I Jump Lights

IMG_4197I’ve been cycling to school or to work on a daily basis since I was fifteen. One year, I even held a part time job as a bicycle courier, and cycling became my work. Along the way, I’ve built up the usual set of pet hates. I can’t stand people who cycle on the pavement when there’s a perfectly useable road – especially if they’re riding those stupid chopper stunt bikes. I’ve never minded people who don’t wear bicycle helmets – I personally wear one most of the time, but there’s no law against it, and I don’t believe there should be one. On the other hand, I think people who don’t use bike lights are suicidal idiots – and if I’ve been caught out by my own absent-mindedness and the encroaching winter dusk, I’ll be sure to kick myself thoroughly before cycling carefully home.

Most controversially – and I know I will incur the ire of pedestrians and motorists by saying this – I will jump the occasional red light, where I judge it safe and convenient to do so. Such occasions include, but are not necessarily limited to: when the pedestrian crossing is in use, when it is possible to join the flow of traffic from the side without disrupting it (i.e. at a T-junction) and when there’s self-evidently no-one coming.

If there’s a crusty old pedestrian around to say ‘It’s a red light for you too, you know!’ or a taxi to honk at me – well, I’m afraid that only increases the intolerable sense of smugness that makes us cyclists so generally reviled.

Bella Bathhurst coined a wonderful term for the bicyclists of Britain – feral cyclists. Historically, we were never given much attention, or government provision – we simply got on the roads and started duking it out with the traffic on the traffic’s own terms. Anyone who’s ever had the (still occasionally terrifying) experience of being overtaken by a bus or lorry knows how unequal that engagement is – yet still, we persisted. Nowadays, there are a few more bike lanes – sometimes even dedicated bike paths – but the sensation of being an underdog persists. And as underdogs – where it be the delight of zipping past a full lane of stationary traffic, or cycling with our hands in our pockets, or jumping lights – we’ll take any advantage we get. After all, bicycles are more manoeuvrable than cars – bicyclists can see more – and if a bicyclist collides with a pedestrian, the outcome is likely to be annoyance, at worst minor injury, not fatalities. I’ve never collided with anyone yet, and don’t see it happening unless the bicyclist is being an absolute speed demon and the pedestrian isn’t looking where they’re going.

Part of the effort to cut down on bicycle fatalities is getting cyclists to assert our place on the roads – to stop cowering in the gutters, ready to be knocked silly by the first car door, and ride proudly in the middle of the road. If anyone wants to overtake us, it’s their problem, not ours. I’m careful to judge each case on it’s own merits – I’m no adrenalin junkie – but until we’ve reached the utopia of fully segregated car and bicycle systems, I will continue to jump the occasional traffic light, however much non-cyclists may look down on the practice

Thoughts on being a bicycle courier

Last year, I worked from September to December and from April through to July as a bicycle courier in Cardiff, capital of Wales. A few qualifications are needed here. I was not one of those people on racing bikes with big yellow backpacks and alarmingly low life expectancies you see weaving through the midday traffic. My bike was a Dawes Discovery, equally well adapted to getting the shopping home or a cycle tour to Bristol, but not the fastest bike (34mph is about my record) and it was further encumbered by a great boxy trailer strapped on behind. For I wasn’t delivering business documents, but information packs: local travel information for Sustrans, a local transport charity, as part of their initiative to get the good folk of Cardiff out of their cars and onto bikes, buses, trains and their own two feet.

We were a ragtag bunch of indigent students, broke twenty-somethings balancing this with three other jobs as a leg-up to better employment, and a few enormous Poles and exubrant Greeks – as nice a bunch of people as you might find anywhere. When I tried to go full time at the end of the year, I found it rather frustrating – there simply weren’t enough shifts to go around, and a proper 9-4 day was hard to find. As a student job, nothing could have been better. The hours were easy and flexible, the money was surprisingly good (the 20p per mile travel expenses added up to a pretty good end of year bonus) and it was a terrific opportunity to explore areas of Cardiff that I never even knew existed – and I considered myself a particularly adventurous student. For the first time since my days of apple picking in the bright English autumn, I had a job I could enjoy. The outdoors, I decided, was the magical ingredient.

Of course, there were downsides. I had a couple of close shaves with white van man, there was the day some idiot kids tried to steal one of my bags, and though people were usually pleased to see me – one of the advantages of being delivery rather than canvassing, who often felt the sharp end of peoples tongues – I got a frosty reception more than once. The risk of a thorough drenching was possible all through, but winter added the additional terrors of hail and icy patches on the road, and summer the possibilities of sunstroke. I came back weak and dizzy from one shift and had to sit under a ice-cold shower for half an hour. And it was really quite unfortunate that I had to come into several of my lectures in lycra.

But on the other hand, there was the joy of discovering another of Cardiff’s innumerable suburban libraries, into which I often took a surreptitious detour to use the toilets and scan the graphic novels section for the latest Batman comic; the delight in finding a new shortcut, and the not-infrequent wrath at finding it so overly pedestrianised it was a struggle to get a bicycle through, never mind a bike and trailer; the delightful woman on Pen-y-dre, Rhiwbeina, who kept a sheep as a pet, and was kind enough to offer me a cup of tea while Nick the sheep gobbled up custard creams; and the hot day sweltering up and down the heights of Grand Avenue, where everyone I delivered to were offering me cokes and glasses of squash. I became so tanned I not only had watch marks, but little white cycling gloves as well.

I resigned at the end of July, partly because I was no longer comfortable with where we were delivering to (Cardiff has some nice areas, rich and poor, but Riverside was not a place I was comfortable leaving my bike, even for a couple of minutes – besides, it was too close to base to offer a full days work), partly because I was fed up of sleeping on the floor of my friend’s barely furnished apartment, and partly due to simple lonliness now that most of my student friends had come home. But in the glory days, when I was expertly balancing work with play with lectures on a sunny afternoon in October or July, it was enormous fun.

My friend Kristina has written about the perils of being a canvasser for the same charity here.