Cycling in Leeds is in the news a lot at the moment. Obviously there’s the Tour de France Grand Depart. Then there’s the new cycle route from Leeds to Bradford. And there are the ongoing discussions on how we can encourage more people to get around the city without always jumping into their car.
So it was good to see cycling as the main story on this evening’s Look North – with Leeds Cycling Campaign featuring prominently.
Yet the Look North piece left me with the feeling that I so often get when I cycle in Leeds. It was all going so well and then, out of nowhere, someone shoots out from a side-street – or in this case the Look North Facebook page. They finished what had been a well-crafted piece – which asked the question “What is it like to cycle in our cities?” with four comments from motorists on the story. You can guess the kind of thing. Why do so many cyclists not use lights? Why do they push to the front of traffic queues? Make them pay for cycling proficiency tests before they go on the road…. etc etc
You could argue that it was just an attempt to provide balance – and having looked at the Facebook page – it’s probably fair to say that the comments were a reflection of what a lot of people were saying in response to Look North’s request for viewers’ thoughts.
But it seemed odd to finish a piece that was all about “What’s it like to cycle to work in Yorkshire cities?” with the opinions of people who don’t cycle to work. And for our next story: What does beer taste like? Here are some comments from people who drink wine.
Perhaps I’m over-thinking this. The problem is that I think about this stuff all the time – because I live it every day. I cycle to work – 5 miles each way – just about every day. A carefully planned route from north Leeds, through the backstreets of Chapeltown and Harehills, up the beautifully-named Dolly Lane and out of town again towards Cross Green. It’ll never win the nation’s most beautiful cycle route award, but it’s a relatively quiet – and therefore relatively safe, route to work.
And I love it. It keeps me fit, it saves me money, and it clears my head – I always arrive at work more alert then when I get the bus – and my cycle home provides an important barrier between the stresses of work and my role as a dad, picking up my son from school at 3.25 each day (well, 3.27 – I’m consistently overambitious about how long it’ll take me to get back home up the hill).
Yet cycling in Leeds brings its own stresses. It’s rare that I have an incident-free journey. Someone will pull out at a junction without looking. Or someone will pass me too closely. Or too fast. Or on their mobile phone. Fortunately after 15 years of cycling in Leeds I’m a pretty confident rider – balancing assertiveness with caution – assuming people will do something stupid until proven otherwise – or until we’ve made eye-contact. I’ve been knocked off once (by someone turning across me at lights) and a series of near misses have made me take extra care on Leeds roads.
But it’s not all about motorists misbehaving, I hear you cry. True – and this is where I get to my point. People on bikes do stupid things too – some go through red lights, some ride without lights, some ride without due care for themselves on anyone else. I’ve challenged people riding badly – a few weeks ago I caught up with a guy on a bike who had ignored two sets of red lights to make the point that he makes life more difficult for the rest of us.
You see, it’s not about cyclists and motorists. It’s about people. There are lots of considerate people out there – people who look out for others. But there’s a significant minority of people who appear to not really care much for anyone but themselves. And some of them ride bikes. And some of them drive cars. So that’s why it gets to me when people have a go at people who ride bikes like they have done here. Because I feel like they’re having a go at me – because they’ve thrown me into a category of people who all happen to get around on the same form of transport. But, the thing is, I am not a cyclist. I’m a fellow human being. A dad. Someone who usually rides a bike, often gets the bus and sometimes drives a car. Someone who’d very much prefer to get home in one piece this evening. As this article argues:
The bicycle is merely a means to an end. It is a tool which does not convert me into a cyclist, any more than vacuuming my apartment turns me into a janitor, or brushing my teeth transforms me into a dental hygienist.
Yet our roads are sadly just part of modern life. It’s easy to demonise – mark out as the other – a vulnerable, visible minority. Cyclists. Immigrants. People on benefits. It makes us feel better about ourselves if we kid ourselves that the problems we face (why does it take me so long to get anywhere?) are caused by someone else. Like the guy who commented on Look North – annoyed about the fact he has to slow down to overtake someone on a bike – probably ignoring the ten minutes he’s waited in a queue of cars at the traffic lights. Sometimes the problems we face aren’t caused by the other. Perhaps we’re part of the problem – and we’re not ready to admit that, so we blame someone else.
Where do we go from here? I’m hopeful that things are changing for the better, slowly. And it’s good to hear the councillor on Look North talking about what the Council are doing to get more people riding their bikes. And nationally, there’s some great work going on to get more investment into cycling infrastructure by organisations like CTC. But how far are they prepared to go? Is Leeds forever the Motorway City Of The Seventies – or will our leaders be brave enough to give us more #space4cycling – which, given that they don’t make land any more, inevitably means less space for driving?