Jude Burke, commuter cyclist and author of the amazingly popular cycling blog ‘cycling with heels’ talks to us about what got her into cycling, why she took to writing a blog as well as her views on cycling safety in London.
Tell us a little bit about yourself – what made you get into cycling and start a blog?
Like pretty much everyone I learned to ride a bike as a kid, but it wasn’t until I moved to London that I started cycling regularly. I was inspired by a friend of mine who had started cycling to work. This was in 2002, when I’d been in London for a little over a year. I still didn’t know many people at that point, so the small group of friends I did have had a huge influence on how I felt about the city, and what I did. So when this particular friend started to cycle, it piqued my interest. I never really thought it was too dangerous to cycle in London – that only occurred to me after I’d got on my bike, and by then it was too late to turn back. Since that day, I’ve been cycling pretty regularly. It’s a fantastic way to get around. As well as being cheap and great exercise, I love the freedom I have with cycling, and the fact that I’m not tied in to timetables and fixed routes. It’s also a really good way to get to know London, and to find my way around.
I started the blog because I wanted to write. I write for my job (I’m an editor at the MS Society) but I wanted an outlet to develop my own ideas, and to write about the things that interested me. A blog seemed like the obvious thing to do. And, given that I’d have to find a focus for the blog if I wanted anyone other than my friends and family to read it, why not a blog about cycling? After all, I do it every day, and can talk about it at length, if given half the chance. I had no grand master plan when I started the blog – still don’t, in fact – and I’m constantly amazed that it seems to be going well and people are interested in what I have to say.
Do you think Operation Safeway is the right way to make London’s roads safer for cyclists?
No. I think the police clearly felt they needed to do something in the wake of the high numbers of cyclists who died last November, but I don’t think this was the right way to go about it. It focused too much on the things that people think make cycling safer – rather than on what actually makes London’s roads unsafe for cyclists. Running red lights, not using lights at night, not wearing a helmet or hi-viz – these things don’t, on the whole, lead to collisions. But that’s what the police seemed to be mainly interested in. The danger with this is that it sends out the message that these things are important, and that it’s up to us to change our behaviour if we want to stay safe on the roads. But when you look at what actually causes collisions, you realise we can only do so much – and that other things, such as other road design and other road users’ behavior, have a far bigger impact on our safety.
There’s a junction I go through on my way into work every day – where Tollington Road meets Holloway Road – which is easily my least favourite part of my journey. I have to get into the right-hand lane in order to turn right, which involves crossing four lanes of traffic. Thankfully the traffic is usually pretty slow moving and I always make it across OK – sometimes with impatient drivers beeping at me for slowing them down for all of a second or two – but I always breathe a sigh of relief once I’ve made it. Anyway, this junction was included in Operation Safeway. Every day that the police were at the junction I wanted them to pull me over – I wanted to tell them that if they were really interested in cycle safety they would be looking at the design of junctions like that one, rather than whether I was hearing a helmet and hi-viz. Alas, they never did.
What do you think about the Mayor’s plan to expand the cycle superhighway system with more protected bike-only lanes?
I think it’s great – as long as they’re well designed and genuinely safe, and as long as they’re respected by both other road users and pedestrians. I would absolutely love it if we could have a whole network of protected cycle lanes, as they do in places like Copenhagen (which I visited last year). If we’re going to see cycling levels approach anything like those in Denmark and other countries, then we need to have this kind of segregated infrastructure.
But it really is so, so, so important to get it right, otherwise cyclists – particularly inexperienced cyclists – risk being lulled into a false sense of security. I sincerely hope the Mayor and his transport planners have learnt the lesson of CS2.
I also hope that this increased focus on segregated facilities doesn’t mean that road planners forget about cyclists’ needs when they’re redesigning other junctions and road layouts. We will still need to use the roads – it’s impossible to add segregated bike lanes on every road in London, and even on the roads where they do exist, not every cyclist will want to use them. We still need to be safe on the roads as well as on cycle paths.
What else do you think could be done to make cycling safer in London?
I’d like to see more done to address the danger posed by lorries. Of the 14 cyclists killed last year in London, nine were killed by HGVs; this is despite HGVs only making up around four per cent of the traffic in London. I’d like there to be greater restrictions on their movement around London, particularly during the rush hour, and more enforcement to ensure they’re fitted with the right safety equipment and properly roadworthy.
I’d also like there to be a greater awareness of the role other road users’ behaviour has in cycle safety. There’s a tendency for non-cyclists to assume that, when a cyclists gets knocked off their bike, they must have been doing something wrong. A YouGov poll carried out last year found that about 70 per cent of people believed cyclists were either jointly or wholly responsible for accidents. In reality, about two thirds of collisions between adult cyclists and motorists are solely the motorists’ fault.
So I’d like to see some measures that could help to reduce the number of collisions, by focusing on drivers’ behaviour. This could be through introducing cycle awareness training as part of the driving test, or it could be through getting drivers out on bikes so they know what it’s like. It could also be through greater penalties for drivers who hit cyclists – at the moment ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you’ seems to be a get out of jail free card.
What safety advice would you give to someone just starting out to commute by bike in London?
Cycling in London traffic can be intimidating. Although it’s not as dangerous as you may think it is, you do have to pay attention and cycle confidently. When I first started cycling I was terrified, but with time I learnt how to deal with the traffic. If you’re really not confident, most London boroughs will offer free cycle training. They’ll teach you how to ride so that other people can see you and what to watch out for, as well as what not to do.
It’s worth doing your route a few times at the weekend, when it’s less busy, so you can be sure of where you’re going and where the potential danger spots are before attempting it in the rush hour. And remember if you don’t feel safe at any point, you can just get off your bike and walk it – that’s the beauty of cycling.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to wear head to toe hi-viz, or that if you do it will guarantee you’ll be visible. Road positioning is more important than hi-viz. I used to wear a hi-viz jacket, but switched it for a slightly more attractive purple one – being hi-viz on the roads is one thing, but being hi-viz in a bar, café or theatre is another thing entirely. Since I made the switch I haven’t noticed any difference in how drivers behave around me. I always try to cycle in a way that drivers will be able to see me – I don’t sneak up the side of large vehicles, for example. My view is that if a driver can’t see me in broad daylight when I’m right in front of them, then they’re simply not looking – and no amount of hi-viz will change that.
To hear more from Jude check out her blog at cyclingwithheels. You can also follow her on twitter @cyclingheels