Monthly Archives: May 2013

Dear Cab Driver

I got left hooked by a taxi driver today. I’ve had closer passes but it was unnecessary so I tried to have a word with him. The conversation was something of an eye opener and made it clearer to me why some people overtake cyclists with so little care. This is a copy of an email I sent to the firm. I will see how they react before I consider naming and shaming.

Dear Sir or Madam

 

Today at a few minutes after 10am I was cycling along a slip road by the side of the Axx just to the south of [redacted]. As I approached the turning to the [redacted] Hotel I was overtaken by a taxi cab which then immediately turned into the Hotel, passing within a few feet of my bike’s front wheel.

 

Rule 167 of the Highway Code states ‘DO NOT overtake where you might come into conflict with other road users’. This includes ‘approaching or at a road junction on either side of the road’. Further this rule explicitly states that you should ‘stay behind if you are following a cyclist approaching a roundabout or junction, and you intend to turn left’.

 

I caught up with the driver at the Hotel and asked him, politely, if he was aware of the Highway Code’s rules concerning overtaking. He said I was being sarcastic. I told him that by overtaking too close to a junction he had carved me up. His response was ‘How can I carve you up, you’re on a bike’. This is the kind of attitude that saw Sir Bradley Wiggins knocked from his bicycle. Given that it is perfectly possible for cyclists to do 40mph+ and that almost any cyclist is capable of doing 20mph it is perfectly possible to carve up a cyclist and it is also highly dangerous. Whatever your driver’s personal feelings towards cyclists he needs to stay within the law and the Highway Code and he needs to respect other road users.

 

I asked the driver for a card or an ID number. He refused and made to drive off. His parting words to me were ‘At least I’m not as ugly as you’. I would suggest to you that an eye test might be of use to him.

 

I spoke to your customer who gave me the firm’s telephone number from a card the driver had given him. The fare had come from Exeter St David’s Station. The plate included the figures ‘BJ10’.  The driver was elderly, white and male. From this information, the time and location you should be able to identify your driver.

 

What action you take is your own business. I have copied in Exeter’s MP, who cycles around Exeter himself. Rest assured I will never give you any custom again nor will I recommend [company name] to anyone. I refuse to give money to a business whose drivers have so little regard for other road users. And I would also feel completely unsafe in a vehicle with a driver who is so blatantly disrespectful towards women.

 

Yours faithfully

Helen Blackman

 

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Twitter, tax and the right to use the road: A parable for our times

I’ve had an uneasy couple of days cycling but perhaps not for any obvious reasons. Last Sunday a cyclist from the Iceni Velo Club in Norwich was knocked off his bike. I live in Devon, I don’t know him and there’s no particular reason this should unsettle me beyond basic human empathy. The cyclist is relatively OK and although cyclists are sometimes injured and worse, cycling is a relatively safe form of transport. However, now when I ride I have an uneasy sense of driver hatred.

Toby Hockley  was on a sportive. He was pedalling along minding his own business when, according to him, a car travelling in the opposite direction took a bend too fast and came over to his side of the road. It knocked him and his bike into the hedge. By the time he was on his feet again, car and driver had disappeared. This is his account of a hit and run. However, he did not report this to the police. Instead, they went looking for him and for the oddest of reasons.

Shortly after Hockley was hit, someone who I will refer to as Jane Doe posted the following on Twitter, a micro-blogging site: Definitely knocked a cyclist off his bike earlier – I have right of way he doesn’t even pay road tax! #bloodycyclists

Yes, that really is what she said. With no knowledge of what had happened to Hockley, the Twitter cycling community took screenshots of the tweet and various others on Doe’s account. They questioned her and also alerted the police. Norfolk police then tweeted her regarding this apparent road traffic collision. First the cycling blogs got hold of the story, then the national press. Of course it could have been an idle boast (!). At this stage no-one knew if she had actually hit anybody. Then twyclists from the Iceni Club said no, one of their members had been hit.

So this is a young woman who thinks it is OK to hit a vulnerable road user, OK to drive off without stopping and so OK to do all of this that she can announce it in public. To be clear # are intended to make it easier for Twitter users to search on various terms. But Jane Doe was not internet savvy. She had mentioned her employers on her Twitter account and she had a Facebook page which was accessible to anybody. It was astonishing in its ordinariness. Flick through Facebook and there are a million Jane Doe’s. This was not some extraordinarily callous young woman with a history of violence but someone who, outwardly at least, seemed pretty innocuous.  And yet this ordinary young woman was expecting no redress when she boasted about hitting someone with a tonne of metal moving at speed. Possibly she expected people to agree with her. And in fact BBC Norfolk had the gall to ask if she had a point, should cyclists pay road tax.

At this point, all the polite words fail me and all I really want to do is swear. A lot. Moving on. Whether or not anyone pays any tax anywhere NO-ONE not even Jane Doe, the hare-brained selfish little nonentity that she is, deserves to get hit by a tonne of metal. Road tax does not actually exist although even the DfT for reasons I cannot fathom still uses the term as a colloquialism for VED. VED is an emissions tax. It gives no right to use the road, it is a tax on harmful emissions. If we subjected bicycles to VED they would fall into Band A, low emissions and so would not incur a charge at all. Thus we would spend millions if we were to bring bikes into the VED system. Anybody not knowing this is pig ignorant.

The thing is, for all Doe’s vitriolic idiocy, she is a very long way from being alone in her contempt and hatred for a group of vulnerable road users. Search on #cyclists on Twitter and threats to harm them are legion. One such came from a woman who threatened to ‘bonnet’ cyclists not on a cycle path. When questioned on this she frantically back pedalled (no pun intended) saying that she only disliked three cyclists in particular, the ones who had held her up when she needed to see her sick niece, and that she had only been concerned for their safety. Threatening someone and then saying you are worried about their safety is what the sickest of bullies do. It’s like waving a loaded gun and saying people ought to wear a bullet-proof vest. If you need to be somewhere in a hurry, leave earlier, don’t threaten to mow people down just because you are having a bad day.

Of course one could say that cyclists bring this on themselves by breaking the law. By cycling on the pavement, jumping red lights and cycling without lights on, cyclists, the reasoning goes, bring this on themselves. This is in fact putting the cart before the horse. Some drivers, frustrated at the difference between what driving promises and what it delivers, hate cyclists because cyclists achieve what drivers cannot – a pleasant commute relatively unhindered by traffic jams. So they look for a cause for their hatred and claim it is cyclists law-breaking behaviour rather than admit it is due to their own peevishness.

The reality is that both cyclists and drivers often break traffic regulations and they shouldn’t. When drivers do this it is routinely accepted. No-one starts hating all drivers because some of them talk on their mobile phones whilst driving. Yet cyclists are hated and not because they break the law. If that were the case we’d hate drivers too. If you look at Doe’s reasoning it is entirely false. Road tax is a non-argument. Likewise the woman who threatened to drive into cyclists who weren’t on a cycle path was told in no uncertain terms that cyclists are not legally obliged to use cycle paths, that those paths are often inadequate and that faster cyclists are advised to stay on the road.

Drivers don’t hate cyclists because cyclists break the law. Those drivers who hate cyclists barely even know the law. But what these drivers need to realise is that we are all connected. A cyclist gets hit in Norwich and cyclists everywhere know about it. For all that the internet may have had negative effects on the way that we communicate it also has positives. Like it or not, we are part of a community both on the roads and on the net. The way we behave on the roads affects all of us. All that #bloodycyclists are trying to do is to get from A to B without harm and injury. And whilst they are doing so, whether within the bounds of the law or not, you should not wish harm on another human being.

And if and when you choose to tweet about #bloodycyclists try the following. Take out the word ‘cyclist’ and replace it with ‘human’. Take out the word ‘car’ or ‘bonnet’ and replace it with the name of any weapon. Read it again,  and ask yourself, is it acceptable to threaten another human with a lethal weapon, just because you think you can get away with it?

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Cycling: Advice for Sustrans

For anyone who thinks my response to Sustrans was quite sweary, rest assured that the editing room floor is crunchy with discarded swear words. After years on Guardian Unlimited Talk I perhaps have a skewed view of what counts as swearing but after writing the first version I applied a simple editorial rule: my mum reads my blog. After a Twitter storm, Sustrans have removed the post and have given this response http://www.sustrans.org.uk/blog/why-women-dont-cycle.

So just why did I get so annoyed with them? According to some defenders the original advice, based on 2009 research, has been very useful for beginner cyclists, even if I may find it patronising (may I? Thank you, I’m glad I’ve got your permission to feel a particular way). It was also, according to a Tweet sent by @sustrans, written in part because ‘we also know many girls stop cycling to school between primary & secondary, as they are worried about appearance’. This I think may get to the heart of the issue. It was written for girls rather than women. One should, one would hope, address 11 year old girls and 30 year old women somewhat differently though sadly many people still don’t. And the concerns of a mature woman regarding her appearance are likely to have moved on from those of her 11 year-old self.

Should Sustrans have removed the post? Was it all perfectly all right really? Well I would suggest that if you are going to aim advice specifically at women, you ask yourself two questions. One, would the advice sound appropriate if given to a child. Two, would it sound odd if given to a man? If the answer to the first is yes you are, by definition, being patronising. If the answer to the second is yes you should ask yourself why it sounds odd.

To be clear, I’m not denying some broad general differences in concerns between men and women. I don’t have a problem with advice aimed at women, rather than men, given how few women cycle compared to men. It’s also fairly obvious that advice to men on cycling when pregnant would seem odd. And if you were to offer advice on underwear that’s best for cycling it would differ depending on whether the recipients of the advice have male or female external genitalia.

So, I’ll apply my test questions to some of the advice previously given by Sustrans:

Wear a good pair of gloves to stop your fingers freezing

Would you say this to a child? Yes, if the child were very young or not that bright. Would it sound odd if you said it to a man? Yes. Why? Well not for obviously gendered reasons. It’s not as if there’s much biological difference in the chill factor experienced by male and female hands when cycling. So it would sound odd if you said it to a man because it is in fact advice for a child, not for an adult. And when we gender advice, we tend to bracket women and children together, putting men separately  in the ‘grown adult who knows this stuff already’ category. Thus using these two questions we can get to the heart of the matter: is this advice for a child, or for an adult? Unfortunately, given our propensity to patronise grown women, we have to ask ‘would I say this to a man?’ in order to see if we should be saying it to an adult.

Again consider ‘A breathable waterproof jacket will keep out the rain’. Would you say this to a child? Yes. Would it sound odd if you said it to a man? Yes, again, it fails the ‘would I say it to a grown adult?’ test. You would expect an intelligent adult to know this. In fact anyone not knowing this probably shouldn’t be allowed out on a bike on their own. Continuing:

Waterproof trousers aren’t sexy, but they will keep you dry

Would you say this to a child? Well no, because you don’t expect children to worry about sexiness. You might point out that waterproof trousers keep you dry, though if you do, expect the teenage eye roll that clearly says ‘no shit Sherlock, I’m not that stupid’. Would you say it to a man? No. Not just because it fails the ‘is it adult advice’ rule but because it would sound odd. It doesn’t fit their concerns. Men aren’t generally considered to decide what to wear according to whether a woman (heteronormative assumption alert) will find it attractive. Of course men do worry about what they look like, but they’re not continually judged for their appearance in quite the same way as women are.

So is it legitimate to give advice that addresses women’s concerns about appearance? Sustrans say they drew on research that said women are put off cycling because of its effects on appearance. British Cycling carried out its own research and found that the main concern for women was safety on the roads. There were other concerns as well, amongst which were ‘Negative body image associated with kit, equipment and resultant “muscular” physique’ and the expense of buying kit. So how might one address these concerns when speaking to (or writing for) an adult woman? Given that appearance is a concern about the visual, it seems to me that the best way to combat concerns about appearance is through images, not words. Show women images of other women of all shapes, sizes, physiques and abilities on bikes. The advice given then might sound more like this:

The great thing about cycling is its versatility. Adapt your cycling to suit you and your lifestyle, don’t feel you need to adapt to suit cycling. For many women, cycling is simply a wonderful form of transport, not a substitute for a gym workout. You can hop on a bike wearing whatever you want, from a Chanel suit and full makeup to jeans and just-got-out-of-bed hair. You don’t have to break into a sweat but as these women show, you can sail along looking magnificent on just about any bike.

As you become more experienced and confident you will find what suits you best. Personally I avoid tight skirts on a bike as they’re just uncomfortable (plus, by the time you’ve reached your destination, you might need to sew the skirt back up). Long skirts, coats, and scarves, aside from the obvious hazard * can get caught around brake blocks. You don’t need to buy special kit but from hard won experience do make sure your bike has a rear mudguard to protect you from splatter. Also, waterproof coats are great but you may find that they handily filter all rain water down on to your thighs so you might want to invest in waterproof trousers. These will then filter rain water down into your shoes. You can spot cyclists at work: they are the ones with spare shoes, socks and tights stashed under their desk. It’s a small price to pay for the overall convenience of travel by bike.

* Obvious to everyone except Isadora Duncan

Personally I  would leave decisions about the sexiness or otherwise of waterproof trousers to the individual. They are a grown up, they can work it out for themselves.  However, in Sustrans response to criticism, Melissa Henry argued that

To the women and girls, like my daughter, to whom perception by others is a genuine anxiety helping her overcome this rather than telling her it doesn’t matter is far more likely to change her heart and therefore her mind.

Now I’m not advocating telling women and girls that appearance does not matter. In the case of women, I think they can make their own minds up without me telling them anything. In the case of girls, I would not simply tell a child that appearance didn’t matter. Henry seems to be conflating calls to counteract the primacy of image, with ignoring the issue entirely. I would rather not pander to the idea that image is all by saying ‘Take a comb or brush with you to revive your style’. Instead, just show girls images of women looking great on bikes. Or, you know, get on a bike yourself and lead by example.

It would also help to counteract the notion that you can only look good if you are projecting a particular image of what it means to be sexy by reviving your hairstyle. I would question the notion that waterproof trousers are necessarily unsexy. You can look great in a bin bag, given the right attitude. Girls don’t, as far as I’m concerned, need to be reassured that cycling is OK because you can comb your hair afterwards. They need to be reassured that looking good is not a narrow thing to be defined solely by some misguided idea of what boys might be looking for.

So, separate out advice for women and advice for girls. When offering advice to women, ask yourself if it is appropriate advice for an adult. If it would sound odd if you said it to a man, is that because you would expect a man to know already? If so, don’t say it to a woman. She has a brain, respect that fact. When addressing girls’ concerns, reassure them that their appearance is their business. If they’re striving to look good, they should be doing so for themselves, not for some narrow definition of what somebody else thinks is the embodiment of femininity.

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Cycling: Advice for Ladies

On edit 15/05/13: Sustrans have removed the original blogpost. They have put this up instead http://www.sustrans.org.uk/blog/why-women-dont-cycle. I can’t take credit for the removal, they were barracked on Twitter for the original post. Actually I wouldn’t take credit either. I would hope that they have understood why it caused offence.

Sustrans have some valuable advice for us girls, sorry ladies, er, no, what was the word now, so difficult to remember. Anyway, ladies, drawing on the wisdom of Sustrans, here is my advice to you before getting on a bike

What to wear:

Whatever the fuck you like. It’s a bike ride, not the Oscars. Or at least, that’s what you might think the advice would be. But no. Apparently this cycling malarkey is quite complicated for us women.

Just in case you were born in a bubble and have lived there ever since, Sustrans have the following news for you:

A breathable waterproof jacket will keep out the rain. Waterproof trousers aren’t sexy, but they will keep you dry

Well bugger me sideways. There are waterproof jackets? And trousers? Who knew? And these waterproof things, they keep out the rain. Like, Wow, man. That’s almost too much information for my poor little head. Of course, I will, for however long I’m on the bike in the rain, have to drop my fundamental female right to look ‘sexy’. Oh no, how will I cope without endeavouring to look sexy and available for every minute of the day. Oh gosh, well maybe for a few minutes I might just try being warm and comfortable instead.

There is more advice about what to wear:

Wear a good pair of gloves to stop your fingers freezing; Scarves also help keep you warm but keep long scarves away from any moving parts. Earmuffs look great and keep your ears safe from wind-chill too.

Well I never. Gloves to keep you warm. Wow. Have you told NASA? It’s such a deep insight I’m sure they’d like to know. And no scarves near moving parts. Oh thank you so much. It would never have occurred to me not to strangle myself by trapping a scarf in a bike wheel. Oh and ear muffs look great. Excellent. I must keep up that looking great thing and it’s so nice to have someone like you tell me it’s OK to wear them on a bike.

Just one question. Since ear muffs look great, do they cancel out the unsexiness of the waterproof trousers?
Oh but Sustrans continue with their excellent advice. How wonderful. What a treasure trove. There’s a section on ‘Staying Fresh.’ I’d love to see the male equivalent for this. Apparently I can wear a t-shirt and change when I get to where I’m going. Golly gosh and hockey sticks. I didn’t know I could get changed. And wear deodorant and take wet wipes with me. Oh me oh my. That’s not at all patronisingly blindingly fucking obvious. Oh no.

But wait, what is this. More pearls of wisdom await:

All that fresh air is good for your skin, so you’ll probably find that you arrive with a beautiful healthy glow. Use waterproof mascara in case it rains, or your eyes water, and take a powder compact for a quick refresher on arrival.
Helmet hair can be an issue: tie back long hair, secure it in a French plait or with a scarf under your helmet to keep it frizz free. Take a comb or brush with you to revive your style when you reach your destination.

Newsflash: I don’t wear makeup. If I did, I’m sure I could work out that waterproof mascara is better in the wet, the clue is kind of in the name. I’m not taking a compact with me anywhere. Piss off you numpties. And yes, thank you dears, I can work out what a comb is for. You patronising bunch of numbnuts.

Finally, we get to the meat of the issue:

Other tips for safe cycling

No, you patronising bellends. You pissing cockdumpling morons. Those are not ‘other tips for safety’. Hair and makeup advice is not effing safety advice in the first place. Have you any idea how patronising, gender-laden, annoying, sexist and idiotic your advice is? No? Well then go away and have a think. A really, really long one.

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