Catch me if you can

in Out and About

Pissed-off Toff laments the fact that London’s large population of rogue cyclists can do as they please.

A few days ago, in the early evening when it was already dark, I was almost knocked down by a cyclist. Pedalling furiously, he appeared from nowhere, whooshed past me, and disappeared into the blackness. If he had come an inch closer, there would have been a nasty accident. Nor was this an isolated incident. As anyone who regularly walks around London knows, cyclists are increasingly numerous, increasingly aggressive, and increasingly reckless. So much so, that when I am out and about, I take real care with this new public nuisance.

It never used to be thus, in London or elsewhere. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1980s, the streets of Oxford were full of bicyclists. I was one of them. There were two sorts of bicycle: the heavy old-fashioned ones, and the sports bikes with drop handlebars. The old-fashioned ones, owned by dons or by the more nostalgic sort of undergraduate, proceeded at a stately pace, bothering no-one. Nor were the more modern sports bikes a nuisance. Not once in three years did I see an accident; bicycles and bicyclists were a picturesque part of the scene; a reminder of a gentler age before the arrival of the internal combustion engine.

How different it is in London today. Not only do cyclists zoom past you in the streets, dangerously close, but they brush past you on pavements and sneak up behind you in the parks, where they shouldn’t be in the first place. Especially in the dark winter months, you have to watch out.

Speed is the main part of the problem. Not, generally, with the heavier ‘Boris bikes’ which now have ‘Santander’ inscribed on them. But there are armies of office workers who travel by bike and for whom cycling is a deadly serious keep-fit activity …  a sort of extreme sport in which they push themselves to the limit before and after spending eight hours staring at a computer. 

For a significant number of cyclists, therefore, the streets are a racecourse, and to hell with those dull pedestrians who get in the way. Indeed, the cyclists have now appropriated the pavements, too. Here’s a typical example, which you will see re-enacted countless times every day throughout London, and – for all I know – in other cities too. 

The west end of Victoria Street has one-way traffic. For motorists, this in an unavoidable fact. But not for cyclists. In order to avoid the one-way system, they use the pavement instead (see main photo). This is now standard practice. One cyclist I saw is clearly a regular. Coming onto Victoria Street from Grosvenor Gardens, he zig-zagged among the pedestrians on the broad new pavement on the north side of the road; jumped onto the tarmac and proceeded briefly the wrong way down the one-way street; nipped across the road near the theatre, neatly avoiding the on-coming traffic; zoomed over the pedestrian island with the miniature Big Ben on it; and hurtled over the pedestrian crossing in order to get onto the left-hand side of the Vauxhall Bridge Road … where, for the first time in the part of the trajectory that I observed, he was finally in a place he was allowed to be, and finally out of the way of innocent pedestrians.

From the speed and neatness with which the manoeuvres were executed, it was clear that this cyclist did this every day; just as countless other cyclists do the same every day throughout London. And he did it with complete nonchalance, no doubt aware that it was both anti-social and illegal, but equally aware that he could get away with it.

Nor, in many places, do the new layouts of the road help, with the old lanes for ordinary traffic now running parallel to other recently introduced lanes for bicycles. As a pedestrian, you have to really think what’s coming from where, and how fast; so much so that several of these crossings are little less than an intelligence test. 

One in particular is impossible. I am thinking of the crossing from the side of Buckingham Palace and over the road into Green Park. Here, the routes of pedestrians, of motorised traffic, and of cyclists’ lanes coincide in a mind-boggling way. I’ve been over it countless times. But still I can’t work it out and proceed with caution. Nor am I the only one. A successful City man I spoke to the other day said he can’t work it out either; and I don’t think he was humouring me.

And then when you’ve got into Green Park, where cyclists are banned and where you think you might have a brief respite from them … well, there they are again, happily ignoring the ‘no cycling’ signs. This now happens in all the parks of London. The offenders fall into two categories. In one category is the resident cyclist who knows it’s anti-social, but who knows that no-one is going to stop him. In the other category are innocent – or more-or-less innocent – tourists.

No cycling … unless, of course, you feel like it.

Never, anywhere in London, have I seen cyclists stopped; still less have I seen them stopped and fined. Nor can one see how they might be got. Firstly, they are uncatchable. And secondly, they are, in a good many cases, unfineable. Let us just imagine that a park-keeper in, say, Kensington Gardens, had managed to stop a couple of Italian tourists on bikes. How would the conversation go?

Park-keeper: Right! You’re both on bicycles, against the rules. That’ll be £60 each.
Italian tourist no 1: Eh?
Park-keeper: Come on! Cough up! Sixty quid a head!
Italian tourist no. 1, addressing Italian tourist no. 2: Che cosa vuole? [What does he want?]
Italian tourist no. 2, in reply to Italian tourist no. 1: Che ne so? Secondo me, si tratta di una multa. [Dunno. I think he’s trying to fine us.]
Italian tourist no.1, to park-keeper: Sorry, no understand.
Park-keeper: According to the rules and regulations governing the Royal Parks, you ain’t allowed ’ere on them bikes. So that’s sixty quid each. (He now rubs thumb and finger together.) Sixty pounds, right? (Now slowly.) Six-ty pounds … sixty from you, and sixty from your friend. Making a total of one hundred and twenty quid. Payable now! Right?
Italian tourist no.1: Ah! Capito!! Sorry, we havva no money!!! No can pay!!!!

You get my drift. How would it work? It’s not like being stopped by a police car on the road, when the full force of the law is at hand. In the parks, there’s nothing to stop the cyclists from shrugging their shoulders and bicycling away. Nor, furthermore, do I think the authorities even want to impose the fines they threaten, especially on foreign visitors. Bad PR, bad for tourism. Far easier to let them get away with it, however much it annoys the locals.

Tourist bicycling in Green Park

And another thing. Those flashing bicycle lamps. I can’t stick them. They are annoying and disconcerting to the point of being a hazard. Why not have ordinary lights? That said, even the ordinary, non-flashing cycle lamps are now often powerful enough to blind you if you look directly into them. So at night, one is faced with cyclists with horrid flashing lights; with cyclists with non-flashing but nevertheless super-powerful lights; and with cyclists appearing from nowhere with no lights at all.

And lastly … though I admit that it isn’t the cyclists’ fault. You know how, when you are waiting to cross a road as a pedestrian, or waiting as a motorist to drive across a road at a junction, you first have to let the traffic pass? (Sorry! Bear with me.) This might take some time. Then, just when the last of the cars has passed and you think you can go, the first of the cyclists arrives … and then when the last of the cyclists has passed, the first of the next wave of cars comes along. And so on. It’s no-one’s fault, I know, but one tends to blame the cyclists. For some reason this particular thing used to send a friend of mine quite mad.

* * * * *

What, then, is to be done about these mounted legions of rogue cyclists? Of particular concern is the rapidly spreading habit of cyclists using the pavements. Like graffiti, this is something which, if it is not to become a serious nuisance, should be nipped in the bud. And whilst cyclists on the road are often uncatchable, there is no reason why a couple of plain-clothed policemen should not be placed, say, on the stretch of pavement in Victoria Street that I mentioned above. Cyclists use this constantly, but here, at any rate, they don’t go very fast, and a couple of able-bodied policemen could easily stop them and book them.

But there are no signs of this or anything like it happening, so the cyclists become ever more certain that they can do as they please; whilst the rest of us can only grit our teeth as we make way for them on the pavements, and be ever more careful when we step out into the streets.