Dear RCC members,
It took many months of emails, phone calls and Twitter messages before I finally got to speak to a member of the Thames Valley Police road safety team to explore working together on a close pass project in Reading.
Close pass was an initiative from West Midlands police. One of their cops would ride a bike. If someone overtook them too close they radioed another cop with a motorbike who pulled the driver over “for a word”.
The effect has apparently been dramatic, drastically reducing collisions, empowering cyclists, and helping significantly to get more people on bikes. It also turns out to be cheap, cheaper than any other intervention they have used.
Sadly in our area this isn’t on the cards. The officer is due to retire, they don’t need our help, they don’t have the resources, and they generally don’t see the benefit of getting lots of people cycling. “People aren’t going to ride on cold wet days now, are they?”
I did have a meeting to discuss bike theft, and although the officer was very enthusiastic, I had to point out that the cycle racks at the station were a textbook example of the problem. They were those wheel grabbers that only allow you to lock your bike with the front wheel, the opposite of what their very own leaflet advise.
Other police forces have taken to encouraging all road users to send in videos of poor driving, so they can be used in enforcement too, but although you can submit them locally it isn’t easy and it isn’t actively encouraged.
The response has been less than inspiring. I once heard that one of our members should have pulled over to let the poor driver pass. It wasn’t fair on the driver to hold them up, so going the wrong way round a bollard in a truck wasn’t likely to be prosecuted as cyclists “were in the driver’s way”.
We invited the local Thames Valley Police to our February meeting. Sadly they failed to show; the PCSO got caught up in operational matters and couldn’t make it.
So the brilliant simple and cheap way of making our roads safer so we don’t have to wait years for decent cycling infrastructure isn’t going to be something we’ll see imminently.
Which is a real disappointment.
If all drivers feared that passing a cyclist improperly would land them in trouble with the law, which is what the benefit of Operation Close pass has proved elsewhere, then at a stroke all roads would be a bit more attractive to anyone who wanted to use a bike. If all drivers thought their actions were being recorded and the evidence acted upon, they would surely behave better than they do now.
But at the moment submitting evidence of dodgy, careless, dangerous or aggressive driving from an action camera isn’t taken seriously either. The police are very pro-motorist.
The other day I was in Greyfriars Road. There was a delivery van parked in the cycle lane. I approached the driver and pointed out what he was doing, but he said he had every right to do it, gave me some abuse and waltzed off with his parcel in his hand.
As I made a note of his details and contacted his company, two PCSOs rode past, went around the outside of the parked van, rode up to the lights (the ones that only cyclists use, and which can test even my patience).
I walked over to ask them to speak to the van driver when he came back, but they both rode straight through the lights, which were still red, and rode off in the direction of the doughnut shop.
So if this all seems to paint a very negative view of the police, who I know are stretched, and who I know try very hard, it is because my experience of them when it comes to people riding bikes is that they don’t really give a toss. And they wonder why some people on bikes have a similar attitude.
Actually I think there has been an improvement in driver behaviour. I have noticed many more patient drivers than there used to be. Many people now take great care round me when I’m cycling. The trouble is the impatient ones, the angry ones and the dangerous ones are still out there. And there is little chance of them being stopped.
That is scary, it really makes me evaluate my routes, not to choose the most convenient ones, or times, but to make a judgment on when and where I might get a peaceful ride. I also ride very defensively, which means thinking hard about my position, how if needed I can prevent someone trying to overtake, but making an overtake easy when it is safe for me to let them pass.
On a narrow road with cars coming towards me, or with a bend ahead, I will ride a long way out from the kerb, and I will move out there well before I really need to, so I am safely in position and following drivers simply have to slow down.
The problem with that is not mine though. I am a confident assertive cyclist who has been honing his skills for 50 years. With every ride I learn a tiny bit more, and get a little better.
That is of no use to someone who thinks getting on a bike for the first time is a good idea. That is our target audience.
The person who has a short journey to make, and who doesn’t want to keep driving a mile or less.
The person who has been advised to get a bit more exercise, but hasn’t got the time, wastes an hour each day sat in traffic.
The person with little cash who can’t afford the bus fare every day, or the person who has just lost their driving licence for texting or drinking or speeding.
They are hardly going to have the confidence to ride assertively. They may not have the first idea what is the best position to use on the road. The default for most will be as far to the left as possible.
Either that or on the pavement. Of course with all the new cycle routes put in by the Council being on the pavement, it is understandable that many people think that is the place they should be. The latest National Cycle network route through Reading is appalling, all on the pavement and a real waste of money.
I almost never use the shared use pavements, but I have used one in particular. It is a contraflow which allows me a much shorter journey occasionally. In that respect I have to grudgingly admit it is a good route.
However there is one potentially scary thing. It has people walking along it, often in the same direction as I am riding. If I pass them I have to let them know I am passing, otherwise they could move to one side, possibly suddenly, and tip me off the kerb into oncoming traffic.
The solution is to ring my bell or call out “excuse me”. Now I hate bells with a passion. Coming along behind someone and ringing my bell is just rude. If someone in a car came along behind me and sounded their horn I would be quite cross.
The safe way to ride along these paths is very slowly and cautiously. I use Oracle Riverside almost every day. It is occasionally really busy. It isn’t great to make good progress, but it does avoid a much busier road.
However it does encourage pavement cycling. This is a real problem, because one thing the police have history on doing well is telling people to stop riding on the pavement.
The complaints about Caversham Bridge led them to mount a campaign, and they ignored the Home Secretary’s advice to tolerate people riding carefully.
They stopped at the point where the pavement cycle route (2 metres wide) from Tilehurst Station to Caversham Bridge (3 miles?) stopped and became a 5 metres wide pavement where cycling wasn’t allowed.
They forced all cyclists onto the road, which at the time was filled with queuing vehicles. Not a very bright move.
But then, as cyclists are so easy to stereotype, so are coppers.
Adrian Lawson, RCC Chairman