Monday, 24 November 2014

Road rage: a cyclist's perspective

I am a cyclist. I'm not a crazy fluorescent, Lycra-wearing, mountain-ascending cyclist, but I do cycle regularly.

I started cycling when I was a child, just for fun, as you do. I remember the first time I learnt to ride a bike without stabilisers, my mum asked me which pedal I would like to start off with and I chose the left, because I saw my neighbour starting off with the left pedal. At the time she was my idol and I thought copying her would give me street cred. I then asked my mum to promise not to let go of the seat as I cycled without those extra wheels for the first time. I sped off down the road and it wasn't until I'd reached the other end of the street that I realised she had let go. Apparently this was because she couldn't keep up with me.

I never really felt passionate about cycling when I was younger. It was simply just something I'd always enjoyed and was a practical way of getting about. At the age of 16, I got my first job at Subway, which was horrific and my wage was £3.57 per hour. At the time I hated it, but stuck at it to pay for college expenses and trips (which took a lot of work at the rate I was getting paid!). However, I think once I started evaluating what I bought in terms of my wage, it really helped me to manage and appreciate money.

A return ticket for the 23 bus to work cost about £1.50 in those days. Seeing as that was just under half an hour's work, it didn't really seem worth it, so I used my bike. The 23 bus route in Reading changed a few years ago and became slightly longer. Once I did actually manage to beat the bus on my bike. Considering the amount of time spent waiting at the bus stop, cycling can actually be faster than taking the bus, although this does depend on distance and hills. Nevertheless, I was very proud of my achievement.

After going to university for my first year my bike got left at home in the shed and neglected to the point where it would no longer function. In my second year I moved away from the town centre, so I bought a second hand bike, which I believe was advertised on Gumtree. It cost me £80, which I was reluctant about at first because it seemed like a lot of money. However, I was able to test the bike out when I went to pick it up and I fell in love with it right away. Its gears are perfect, the large seat is the perfect size for my large backside and it has dual suspension. Safe to say, it's the best bike I've ever had and was a great investment.

Last summer I worked in Wetherspoon in order to save some money for my year abroad. This was even more horrific than Subway, and as I was under 21 at the time, my hourly wage was just above the minimum at £5.50. For a short while, I did this was alongside my Work Based Learning placement (work experience as part of my degree) at Reading Borough Council (RBC) and another job at Decathlon (in the cycling department). Hence, a typical day for me would be 10am-4/5pm at RBC during the week, the same hours at Decathlon during the weekend, and then 6pm-close at Wetherspoon most evenings. As people reading this who have worked in catering will understand, closing shifts are not easy and can vary massively. When it wasn't very busy (Mondays/Wednesdays), I was out by 11/12pm. When it was ridiculously busy (Fridays/Saturdays) or we were understaffed, I was out by 3/4am (and then I sometimes got up at 9am the next day). Depending on the day, when I came out of work buses were often no longer running. Taxis cost £10 (almost 2 hours work), so I cycled home. After late shifts, especially 12 hour ones, this was very exhausting and sometimes scary, which I will clarify later.

Now that I've contextualised the importance of cycling to me, I will get to the point of road rage. This is the main issue I've faced and the reason why I have become so passionate about cycling. As a child innocently cycling around the street and racing scooters, skateboards, other bikes, trolleys and who knows what else downhill in the middle of a road, I can easily say that my concept of safety was not much compared to what it is today. However, I do not think (or at least hope) that there are many people who express their road rage at children. Admittedly, I did deserve to be told off. I went on to do 2 cycling proficiency courses at school (I did the same course twice for the free cake buffet at the certificate presentations), which improved my understanding of safety.

Nowadays I am what I consider to be a good cyclist. I wear a helmet (I've had some near misses and you never know what could happen) and I use reflectors and lights in the dark. I cycle on the side of the road, as opposed to the middle, so cars can overtake, I stop at traffic lights and I avoid cycling during rush hour. If there are any other ways in which I can improve my cycling safety, I am happy for anyone to share their suggestions.

Despite this, I have experienced road rage. The first time was a while back when I was cycling home from working at Subway. A car came up behind me and started beeping their horn, for what I saw as no good reason. The second was when I was cycling home late one night after working at Wetherspoon. This was either a Friday or Saturday, because it had been a really busy day and I was in a considerably bad mood. I was going uphill more slowly than normal because I was very tired, when a group of drunken people walked out in front of my bike. I politely asked them to move and when they refused, I became more aggressive because I just wanted to get home (in hindsight this was probably a bit unreasonable of me). They responded with comments about my weight, which I thought was unnecessary because part of the reason why I cycle is to keep fit and lose weight. Negative comments don't help.

The third was also after a very late shift. It had been a 12 hour shift and was actually so late at night (or early in the morning) that there was nobody to be seen. As I live on a main road, this was very eerie and a good reason not to walk or take a bus alone. As I was approaching my street, one car drove past and the driver shouted, "Get a car!" It was such a shock that it took me a while to process what he had said and where it had come from. It had actually come from the other side of the road, which is ironic as me being on the road wasn't directly effecting him at the time, even more so because we were the only vehicles on the road. It's also ironic because this was on the Henley Road, on which cycle lanes have recently been painted, although cars parking in them render them pointless. It's such a shame that I'll probably never meet this pleasant character, because I'd love to show him my Student Finance income and ask him for advice on how I would go about buying a car. The problem with road rage against cyclists is that cars drive away so quickly that we don't have time to respond to abuse. In my case, I (usually) prefer to focus my attention on the road rather than on idiots distracting me from it.

My fourth and most recent experience has been since I came back to university for my final year. I live just outside the centre and in order for me to reach the campus, I have to cross over the railway bridge and go around the outskirts of the centre. The bridge is very narrow and there are junctions either side of it, so a lot of traffic passes through. A few weeks ago I was cycling back home over the bridge during rush hour. I always make an extra effort to speed up over the bridge in order to maintain the fast pace of the traffic and minimise drivers' frustrations, although as I don't have a motor, there is a limit to how fast I really am able to go. Despite this, a driver shouted "Get off the road!" Once again, this was from the other side of the road and really shocked me. I think some drivers are too cowardly to shout abuse from the same side of the road! It was then that I decided that it would be better to stop cycling on the roads during rush hour, which I don't think was a decision that I should have been forced to make.

The following day I was cycling over the bridge again. This was also during rush hour, so I decided to cycle on the path instead. This time I received abuse from a pedestrian... I can't win. Now I've decided to push my bike across the bridge on the path and I'm waiting for the day when the dirty looks for doing so become abuse. Then, I'll grow wings and fly over the railway instead.

I understand that it is frustrating to have bikes on roads or paths and that we don't really fit in anywhere, but that's no excuse for being rude. Drivers do actually frustrate cyclists not only because they shout abuse, but because they don't give way or provide us with the same rights and they don't always indicate when turning. If I can cycle with one hand and use my other arm to indicate, I'm sure they can manage to flick their indicators. Pedestrians also aggravate cyclists, because during the rare times that there is actually a cycle lane next to the pedestrian section of the path, chances are a pedestrian has wondered into it. Furthermore, many pedestrians use their ears and not their eyes when crossing the road, so often step off the pavement whilst focusing on their phone. Cycling is a silent but deadly method of transport and if pedestrians don't look out for cyclists on the road, they shouldn't be surprised if a collision occurs!

At the end of the day, I understand people's frustrations, but shouting abuse at me won't change much. It actually distracts not only the cyclist, but also surrounding pedestrians and drivers and could easily cause an accident. We are encouraged to live healthy and sustainable lifestyles, but the government hasn't provided effective cycle infrastructure or educated society to allow us to do so. That is not my fault, so I suggest complaints are taken to them.

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