Riding with the enemy
How can cyclists and their supposed ‘enemies’ of the road – truckers, bus drivers and cabbies – learn to get along? We asked those with feet in both camps for a solution...
Channel 5's odious Cyclists: Scourge of the Road? 'documentary', and the appearance in it of bus driving cycling 'vigilante' Dave Sherry, brought to mind this feature from issue 308 (December 2015), for which I interviewed him. Four years on, nothing, it seems, has been learnt...
Illustrations: Riccardo Guasco
Some months ago I was heading to Bristol airport in a cab. The cabbie helped me load my bike box into his boot, we headed out of Bath and all was pretty normal... until he got into an entirely avoidable spat with a cyclist. Once the sound of his horn had faded and he’d pulled up my passenger window – out of which his contempt had been unfurled – he further lambasted cyclists and all they stand for into my unsympathetic ears.
I’m still not sure what he thought was in my bike box when he’d loaded it in, though the massive Chain Reaction Cycles logo should have provided a helpful clue. Team Sky’s Luke Rowe, when he gets asked at airports, tells people that he has a pony in his, just before giving it a little pat.
As the cabbie’s rant faded, and the sharply rising meter annoyed me further, I finally snapped: “So, just what do you think is in that box?”
We’re often told there’s a war raging on our roads, and taxi drivers – so the narrative goes – are well known for not caring much for cyclists, though they’re far from alone. There are bus, lorry and tractor drivers who also have bad reputations among cyclists.
That said, we’ve all had run-ins with car drivers too, so is that reputation partly just because bigger vehicles are more distinctive, and incidents therefore linger longer in the memory than when, say, a Volvo cuts you up?
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The bigger question is how can relations be improved and how can we bring peace? Knowing that the UN was unlikely to take my call, I decided the obvious place to start was to talk to another group of middlemen: those ‘enemies’ who also ride bikes.
Long-distance trucker Jeremy Strutt drives a ‘wagon and drag’ – a typical lorry with an extra 25ft trailer attached. “I’ve got six mirrors and a rear-view camera, and that’s before I even look out of the windscreen!” he says.
Strutt believes the important thing is to educate cyclists about what a lorry driver can and can’t see. There’s some useful info from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents’ Sharing the Road Together campaign (www.rospa.com), but the British Safety Council uploaded a harder-hitting video last year. It shows a driver’s view out of his nearside mirrors; all is clear, until he climbs out and walks round the other side to find a huge gaggle of cyclists.
“I’d say to any cyclist, given any opportunity, to sit inside a truck and see what it’s like. Next time you ride past one you’ll have a little bit of that awareness of what’s safe and what isn’t.”
He says he hasn’t had a near miss as yet, and puts that down to his experience. His pet hates come mainly when he’s behind the wheel, rather than in the saddle. His 19m-long lorry weighs 44 tons, which means that when he’s driving behind a cyclist on a narrow road, with a speed differential on the overtake of 10-15mph, he needs to spend a very long time in the oncoming lane to pass the cyclist.
“I’m quite happy, as are most drivers, to wait behind a cyclist for the gap to be long enough for me to safely go on the other side of the road. Most of us are paid hourly so we don’t care how slowly we drive.”
But cyclists are vulnerable road users and having a hulking lorry hovering behind isn’t the most pleasant of experiences. What should the cyclist do in that situation? Keep going, is Strutt’s message, because he’ll have space to pass eventually. The answer isn’t to pull into a bus lay-by, as I have done, because then “the cyclist is putting themselves at risk because once I’ve passed there’s an enormous queue of cars also waiting”.
Sound advice, but are all truckers as sympathetic as Strutt? A retired truck driver from Clitheroe, Lancashire, Richard Dugdale, now a CTC coach, says it’s “natural – and necessary – for cyclists to change their behaviour around lorries. They’re vulnerable and cannot know how the driver is going to behave.”
It’s important, he adds, for cyclists to be confident, take ownership of the road and avoid being squeezed into the gutter. He also supports lorry drivers being given training to show the view of what it’s like from the saddle, something that cycle training and driver education organisation Bikeright! has been doing for several years.
Of all HGVs, tipper trucks have a particularly bad reputation, having been involved in a disproportionate number of cyclist deaths. According to the London Cycling Campaign, between 2008-12 vehicles over 3.5T were involved with 53 per cent of cyclist deaths, despite representing just four per cent of miles travelled. Designed for building sites, they often lack safety features, such as side guards, that can prevent fatalities. Measures have been brought in, however. In London’s Low Emission Zone from 1 September, all lorries over 3.5T must be fitted with side guards and mirrors to minimise blind spots. Failing to comply results in a fixed £50 fine plus a potential court fine of up to £1000.
But Strutt argues that the trucks, drivers and cyclists are simply active pawns in this supposed war, and the warmongers are the planners who design the roads. Cyclists and motorists are often quick to have fingers pointed at them, he says, “but I don’t see the planners getting blamed. Any major junction should have a green light for cyclists, which comes on 5-10 seconds before vehicles. The ASLs (advance stop line) are a danger [without them]. They encourage cyclists to come up on the inside of stationary vehicles, and then the cyclist is in front of all this traffic with no hope of getting ahead.”
However, recent analysis of DfT figures by the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) found that, according to police reports, human factors were the biggest factor (74 per cent) in crashes on British roads in 2014, with road environment just 13 per cent. Does this mean road users have a tendency to blame external factors rather than themselves for incidents? IAM’s Policy Director Neil Greig says “people must accept responsibility for enhancing their own skills… it is not enough to leave people to their own devices once they have passed their test.”
Despite London deaths inevitably grabbing the headlines, Department for Transport figures show that in 2014, more deaths actually occurred on rural roads than city roads. Lorries are particularly hazardous in this context. Dugdale has no issue, either as a cyclist or trucker, for the driver to give a quick blast of the horn to let the cyclist know they’re there, and a simple wave from both sides can only improve cyclist-trucker relations.
Strutt uses cameras, both on his bike handlebar and inside his truck cab. “If you think you’re being watched you tend to drive differently, and [cameras] are useful protection for cyclists.” But while bike cameras can be used effectively, can they also end up in the wrong hands?
One of the more infamous camera ‘vigilantes’ is Dave Sherry, who has shopped motorists of all persuasions to the police for their driving. Strutt, however, disagrees with the tag. “People call him that, but what a lot of people don’t realise is that when he gets to work he spends the rest of his day driving the exact same vehicle that most of the other cyclists moan about.”
The Bus Driver
You might recognise Sherry from This Morning– Google him if you’re still in the dark. The first search result that came up for me was a tweet he’d posted to a story on Mail Online: “Britain’s ‘most-hated’ cyclist celebrates after getting driver fined”. Britain’s ‘most-hated’ cyclist? That’s Sherry. And the driver involved? A fellow bus driver.
Sherry’s carved out his reputation to the extent that he occasionally swaps his bus seat for one in a TV studio. Does he revel in the attention? “Not at all,” he insists. “Some people call me names, and they’re entitled to their opinion. I’m doing what I do and am passionate about what I do. I’ve divided the community, some reckon I’ve caused a war. The truth needs to come out that the majority of road deaths are avoidable, [caused by] people not paying attention... As long as I can save one life.”
Still, going into a canteen full of colleagues who think you’re a grass can’t be much fun? “Yeah, it’s tough. It’s not easy doing what I do, but I’m impartial. You’re a professional driver, you have a certain standard to reach and if you don’t, you need to be brought to account. You can’t be messing with people’s lives in danger.
“You should hear them in the canteen, it’s all ‘bloody cyclists’ and ‘run ’em over’. Madness. I just say it’s about sharing the road. We get paid either way, just give them space.”
The fact that bus drivers have timetables to stick to perhaps contributes to the idea that cyclists feel somewhat harangued by buses. They often get too close, sidling past with a low hum that you don’t hear until it’s right beside you. Sherry knows the feeling of being a vulnerable road user and says his driving reflects this.
“I’m aware of the correct courtesy to give cyclists – enough over-taking distance, letting them have priority, not getting drawn into conflict. I’m fine with it but not everyone finds it as easy as me.”
Does his work as a bus driver boost his confidence on the bike?
“I’ve got an edge, knowing both sides. I can cycle in London without fear but I’ve been out riding with reporters from abroad who say what we encounter [in the UK] is absolutely dangerous. One careless driver could wipe you out and that’s it – you’re a forgotten memory, a tombstone. We need to change the mentality. Look how many deaths there have been. It’s not good. It’s bad for business.”
In London, segregation of cyclists and motorists is on the agenda, with work on the substantially segregated 18-mile East-West Cycle Superhighway set for completion next year. Sherry likes the idea but would prefer a solution that involved us learning to share the road better. His preferred intervention is the 20mph speed limit: “Then there’s no need to overtake a cyclist and we wouldn’t have confrontation about close passes,” he suggests.
Does he feel like he’s making a positive difference? “I’m just trying to re-educate,” he says. “Police talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. I prefer a hands-on approach. I’m just the wildcard.”
The Taxi Driver
The cabbie introduced at the start of this article should have a word with London taxi driver Jim Henley. Unlike Strutt and Sherry, Henley rides more for sport than transport (he’s a member of Bromley’s BigfootCC) and has a couple of Etapes du Tour to his name. He also rode the first two RideLondon sportives, “fantastic” events for both him and London.
“As a cab driver I have to put up with road closures. But this was my turn,” he says of the event. “All the cabbies were moaning, but I was saying, ‘shut up, it’s good for the city’.”
So what makes him different?
“When I passed 40 it dawned on me that nobody was going to look after my health. I’m sat down all day, breathing in all sorts of fumes, and I needed to counter that.”
Henley is a Twitter user, a platform where the feud between cyclists and taxi drivers has raged recently. One of the most inflammatory incidents came in February when Steve McNamara of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association claimed on LBC Radio that he’d had death threats on social media and called the “loonies” of the cycling world the “ISIS of London”.
Though he later admitted that his comments were “a bit strong”, it does illustrate the rancour that exists. In recent years much of that appears to stem, from the taxi side at least, from the decision by Transport for London (TfL) to radically expand the Superhighway network, which they believe will impact business.
While Henley is broadly supportive of the Superhighways, he says they’ll only work if cyclists are forced to use them. The way he sees it, the bike paths will be full of tourists, or slower riders on ‘Boris bikes’, “and all the people, maybe like yourself who are a bit competitive, aren’t going to be want to be on there, they’ll want to be on the road”.
The problem is that, as things stand, cyclists won’t legally be required to use the Superhighway. In Holland it is a legal requirement to ride on the bike paths when stated, but that’s not the case here yet.
There have been signs that the frostiness is beginning to thaw. One of the biggest London cab firms Addison Lee, which has had a chequered relationship with cyclists to say the least, announced
its ‘CycleCab’ service in October, which allows one bike to be carried in the majority of its taxis.
That coincided with its link-up as a travel partner with the new London Six Day track event. In a statement on its website, Addison Lee it had been “working hard to repair our relationship with cyclists and have added various diplomas that our drivers need to pass in order to be eligible to become an Addison Lee driver. A big part of this training is cycle awareness… our drivers have let us know that they meet many passengers who would love this as an option, so we have answered their call.”
Is this the start of a beautiful new friendship, or has Addison Lee just spotted a chance to boost its profits? Does it matter? We’re biased, but for us cycling is one of the better ways to get around a large city. Addison Lee has recognised the cycling boom that’s happened in London and know there’s a better chance to make cash from a good relationship than from a bad one.
Henley has a double bias, as he’s both cyclist and cabbie, and wonders whether a car ban might not be good for London in this respect. “London is a growing city. There are more people competing for road space, and that space is shrinking.
“Nobody is considering the unthinkable and banning cars. You’ve an amazing tube network, taxis on your doorstep, so why are people driving around in cars?
Hoping for a road utopia where everybody gets along on the densely populated rock we call the UK is perhaps wishful thinking, but things can definitely get better.
Department for Transport figures showed that while cyclist deaths dropped by 13 per cent between 2010-14 compared to 2005-09, the number of seriously injured in 2014 rose 8.2 per cent from the year before, and has risen every year (aside from 2012-13) since 2004.
Injury stats are just part of the story, though, and it feels like relations between all road users have deteriorated in the past few years. The Near Miss Project (www.nearmiss.bike), headed by Westminster University transport lecturer Rachel Aldred, found that while you can in effect expect a serious cycling injury every 400 years, you might by abused by another road user every three weeks, with a ‘very scary’ near miss occurring every single week.
“Everyone is in too much of a hurry,” says Strutt. He has a point: nobody seems to have the patience they once did. Whether it’s bus drivers making a phone call at the wheel, cyclists getting into blind spots and jumping reds, lorry drivers not giving cyclists space and time, or even taxi drivers getting frustrated while trying to get a cycling journalist to the airport, perhaps we all just need to slow down a bit. Perhaps that’s the best way for us to move forward and become friends again.