21 September 2006

Bicycles? Love Them. Bicyclists? Let Me Get Back To You On That One...

I haven't done much bike-riding in London, partly because I have an aversion to activities likely to result in death or serious bodily injury, and partly because when I did buy a bike, it was no more than three or four weeks before the thing got stolen, U-lock, cable-lock, and all. Vanished without a trace, on Christmas night, no less. The one night of the year, as non-Londoners might not know, that there is absolutely no public transport in the capital (or the country, for that matter).

Seriously, London's a lousy bike-riding town. It should be great; mostly flat, lots of parks and tree-lined streets, amazing sights to be seen, and spread out so as to make a travelling speed somewhere between that of a pedestrian and that of a car seem just about right.

But the streets are too narrow and traffic-clogged, and car drivers are already in a homicidal rage from crawling across London at an average speed somewhat lower than that of a horse and buggy 150 years ago and having to pay an £8 ($15) congestion charge for the privilege of doing so (lest I be misunderstood, I fully support the congestion charge, think it should be even higher, and would like to see large parts of Central London made completely off limits to private automobiles).

Until that happy day, bicyclists will have a rough time of it. As do, of course, pedestrians. But perhaps because they are constantly under siege hereabouts, bicyclists aren't nearly as aggressive as they are in certain American cities, New York and Berkeley being the first two to come to mind. I narrowly escaped being run down by speeding bicycles twice this summer, both times while I was crossing the street, in a crosswalk, with a green light, and said bicycles were of course running a red light without even slowing down, let alone ringing a bell or shouting a warning.

I kept a bike for many years in Berkeley, and so I'm not unfamiliar with the notion that bicycles are somehow exempt from all traffic laws because they are morally superior to all other forms of transportation. Actually, I thought maybe I had made up that idea in one of my marijuana-inspired brainstorms of the 60s or 70s, but apparently it's achieved some currency even among largely respectable bike fanatics like Dave 327.

It's got to the point now in Berkeley where car drivers expect bikes to ignore all traffic lights and signs and behave accordingly. As I got older and more civic-minded, I began doing ludicrous things (by Berkeley standards, anyway) like stopping at red lights and stop signs (when there was traffic, anyway; I haven't fully gone over to the law'n'order side). But all it did was screw up traffic even more, because drivers, even when they had the right of way, would sit there patiently waiting for me to blow through the stop sign, and getting increasingly frustrated when I didn't. "What is the matter with this @#%#&#?" I could practically hear them thinking.

I used to be so pro-bicyclist that I went on some of the early Critical Mass rides. I thought it was an absolutely brilliant concept: a couple hundred bikes take to the streets at rush hour - as is their legal right - and by scrupulously obeying every law and every sign, create a nightmarish traffic jam, thus demonstrating the point that when large numbers of people - like, say, automobile drivers - all simultaneously choose to exercise their God-given right to drive anywhere and any time they damn well please, grave social consequences can ensue.

But the brilliant concept didn't last long; soon Critical Mass degenerated into group therapy for angry hippies whose idea of protest was more along the lines of picking fights with car drivers, ignoring all traffic laws, and trying to create chaos and misery just for the hell of it. I never went over to the side of the cars, but if the cops came out and hauled away a few of the more obnoxious bikers, well, I wasn't especially bothered. I'd be even less bothered - in fact I'd be downright enthusiastic - if they started rounding up stroppy or dangerous drivers and summarily crushing their cars into a two-cubic-inch square of scrap metal on the side of the road, but I fear I've got a while to wait before that blissful day arrives.

Meanwhile, returning to the subject of difficult bicyclists, one of the London free papers ran this item which I quote in its entirety:
Police Hunt Bicycle Killers

South London detectives are appealing for witnesses after a 40-strong bicycle gang brandishing knives and guns left one man dead and another in hospital in Grove Street, New Cross, on Sunday.

Is it just me, or does the idea of 40 bicyclists "brandishing knives and guns" and leaving "one man dead and another in hospital" seem like it merits more than one sentence buried in the back pages of a throwaway paper? I never heard a word about this on radio or TV or in any of the major papers. I know violent bike gangs exist; there are many reports of people being robbed or assaulted by five or six hoodies on bikes. But 40 of them? With guns and knives? And it's barely even news? That's London. But hey, as long as it was south of the river, why should we worry?

P.S. I'm in no way trying to imply that disrespect for the law on the part of cyclists is the first step on a slippery slope that ends with them being transformed into Mad Max-style raiders preying on the putrescent corpse of civilised society. Though you never know, do you...?


Patrick said...

How hard could it possibly be to find a gang of 40 bicyclists?

Larry Livermore said...

Or, as you'll note the police are appealing for, witnesses who actually saw said gang?

Which brings up the ancillary question: if the cops can't find anyone who will admit to witnessing this escapade, who was it that counted the bicyclists?

patrick said...

Maybe it was a rough estimate from the guy who ended up in the hospital?