Note: I’m not a proper cyclist. I don’t own a bicycle pump or a puncture repair kit. The Mayor of London takes care of all that for me. I have a Boris Bikes fob and I swan around on one of his sponsored blue bikes for a total of about three hours per week. But here’s what I’ve learnt anyway:
Don’t wear anything special. This is my top tip. In nearly two years of Boris Biking in the West End I’ve never had any grief, never been cut up by a truck, shouted at by a cabbie or come off the bike. I may just be lucky but I reckon I’m beating the odds here (at least if what other cyclists tell me is true). And I have a strong feeling (no evidence at all, though) that this is because I don’t dress the part. Motorists steer clear of me because I look like a fat loon who’s borrowed a bike. So: no helmet, no lycra, no hi-viz and no special glasses (what are the special glasses for anyway?).
Take up a lot of room. To be precise, try to use a whole lane. Science bit: if you politely ride in the kerb, you’ll give overtaking motorists the strong impression that they can probably just squeeze past you without going into the next lane or onto the other side of the road – and your polite side will want to agree. But you mustn’t because, people being people, they will actually try to do it. Pain and aggravation will follow. So, if you take up a whole lane, not only will drivers have to slow down and think carefully about passing, they’ll have to politely indicate and move into the next lane, disturbing the flow of traffic and making everyone think. All of this boosts your odds.
Get out in front. This is about being visible (so it does slightly contradict my ‘no hi-viz’ rule). I always used to wonder why cheeky couriers and fixie herberts were always right out in front of the queued traffic at the lights but it’s obvious once you’ve tried it. You need every driver on the front row of the grid to know you’re there and to have to use their time at the red light to plan a way around you.
Jump lights. This is related to the previous point. Going through a red light when it’s safe to do so will get you out in front of the traffic and give you a chance to get organised before the rush begins. There are, of course, many circumstances when doing this would be stupid. Common sense applies (and they should probably change the rules to allow cyclists to do it legally. Getting the bikes through the lights first would be safer than requiring us all to go at the same time). The other thing is, I think drivers actually get this and appreciate you making yourself visible (although they might not show it and might phone in to James Whale later on to bitch about it).
Go round the outside (don’t try this on the North Circular). This is obvious but can be a bit scary. It’s basically the rule about not trying to squeeze down the left-hand side of trucks and buses where you will be squashed. But the larger point is: don’t be afraid to be in the right-hand lane. You are probably safer there than in the gutter. I think that the more confident and prominent cyclists are – the more ownership we take of the road – the safer we will all be.
Communicate. Wave, shout, raise your hand in a sort of taciturn, blokey way, point and smile. It’s like life: sullen silence will get you sullen silence. Don’t assume everyone knows what you’re planning and don’t assume they know inwardly that you’re grateful when they give way. I am quite sure that substantially increasing the sum total of communication done on the road will improve everyone’s mood, change behaviour and save lives. And another thing: when I started with this cycling thing, I think I assumed that cyclists would be chatting all the time, swapping anecdotes at the lights etc. But that doesn’t seem to happen. Why not? Is it just me? (see ‘fat loon on a bike’ point above).