Cars vs Bikes: 5 handy tips for the London cyclist

Recently I wrote a blog post on how motorists could make the roads a safer and happier place for all, from the perspective of a driver who also cycles.  This time I’m swapping my windscreen for my helmet and sharing a few revelations on how we two-wheelers can in turn do our bit to endear motorists to us a little bit more; and in turn, hopefully stop wanting to kill us.

Thing is, my lovely fellow cyclists, that we are by no means perfect, nor are motorists always entirely unjustified in their generalised loathing of bicycles.  Sure; deliberately attempting to run bikes off the road or vilify us when all we’re doing is following the law is a tad unnecessary but hell, we’re all human, and don’t we ultimately want to live in a nice friendly place?  So let’s take charge, be self-aware, and make a few day-to-day changes which might, eventually, trickle down and help improve life on the road, bit by bit.  Social responsibility: it’s what all the cool kids are doing.

1) Obey the rules

Copyright Ed Osborn from Flickr

Yeah, you know what this means: don’t jump red lights.  I mean it.  Stop fucking jumping the lights.  You’re giving us all a bad name.

In 2013, the Sunday Times discovered that 1 in 10 cyclists jump red lights.  Prior to that, the Institute of Advanced Motorists suggested that 57% of cyclists have done it at one time or another.

Self-preservation is an oft-quoted excuse and I empathise; many motorists don’t give cyclists the respect and space they need and as such it seems easier to just dash ahead.  But in fact it’s equally dangerous for cyclists to jump red lights as motorists, and by the way, it’s illegal.  It also makes the rest of us look bad.  You put other well-behaved cyclists in danger, because motorists begin to presume that all cyclists will speed off before the light goes green and as such rev their engines whilst the law-abiding stragglers are still putting foot to pedal.  You endanger yourselves, obviously.  And you put cars, pedestrians, and other cyclists in danger when you unexpectedly zoom across their path at a junction.

Traffic lights are there for a reason, and the majority of motorists obey the rules.  If they don’t, they face the consequences.  Full disclosure: I once, albeit accidentally, drove through a red light, got caught, and received not only a fine but points on my licence.  Whilst frustrating, it was fully deserved.

As cyclists, we bang on about our rights to the road, our legal status as vehicles, and the lack of respect from motorists simply for having two wheels.  Well, it works both ways.  If we respect the rules laid out for road users, then we can fairly request the same treatment from those who also use it and justifiably occupy the moral high ground when we don’t get it.

2) Say thank you

Giving these out to well-behaved motorists seems a trifle excessive but nonetheless well-intentioned (image from Etsy
Giving these out to well-behaved motorists seems a trifle excessive but nonetheless well-intentioned (image from Etsy)

Also known as “stop acting so bloody superior”.

That thing above about occupying the moral high ground?  That only applies in certain situations.  It’s not a default position.  Just because cyclists don’t belch exhaust fumes doesn’t make us worthy of special treatment.

Not long after I started cycling, I read this excellent blog post reminding cyclists to say thank you to cars.  I realised that although when driving I always thanked motorists for letting me out, I rarely did so as a cyclist.  But why not?  Was it an ingrained sense of self-righteousness that I, as a cyclist, was in some way superior or deserving of special treatment?  Or was it simply that I’d never had it drilled into me as it had been by seeing my father or driving instructor noticeably and repetitively raising a hand in thanks whilst I executed an excruciatingly slow three-point-turn in front of wearily accepting drivers on a Sunday afternoon?

I’d like to think it’s simply the latter, but I fear that many cyclists do maintain a sense of entitlement and expectation.  Of course that car should let me out; of course this taxi should wave me in front.  In fact they’re under no obligation, but if they kindly and conscientiously give us a break, the absolute least we as cyclists should do in return is show our appreciation.  There’s no need to give out hand-written notes as they once did in Toronto, but let’s embrace our Britishness and revel in our innate politeness, shall we?

These days, I always try to raise a hand in thanks, or if I’m physically unable, then I nod my head, smile and mouth “thank you”.  As a motorist, I recall being pleasantly surprised when a cyclist acknowledged a gesture.  Conversely to point 1, it makes us all good.

3) Be unmissable

My headlamp, the powerful Busch & Muller Silver Cyo – pic from
My headlamp, the powerful Busch & Muller Silver Cyo, available from Spa Cycles

Light yourself up like a Christmas tree.  A powerful headlamp (albeit not flashing in your fellow cyclists’ faces), brake light, all manner of reflectors, and everything else in between.  Forget those nasty yellow jackets; I use this sash in purple stars, and these decals in silver.  (I also have fairy lights, but I’ll admit they’re not for everyone).

And here’s the clincher: turn on those lights the moment it could tentatively be described as “dusk”.

I have a memory of sitting in my mum’s car as a kid and asking why cars turned on their headlights when it clearly wasn’t dark.  It was early evening, but the sun hadn’t properly set.  One could easily have read a book by the amount of light in the sky.  She said “it’s getting dark, and you can’t see the cars properly”.  I thought she was fobbing me off (fair enough; I asked a lot of questions.  I was one of those children) and it wasn’t until I drove myself a decade later that I recalled the conversation and realised what she had meant.

When driving in that weird late-afternoon, pre-dusk light, it’s surprisingly difficult to see moving vehicles coming straight towards you.  They sort of blend in with the background; especially if it’s a straight, level, not particularly busy road.  It’s the precise time when cars use their side-lights, and it’s why they’re there.  Such a phenomenon is hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it, so it’s understandable why many cyclists don’t realise quite how dangerous and invisible they are.  To non-driving cyclists, please take my word for it, and turn your lights on earlier than you think.  It shows motorists that you’re doing what you can, and could seriously save your life.

4) Use the cycle lanes

cycle-lane-signA controversial one.  London’s cycle lanes are terribly maintained and, without proper segregation, often strewn with broken glass and general litter.  But when there is a lane, and you choose instead to cycle in front of a car (and do so slowly), it’s kind of understandable why motorists would get angry.  Unless you want to get out and explain the issue to every frustrated car driver, let’s all campaign for better lanes and meanwhile keep trying to maintain decent relations by not forcing motorists to drive at 15mph whilst they gesture angrily at the empty cycle lane running parallel to the their stunted progress.  I’m all for taking the lane where necessary (in fact I highly recommend it), but I do sympathise with motorists stuck behind slow-moving cyclists who doggedly refuse move into the existing and painfully apparent lane and allow the backed-up cars to overtake.

In terms of your precious wheels, all I can do is recommend Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres; I’ve used these for over a year and not yet had a single puncture (she says, grabbing hold of the nearest wooden structure), and I stick to the cycle lanes wherever possible.  They really are brilliant for navigating London’s filthy streets.

5) Have a driving lesson

Ever sat behind the wheel of a car?  If not, I strongly recommend it.  Just as I have suggested that drivers take a look at the world from a cyclist’s perspective, so too would I persuade cyclists to try viewing it as a motorist. If you don’t have a generous friend with a car, then a driving lesson costs around £20 and will give you the opportunity to see how it feels in a metal cocoon instead of exposed on the street.  You may feel yourself getting more angry or treating those in smaller vehicles than yours with unexpected disdain.  You may find it surprisingly nervewracking and even be intimidated by confident, mouthy cyclists zipping dangerously close to your window.  Keep it up for a few lessons and you might start to get a sense of superiority and even start to see – and berate – some of your own bad bicycle behaviour in other cyclists.

I don’t suggest you take it right through to a driving test, but sometimes it helps to see how the other half lives.



Leave a Reply

  1. My actual goodness, I love your blog!! I love this post! I am also a cyclist/motorist, although I haven’t ridden my bike in a while owing to my small entourage being rather difficult to transport in south London with a push-bike. Nevertheless, I couldn’t agree more with you and my dad would probably applaud your post (he is also one of us). Manners – for god’s sake say thank you!!! I always say thank you to motorists when I cycle and I also thank cyclists who give way. I frequently have my side lights on in my car at dusk (and whenever the light is dim). They make Volvos with lights that never turn off for a very good reason. Equally, be visible when you’re a cyclist. And the bloody cycle lanes! Only today I was pondering that very topic as I watched cyclists ignoring the double-lane cycle lane near Raynes Park, and instead opting to cycle on the road. Morons. I could go on, but I won’t, as I seem to blog-stalking you this afternoon. Anyway, I am going to add you to my blogroll right now.

    • Oh my no way, do you live near Raynes Park?? My parents are in Kingston and I went to school in Wimbledon, so I know that one-way system like the back of my hand 😉

      This topic is always a bit of a controversial one but I do think it’s important to remember that we cyclists are by no means perfect!

      Have you thought about a christiania bike to ferry around your kids? They’re huge in Scandinavia apparently, and increasingly popular in London. Pretty good if you don’t have any massive hills nearby – and great for doing the shopping too! I’d DEFINITELY consider one of those instead of a car if I ever find myself with long-term responsibility for a small human.

      • If we move to the coast/anywhere miles away from London, I might. But while I have to make the (almost daily) journey from Mitcham (I live in bloody Mitcham) to New Malden, I will keep the kids in the car!

        My goodness, do we know each other?! What a small world!!

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