win.  I’m not going to pretend we can magically create a lasting bond of friendship between cars and bikes, but there are certain things that each group does without perhaps realising quite how frustrating or troublesome they are.  With that in mind, and from the perspective of a driving cyclist – or cycling motorist (and an unashamed fan of both) – I’ve put together some tips for motorists to help you frustrate cyclists less, and benefit yourself in the process.  Next week, it’s the cyclists’ turn.  And down the line I’ll do some for Pedestrians Vs Bikes as well, just to keep it fair!

 drivers look out for cyclists at junctions Motorists leave room for cyclists drivers look out when getting out

1) Stay out of the bicycle box

During one of my earliest driving lessons, I pulled up to a red light and asked my instructor whether or not I should move forward into the bicycle box.  He looked at me askance.  “Are you a bicycle?” he asked.  “Um . . . no?” I timidly replied.  “Well then, stay out of the bicycle box”.

Thought perhaps not the gentlest of teachers, he was absolutely right.  If, as a motorist, you’re at the front of the queue of traffic, inching forward into the box won’t make your departure any speedier, but it absolutely will piss off the cyclists around you.  As a cyclist, it’s actually pretty frightening pulling away from a major junction when the lights turn green and I know there’s a column of vehicles behind me, but having a few feet of space to get my head together, and ensure a safe departure, can make all the difference.  We cyclists don’t have many spaces to call our own, so please avoid encroaching on what few safety measures exist.

The same goes for driving (or parking) in a cycle lane.  It’s less common, but it does happen.  Please don’t do it.

2) Treat cyclists like legitimate road users

No, cyclists don’t pay Road Tax; but then again, neither do cars.  Cyclists and motorised vehicles share equal status on the road.  Let’s all respect one another!

Cyclists may pose less of a threat to you than other vehicles, but for the sake of their safety and a sense of general decency, you should treat cyclists like you would other motorists.  If you’re looking for oncoming traffic whilst trying to pull out of a side road, you’d wait for any vehicles to pass; so if there’s a cyclist bearing down upon you, don’t think “it’s only a bike” and turn anyway, forcing them to brake or swerve.  The general rule is to avoid making anyone else alter their behaviour due to your actions.  This doesn’t matter if the “anyone else” is on four wheels or two.  The same applies to changing lanes, moving out of a parking space, or dashing across a junction the second the light turns green.  If you wouldn’t do it to a car, don’t do it to a cyclist.

3) Don’t push me (’cause I am close to the edge)

Just in case you don’t remember your theory test (err), a little refresher: when overtaking a bicycle, cars must allow at least as much room as when overtaking another car.

How to overtake safely, from

It’s actually perfectly legal for cyclists to stay in the centre of the road, aka “taking the lane”.  Particularly when the road is very narrow, physically barring the car from overtaking is a necessary safety measure, recommended by TfL, and even approved by the Institute of Advanced Motorists.

Yet when we do this, cars often drive a hair’s width behind us, edging dangerously close and (more often than not) helpfully tooting their horns.  Yes: we know you’re there.  That’s why we’re cycling like this.

Some motorists think that cyclists should move graciously aside and allow the car to go whizzing off on its merry way.  I too used to feel like this when my car inevitably got stuck behind the slowest cyclist in the world and I was running late, because I’m always running late.  But it turns out that sometimes there’s no safe space to do so (e.g. if the street is lined with tightly-packed parked cars, we’re about to turn, or worried about a car door opening).  And sometimes, if you’re being unnecessarily aggravating, cyclists deliberately go even slower than necessary just to piss you off.  Yeah, I’m not proud, but we’re like hedgehogs; get confronted, show our spikes.  Here’s the alternative, though: if I’m cycling up a narrow street and the car following me is keeping a safe, respectful distance, I am far more inclined to move out of the way at the earliest opportunity, and let it overtake.  So the next time this happens, stay a car’s length behind the cyclist, push that frustration down, and think about how scary it must be for the cyclist if she has a bumper millimetres away from her back wheel.  You may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

4) Keep an open mind

I used to be convinced that all cyclists wore Lycra, jumped red lights and indiscriminately mowed down old ladies on pedestrian crossings.  When I met my boyfriend, a cyclist dead set again bike-specific clothing and proponent of comfort over speed, I was nonplussed.  I started taking an active interest in what and how cyclists rode, and was astonished to realise that most of them wore normal clothes, obeyed the rules, and were respectful of those around them.  I simply hadn’t noticed this gigantic section of cyclists before.

Now don’t get me wrong: there are some total plonkers out there who give cyclists a terrible name.  They ignore road signs, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings; they expect cars, lorries, other cyclists, pedestrians and trees to shift aside at their whim.  And you know what?  The rest of us hate them.  We hate them as much as you do; perhaps even more, because we know that for every one of their indiscretions, we get tarred with the same brush.  But they are, thankfully, not the majority.  And whilst it’s admittedly easier for you to recall all of the idiot cyclists who darted in front of you, dashed against traffic down a one-way street, or clipped your wing mirror because they weren’t paying attention, please try to remember that you’ve forgotten the myriad cyclists who were perfectly well-behaved – because you likely didn’t even notice they were there.  And next time you find yourself behind a cyclist, or talking to someone who rides a bike, don’t assume that they haven’t got a driver’s licence, zoom through traffic lights, or blithely ignore the rules of the road.  Most cyclists hate those law-breaking dickheads.  And they’ve probably got an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Highway Code to boot.

5) Embrace pedal power (if only for a day)

What to see what it’s like for a cyclist?  Why not rent a Barclays bike for 24 hours and take yourself around the city streets?  Try to hit the roads at the same time you regularly drive, whether that’s a morning commute or afternoon errand-running.  It should be pretty enlightening to experience the minor aggravations – and major dangers – that cyclists face on a day-to-day basis.  It may help you to understand cyclists’ occasional hostility and learn when to give them a break.  It should also aid you in identifying when they’re just being massive morons.  There’s one in every group!

6) Join a cycle campaign

You may be thinking “This all sounds far too much like hard work.  My life as a motorist will only be complete when I don’t have to share the road with cyclists”.  Well mate, you and me both.  But never fear!  Rather handily, there are campaigns and lobby groups all over the city trying to establish better cycle networks, safer routes, and truly segregated lanes.  Once London has these, we’ll no longer have to cycle on main roads, and cars will once again have the streets to themselves.  Sound good?  Then help to make it happen!  Join London Cycling Campaign, support Sustrans, give positive feedback to TfL’s proposed cycle superhighways, ask your local MP to promote cycling infrastructure, even donate to Cyclists’ Touring Club if you’re feeling particularly keen.  The sooner cyclists get a specialised, homogenised, safely-maintained, city-wide network, the better it’ll be for everyone.



Leave a Reply

  1. SCENE: Loading up the white van at the depot, Monday morning.

    What you doing Bill?

    Oh, I’m just printing off these handy hints I found on the internet over the weekend. I was going to stick them up in the van to remind me.

    Nice one mate! Let’s have a read..


    Sorry! I don’t mean to mock but the kind of people who ruin it for cyclists are never going to read your list. My advice (for cyclists) is to put a baby seat on the back of your bike. Put a doll in it if you like too. You’ve got to admit that’s effing genius (until everyone is doing it).

    • You’d be surprised. Of course I don’t expect the majority of car users to take this on board, but I know there are plenty of motorists who won’t have previously considered their behaviour from a cyclist’s perspective; I know I hadn’t before I started cycling. This list is for people who want to make a change and are happy to listen to alternative ways of living their lives.

      I’m of the opinion that if you don’t like something in the world, you do what little you can to change it. This is my contribution. I look forward to learning about yours!

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