January 17, 2013

“Isn’t the traffic dangerous?” – Staying safe on a rush-hour bike commute

Since starting to commute from Croydon to London by bike in September, I’ve had lots of people comment about it. The most common is “isn’t the traffic dangerous?”, with the second being “don’t die” or words to that effect.

While it’s good to know that so many people are concerned for my welfare (it makes me less reckless when I have other people to think about!), I thought I’d describe my experiences here, including things I’ve learnt and read that I think have helped make my commute safer. Concerns about safety are one of the big barriers to increasing cycling in London, and there’s been lots of coverage of bike accidents recently. While this helps the drive for better infrastructure, it makes commuting in London look like a maniac’s choice.

It really isn’t.

1. Road-sense

The biggest skill to learn is road-sense, to the point where it’s almost acting like a sixth sense. On my first few days commuting I had a few incidents which wouldn’t have happened with greater awareness of driver behaviour in relation to bikes (mainly, that they don’t look properly before moving their cars).

After my steep learning curve, I read an excellent article about human vision (http://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/raf-pilot-teach-cyclists/) , which explains why drivers sometimes genuinely don’t see you, and how to make sure they do. It was also useful when riding the bike, to make sure I was scanning the road ahead in a way which meant I wouldn’t miss anything in a saccade, be it a wandering pedestrian or vehicle about to pull out from a side road ahead. The brain will fill in a scene as you turn your head, only seeing a real picture when you pause. If you scan left to right too quickly, without pausing, you’ll just see a picture your brain has made up.

Have they seen me?

As a result of being on the road, reading the article, and watching various YouTube videos, I started going through a routine when approaching side roads, to try and reduce the chance of someone pulling out without me having a chance to taking evasive action. I focus on the driver, and recite Look, See, Brake.

Look – Is the driver looking around? Did the driver look at me?
See – Looking is not the same as seeing – did the driver see me? Did the driver react?
Brake – If the answer to ‘Look, See?’ is ‘no’, I start to brake and move to the right, if there’s space to do so. This puts me in a more visible position and gives more time to react if they do pull out.

This comes from the following two excellent bits of advice from our man in the RAF:

“when passing junctions, look at the head of the driver that is approaching or has stopped. The head of the driver will naturally stop and centre upon you if you have been seen. If the driver’s head sweeps through you without pausing, then the chances are that you are in a saccade – you must assume that you have not been seen and expect the driver to pull out!”

“Ride in a position further out from the kerb as a driver is more likely to be looking in this location”

I also run with a 300-lumen front light, flashing during the day and constant at night. Since I’ve had it, I’ve found that traffic around me is far more willing to let me out or get out of my way if I’m going faster than they are. It’s partly about being more visible, and partly about drivers at night having no idea what this bright thing coming at them is, so being more cautious.

A bit of a demo is below, showing how to look more visible at night (hint: a ‘hi-vis’ jacket is useless without retro-reflective strips; dayglo doesn’t work at night):

Have I seen them?

It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when screaming down a cycle lane next to stationary traffic. After all, the cars aren’t moving and there’s a nice white line there to stop them encroaching on your territory (yeah, right). This is a dangerous mistake to make, as I often find stationary traffic leads to impatience, which leads to cars and pedestrians appearing where you don’t expect them.

All of these have happened to me while in a compulsory cycle lane (that is, motor vehicles are NOT allowed in it), as part of a cycle superhighway (CS7 & CS8):

  • pedestrians taking advantage of the stationary traffic to cross the road, who suddenly appear in the lane from between two cars.
  • impatient drivers doing a three-point turn, reversing into the cycle lane in the process, while obscured by other traffic.
  • impatient drivers ignoring the compulsory cycle lane, and using it to jump a couple of cars ahead to the next left turn.

The last of these was the first I experienced, on my third day commuting, and I nearly ended up sitting on the woman’s boot. I’ve been far more cautious around stationary traffic ever since, which avoided nasty outcomes in the other two scenarios. On a good bike with reasonable fitness it’s possible to hit 20-25mph on the flat, so it’s important to keep an eye out, even when everything around is ‘stationary’.

2. Road choice

There are two competing choices for me on the way to work: straight down the A23 with several lanes of rush hour traffic, or along London Cycle Network Route 5.

The A23 would, in theory, be faster, but it’s just a nightmare. Fast traffic, often not paying attention, lots of side roads, some horrendous merging junctions, little in the way of lane discipline (or traffic light discipline) from drivers and a road surface constructed of pot holes loosely held together by tarmac. I find it’s much slower because I’m not brave enough/stupid enough to launch the bike at all the gaps I can see.

LCN5 is quieter, the traffic is generally very slow and there aren’t many areas of congestion. There are some daft bits, but on the whole it’s pretty good as a route avoiding major roads, allowing me to arrive at Clapham Common reasonably calm. It’s at this point that LOADS of cyclists appear, filling the roads with a diverse spectrum of bicycles and riders. It’s also a pothole-ridden mess, but they’ve been resurfacing lots of the roads so I hope it’ll get better.

My route choice needs to change in particularly cold weather. I tried LCN5 when it was -4 and we had a heavy frost overnight, and ended up landing arse-first on the tarmac. Croydon Council have said that in order to ensure the roads are safe for ‘all road users’, that they don’t grit the cycle route. They don’t grit the pavement either (as I found walking the bike back), so I can only assume that ‘all road users’ means ‘car, lorry and 4×4 drivers’.

As I write this, I’ve wimped out entirely – 12 miles in snow takes around 20 minutes longer and there’s the constant risk of coming off.

3. Riding Style

The distance to work means I need to travel at speed to make it competitive with the train (both take an hour in good weather conditions). London is also a city which encourages an aggressive, high speed riding style. It doesn’t need to be like that, but until the infrastructure improves it’s a sad fact that it is at the moment.

My journey has two parts to it. First is a moderate ride through mostly empty back streets, where the biggest threats are dozy school run drivers and rat-runners who want to get past as quickly as possible. For most of this section, from Croydon to Tooting Common, speed doesn’t help with safety – in fact, I travel a bit slower due to the risk of being walloped by a school-runner who was too busy looking at the kids. This is where it’s vital to look for car doors opening (and preferably stay away from them!), and traffic emerging everywhere.

On arrival at Tooting Common the volume of traffic on my route increases, the roads get bigger, and I use speed as a technique to improve safety. This sounds counter-intuitive (after all, faster = bigger accident), but travelling at the same speed as the surrounding traffic means it’s far easier to merge in when encountering obstacles such as parked cars or buses. At this point it’s generally possible to be as fast, and often faster, than motor vehicles, so it makes sense to ‘take the lane’. Very few drivers have a problem with a cyclist running at the same speed as the rest of the traffic. You’ll always get some crank who wants to overtake even though there’s nowhere for them to go, but that happens maybe once a week (that is, once in 100 miles or so).

The key is to move over when the road is safe and you can no longer maintain speed – it lets everyone progress and stops any aggravation.

4. Communication, communication

The most important thing is to communicate with traffic around you. That way you know they’ve seen you and they know what you’re going to do. A lot of drivers are terrified of cyclists because as a bunch we can be unpredictable. Communication helps that, and a less stressed driver is a better driver.

The most obvious thing is signalling left and right, although on a badly potholed road that isn’t always possible safely. When I can’t signal safely, usually when trying to change lane on a bad road surface, I use road positioning and constant shoulder checks until I’m sure the vehicle behind me knows what I’m doing.

I frequently do this on Chelsea Bridge, as it requires heavy acceleration and crossing from a bus lane to general traffic lane to turn right. The road surface is passable, but to merge into traffic requires a sprint I’m not capable of with one arm out. It’s not ideal, but feels safer than crawling along, trying to merge into traffic going at least twice the speed, if not more. Staying in the ‘bus lane’ to the lights isn’t an option, as it stops 2/3s of the way across the bridge and traffic from the general lane then moves across to cut across the front of you…! Most days of the week the traffic will make a gap for me to slot into when doing this.

A trick recommended by others which seems to work when I’ve tried it: if a driver tries a dangerous overtake wave them back; the driver just doesn’t realise it’s a lousy overtake, but will back off if ‘asked’ to. Wave them through when it’s safe.

At the end of the day…

It’s more important to get there in one piece than quickly. Sometimes speed can be used to stay safe, with the current infrastructure we have (not a lot).

The main aim of this was to help people who think I’m duelling to the death every time I go out on the roads. It’s not that bad, and while accidents happen I try as hard as I can to avoid them, while balancing that against the fact that I don’t want to spend hours getting to work.


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