The final straight; sprint finish. He powers ahead, legs pumping like pistons, with just twenty metres of tarmac between his bike and eternal glory. One overtake, then the next…

“Sorry mate, that will be £50 please.”

This is not an excerpt from the Tour de France – the first stage of which was in Yorkshire a few weeks ago – but from the morning cycle taken by a normal Londoner. Kristian Gregory was pedalling towards Elephant & Castle, before being stopped by a policeman and fined for cycling on the pavement. His crime: to move from the cycle path to the crossing, infringing on the path for a few seconds.

You can judge the video for yourself, but this fine was quite clearly unnecessary. Even members of the local council – usually stout defenders of petty regulations – said that the police had gone too far, and should review their enforcement on this particular stretch of path.

This incident epitomises Britain’s schizophrenic attitude towards cycling. People cheer on the athletes on the Yorkshire moors, yet hate the cyclists they encounter every day in the street. Cyclists are demonised as selfish, borderline psychopaths; who carelessly jump red lights, and mow down grannies on the pavement. Forget hug a hoody, it’s time to cuddle a cyclist.

The idea that cyclists are somehow uniquely threatening has become the watchword of the London bobby. Take this email, sent by Inspector Colin Davies from the Metropolitan Police’s South East Area Traffic Garage said:

“All, can you please cascade this onto your troops, officers have four months to do 40 cycle tickets. Ten per month, 2.5 a week. Most officers are nearing or have even achieved their other targets.”

These policemen fine thousands of people every year for cycling on the pavement, but none have read legislation they are enacting. It specifically says that fines should not be given to cyclists who “sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of the traffic and show consideration to other pavement users”. In other words, the police are overly zealous in prosecuting those who cycle on the pavement, a point recently made by the cycling minister, Robert Goodwill.

Yet nobody cares about such legal niceties, because cyclists are at fault anyway. Surely if they didn’t ride so dangerously they would not be involved in accidents? So goes the lazy assumption that justifies penalising cyclists. One example of this attitude is an anonymous comment article in the Guardian, in which the writer argues that what most scares him as a cyclist is other cyclists, who are uniquely aggressive and unpleasant.

The Mayor of London demonstrated a similar attitude when he made a claim – which he has now retracted – that three quarters of cycle fatalities in London are due to the cyclist flouting the laws of the road. In reality, motorists are responsible for crashes almost three times as often as cyclists.Unsurprisingly, it is the mass of steel that belches its way down London’s roads that poses the biggest threat to cyclists, not middle-aged men in lycra…

Compare this attitude to the Netherlands, where cyclists have their own traffic lights, and are actively prioritised over other road users. Most importantly, motorists bear the burden of responsibility in the event of a collision with a cyclist. Given that most cyclist fatalities are due to careless driving, and that trucks and cars will always win in a collision, it makes sense to adopt similar legislation here. Thankfully, cycling in London is relatively safe – with just 1 in 433,000 cycle journeys leading to serious injury or death – but more needs to be done.

Meanwhile, traffic police must place more emphasis on targeting rule breaking that is most likely to harm other road users. This means, among other things, prosecuting motorists who cut across lanes at junctions or stray into cycle lane. At the end of the first stage of the Met’s safety campaign, Operation Safeway, nearly 1,000 tickets were given to bike riders for going on the pavement, but just 42 tickets handed out for driving in a cycle lane. If cyclists are going to have to make do with a narrow strip of paint to protect them from the traffic, this boundary should at least be upheld.

Yet none of this is possible without the general public accepting that cyclists have as much right to use our roads as anyone else. In fact, they arguably have more, because cycling – with its environmental and health benefits – has a more positive effect on our society than driving.

So, rather than just cheering on the professionals on the moors of Yorkshire, why not give a round of applause to the next cyclist you see on the road?

Photo: London Cyclist / Flickr

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