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In a break from my usual wittering about music and stuff, here’s some advice to the Metropolitan Police, after watching them loiter around the junction of Upper Tooting Road and Garratt Lane this morning.

1. If you want to catch bad drivers, don’t stand at junctions in hi-viz jackets

My local pound store could tell you this. They have big cardboard cut-outs of policemen in the window, and around the store. The idea is that if you see a policeman, you’ll think twice about nicking stuff. It won’t stop you being a thief, it’ll just put you off the idea for as long as that image is in front of you.

If you put police officers at junctions in hi-viz jackets, and advertise in advance that you’re going to be doing so, anyone who was thinking about driving in the bus lane, jumping a red light, or texting while driving, isn’t going to do it, because you’re there. My guess is the number of offenders you’ll catch will be about 10% of what you’d gain by following my next piece of advice:

2. If you want to catch people driving/cycling badly, get on your bike yourself. 

You should try it, you really should. Here’s the science. From a cycle lane you’ll  see – as I do every day – all kinds of illegal things going on in cars. You’ll smell the marijuana from the open windows of vans (it’s usually vans). You’ll see drivers texting, with their head down, but still with their foot on the gas and moving forward. You’ll see drivers with in-ear headphones. They might be listening to the radio, they might be on the phone, but either way, they’re in another world.  You might even see, as I did the other day, a driver with a laptop open on her knee, looking down at it – map reading, perhaps, or answering an important email? – while driving up Upper Tooting Road. I noticed this because the driver swerved into the cycle lane without raising her eyes from the laptop, on hearing an ambulance siren start up behind behind her. Yes, that’s very common. Particularly when other cars want to turn right, and drivers use the cycle lane as a spare bit of road to overtake on the left with, or when a vehicle is too wide to fit between a traffic island and the outer edge of a cycle lane. Should have thought of that one, Boris.

Yes, you’ll see all of this and more, and the great thing is, they won’t see you first, because you’re behind them. There’ll be no chance of them modifying their behaviour so you can’t catch them. I promise you, if you have performance related pay, get on a bike and get cycling, because you could  be nicking people for texting while driving at least three times in every 20 minutes, if my regular journeys are anything to go by.

And even better, because the cycle lanes usually move quicker than the traffic, you’ll be able to cycle up and nick them before they can get away. That’s what’s so brilliant about cycling in London, except that as cyclists, we don’t have the power, like you do, to do anything about it. And yes, you’ll catch cyclists too, and you’ll be able to stop them doing really stupid things (which some of them do, I admit).

It would be better for you, too. You’d get some exercise, rather than just standing around the place, waiting for crimes to happen that you’re already averting by standing there. Yes, there’s some value in preventing them, but in a few days, once this particular media project is over, you’ll be gone, and frankly, for prevention, maybe a cut-out policeman would be enough – it seems to work at the pound store.

3. Look at culture 

It takes public discourse to get people hating cyclists. When I was learning to drive nearly 40 years ago, my driving instructor told me to give cyclists a wide berth, because they were prone to wobble and swerve (and this was before London’s pothole-ridden streets made cycling such a nightmare). It was gentle, considerate, and forgiving, and good driving instruction. It’s much more common now for cars to overtake you impatiently,  with only inches to spare, as if it would only be your fault if you happened to swerve at the wrong moment.

No-one wakes up in the morning hating cyclists genetically, it happens through the slow drip of daily insult, and the result is erratic, unreasonable and aggressive behaviour from motorists who are otherwise not natural born killers. There are two London radio presenters in particular who seem to despise cyclists, and encourage drivers to mouth off about them as a breed.

Writing is dangerous.  “Like many people”, wrote Rod Liddle in the Spectator recently, I am worried that too few cyclists are being killed on our roads each year.”  I complained once about Jeremy Clarkson, and got nowhere, except an instant and considered reply from the excellent Sadiq Khan, who forwarded my complaint to Boris Johnson. In brief, we should learn to lighten up, apparently, and take this on the chin, and laugh at it because it’s just humorous banter. Matthew Parris played the ‘it was meant humorously’ card  when he proposed a festive custom of stringing piano wire across country roads to decapitate cyclists.  Would he accept such an excuse from someone who suggested decapitating gay people because they found them annoying?  My problem with this ‘it was only a joke’ stuff is that it cultivates prejudice and hatred against a group of people, regardless of individual identities, or their right to existence. In other contexts, this is illegal, and it is recognised as inciting hatred – yet not even you seem to care about this when it comes to cyclists.


3 thought on “Operation safeway? On your bike, Met Police.”
  1. Interesting. I don’t disagree with any of it, I think. But what struck me (metaphorically only, fortunately) when driving to Sadler’s Wells was the sheer volume of cyclists on London’s roads. They are, almost literally, everywhere, and that wasn’t the case even 10 years ago.

    Stopping at traffic lights on Rosebury Avenue yesterday, there were 15 cyclists around me within 30 seconds. In front, behind, to every side. In front of the white line. Behind it. In and out of the cyclists’ box. Some briefly on the pavement. To be frank, when the lights changed, I couldn’t be confident that I wasn’t going to hit one of them – I simply can’t look in every direction at once and be sure that there was no one there.

    I wonder whether it’s not a question of which group is right, but whether it is safe to allow the same space of road to be shared by vans, cars, lorries and cyclists. Perhaps separating the cyclists into dedicated roads or paths from which cars are banned and physically unable to access is the answer.

    1. I wouldn’t disagree with your points either – I’m a driver as well as a cyclist, and I’ve had the experience you describe (and yes, the number of cyclists has increased, too, to the point that it’s difficult for everyone). Some cyclists can be annoying – especially when they overtake (other cyclists) on the left, or jump the red lights at a pedestrian crossing. Many take risks that I wouldn’t dream of (cycling between two buses, for example, or on the inside of an HGV). Although my post focuses largely on drivers than cyclists, the point is the same with regard to Operation Safeway – the police would see much more if they actually used the roads on a bike. The current project seems like something thought up by someone who had never ventured from a desk to try out research in the real world.

      1. “by someone who had never ventured from a desk to try out research in the real world” – or by someone more interested in being seen to do something rather than actually doing and achieving anything. I’ve cycled in London recently too – terrifying. And when you’re on a Boris bike other cyclists treat you like dirt!

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist