Thursday, 1 October 2009


Bristol is of course a Cycling City. This means that the city council has got 22 million pounds to play with, and a target to double the number of cyclists in the city. On Monday morning a BBC Radio 4 programme looked at how things are going here. Chris Hutt wrote about it on the Green Bristol blog, where you can also find a download of the programme.

There was a lot of stuff I strongly agreed with, like the widely-agreed idea that cycle lanes are ill-thought-out, badly placed, dangerously intermittent, and just plain wrong in the first place, as they encourage a false sense of security on the part of the cyclist and a sense that cyclists should stay in the cycle lanes, on the part of some motorists. To ride safely, you need to look ahead, anticipate, use the whole road, be assertive. Not aggressive, assertive. Ride in the gutter and act tentatively, and cars will try to push past you and you all risk ending up in a mess. But the cyclist is always in more of a mess than the motorist.

But that was only one aspect of the programme. Some of the Bristol money has been invested in subsidised training for cyclists. As Veronica Pollard, a cycle trainer, said, "Both (cyclists and motorists) can be retrained but it's easier to retrain a cyclist; they're the ones whose behaviour can change..."

This struck me as a central fault in the Cycling City mission. The idea that the car-use culture and infrastructure is non-negotiable. Cars are here to stay, and we must modify our behaviours to accommodate that fact. Motorists are important. Other road users are 'little people', and quite often Bloody Nuisances. It would be a far more radical programme that addressed the problem of Too Bloody Many Cars in the city. And that, apparently, is a programme that we're not going to get.

I am a cyclist; I've been cycling since I was five years old. I also rode a motorbike for over twenty five years. Riding motorbikes teaches you to ride defensively. Because if you don't, you end up dead. Sometimes you end up dead even if you do. Someone whom I liked and who, in the fullness of time, might have become a friend, isn't going to. Because he was killed on his motorbike a few weeks ago when someone pulled out on him.

Yesterday I was in Clifton, dropping off a book for someone. I stopped at Victoria Square to pick some mulberries off the tree, and ate some- they were juicy and luscious, as mulberries tend to be- and wrapped the rest in tissue and nestled them in my pannier.

Heading towards the Catholic Cathedral, I prepared to turn right down a side road. A big car was preparing to emerge from the side road and turn right. We had a good, clear line of sight between us. I moved towards the middle of the road, signalling my intent with outstretched arm. I didn't establish eye contact with the driver because the light was reflecting from the windscreen. But the car was stationary, and I thought I'd been seen and that it was waiting for me.

I swung into my turn. The car accelerated forward. There was no time to do anything; it went straight into me, and then I was lying in the road.

I'm lying there testing my body, ticking off the bits I can still feel, moving feet and fingers. I see some red gunge. O no, my brains splattered on the road. No, it's OK, it's the mulberries. There are distant voices. They are talking to me, they want reassurance.

I slowly sit up. Still alive then.

There are passers-by helping. The driver of the car is in tears, and repeats "I didn't see her, I didn't see her..."

A policeman comes along, and a paramedic. The machinery of what-happens-when-there's been-an-accident swings into action.

Bent bicycle. Broken ribs, knock on head, badly grazed arm, bruises here and there. Still alive.