Road to Nowhere: Cyclists Versus Cars in the UK

Published: Sep 9, 2022  |  

Editor of the Jewish Chronicle

A bicycle is not a car. I don’t mean that as some Magritte-style surrealist slogan. Simply a statement of fact.

It’s a fact that seemed to be lost on the British Government last month, when it was reported that it was planning to review whether cyclists should be forced to have number plates, insurance and stick to 20mph speed limits in a shake-up of traffic laws. If approved, the new legislation could lead to bicycle riders being slapped with fines or penalty points if they exceed the speed limit or ignore red lights.

The proposals were received with widespread mockery by the cycling community. Jeremy Vine, a prominent BBC broadcaster known for his affection for bicycles, posted an absurd picture on Twitter of a bicycle with an oversized car’s number plate on the back. Others suggested that pedestrians could be next in line to be forced to wear number plates in the street. Or maybe dogs. Predictably enough, on the other side of the fence, militant motorists seemed all for the idea. One taxi association said that holding cyclists “accountable for their actions” was “long overdue.” 

Now, I write frequently on international affairs, often covering controversial subjects such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In May, however, I penned a piece on cycling for a well-known British publication, arguing that bicycle enthusiasts like me should be more considerate of motorists on the road. The hate I received online dwarfed anything I had experienced while writing about anything else.

Research has shown that the animosity felt by drivers towards riders runs deep. A 2002 study revealed that “attitudes towards cyclists and cycling were generally negative” among motorists, who described them as “arrogant”, “despised”, “irresponsible” and “dangerous,” with no right to be on the road. Interestingly, it also found that drivers’ dislike of cyclists flares up as soon as they feel inconvenienced, regardless of whether the rider is behaving considerately or not. In other words, you can be cycling along, minding your own business and obeying the law; but as soon as a motorist finds he cannot overtake you, he will hate your guts anyway. Talk about a lose-lose.

The proposals to treat bicycles like cars is obviously ridiculous. How often are cyclists going to break a 20mph speed limit? Only sports riders are likely to do that, and they tend to frequent quieter roads, away from town centres, where higher speeds don’t do anybody any harm. How much is the added bureaucracy and enforcement going to cost the taxpayer, in return for bringing to book merely a handful of cyclists a year?

Clearly, something else is going on here. In January, the Highway Code was updated to include a number of rules that gave bicycles an advantage over cars. Riders are now free to position themselves in the middle of the road, two abreast, blocking cars from overtaking until the cyclists deem it safe for them to do so. Riders are no longer obliged to use dedicated cycle lanes—built often at great expense—and motorists are obliged to allow at least a metre-and-a-half of space when overtaking. It is too early to tell whether these new rules have made anybody safer. But they have certainly made a lot of people angry.

The perception among motorists was that cyclists had been handed a victory by the Department of Transport, given the green light to hog the road with impunity. Personally, I worry about this: although riders will be protected by the law, that is quite different from being protected against a ton of metal and glass with an enraged driver at the wheel. But it did elevate the needs of cyclists above those of drivers, and the motoring lobby was not happy.

Call me a cynic, but this new number plate suggestion has all the hallmarks of an attempt to rebalance the scales, to equalise the two sides so that everybody is happy. But I have my doubts. Along the way, the basic fact that a bicycle is not a car seems to have been lost. Meanwhile, the bicycle wars trundle on, and everybody is too entrenched to acknowledge a simple truth: that number plates or no number plates, respect on the road is a two-way street.

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