It’s often said that the only things in life that are certain are death and taxes. That’s not quite true – there are many other certainties. One of those is that the vast majority of people enjoy cycling, and would love to cycle more, but are scared off by perceived danger on the roads.
Statistically, you are very unlikely to die while out cycling, but I know how terrifying close passes can be. There were times when drivers scared me so much I seriously considered quitting cycling for good. There were a few times when I was terrified so much I had to pull over, and stand by the roadside shaking, trying to compose myself and motivate myself to get back on the bike. And yes, I consider myself an experienced cyclist who often cycles in heavy traffic.
This leaves us in a very uncomfortable position: on the one hand, there’s this enormous latent demand for cycling, while on the other hand people have this entirely justified fear of mixing with traffic. What can be done to improve things?
This is the point where people start throwing all sorts of ideas out: protected (segregated) cycle lanes along all main roads, different and separate traffic lights at junctions for cyclists, harsher penalties for drivers who endanger cyclists, and many more.
Yes, there’s a clear need for all of those, but they all have one thing in common – if they become reality at all, they’re in the dim and distant future. That doesn’t help us right now, does it?
I can point out the reality that you’re more at risk of death when walking up a flight of stairs than you are when cycling, but I know from personal experience it certainly seems different when a van driver overtakes you at 60mph with such little space that the wing mirror just misses you.
This leaves you with several options, and the first one is the option most people take: not to cycle at all. To be clear, your driving around cyclists might be why someone else doesn’t cycle, even though they want to, so always ensure that you give cyclists at least 1.5 metres space when overtaking (more, if going faster than 30mph), that you slow down before overtaking, or that you wait behind until it’s possible and safe for you to overtake.
Sadly, most people will choose Option 1, and I understand why. The roads can be extremely scary.
The second choice isn’t available to everyone, and depends on where you are: change your route. The direct route from where I live into Plymouth is 11 miles, but follows a fast, busy and narrow A-road, which at times is terrifying to cycle on. The alternative is an extra 4 miles, but mainly follows rural lanes. Though further, and significantly more hilly, the longer route usually is utter bliss, and I’ll only ride on that A-road is severely pressed for time.
The 3rd option is to mostly only cycle leisure routes. If you go have a look at my DayCycle (day-rides or shorter) and GoCycle (multi-day rides) routes, you will find some jewels. My routes are deliberately planned to either follow traffic-free paths, or quiet rural lanes, and so are generally a joy.
Most people do route planning with a driver’s perspective, and that means they often miss out on better route options. I suggest you go have a look at the superb CycleStreets route planner – you may be pleasantly surprised at what routes it suggests for you. Remember, bicycles can easily go where cars can’t, and that changes routing possibilities completely.
Finally, consider combining trains and cycling. Most people seem to be unaware that you can take normal, full-sized, non-folding bikes on most trains (check with the train company in question, as some limits vary from operator to operator) and my bikes on trains post can help you with that.
If you went for Options 2 (changing your route), 3 (cycling leisure routes) or 4 (bikes and trains) you will probably find you can do more cycling right now, without having to mix with busy traffic.