From the most built-up city street to the remotest of country roads, there are many unwritten rules for the cycling commuter. To get the lowdown on the latest cycling etiquette across the nation, Cycleplan spoke to both a city and a country commuter to find out the unspoken rules that they cycle by.
According to a 2016 survey by the Mayor of London’s office, 32% of vehicles on the roads in London’s Zone 1 are bicycles. On some main roads, this number rises to a staggering 70%. Transport for London commented that “if these trends continue, the number of people commuting to Central London by bike will overtake the number commuting by car in three years.” The capital has seen a phenomenal growth in bike commuters in the last few years, partially driven by better cycling infrastructure, and by the rising cost of public transport.
However, it’s not just in London that cycling to work has become popular, but big cities nationwide too. In Bristol, the number of people who cycle to work doubled between 2001 and 2011, while in Manchester 1.9% of people cycled to work in 2001; this has now increased to 2.1% in 2011.
Though commuting by bike is growing in popularity across the UK, it is still London where the bulk of cycling commuters live. One such commuter is Vicki Scheele, Chief Marketing Officer of Pay4Later. She commutes daily from South London into the City.
“Cycle commuting is similar to getting the tube. There’s a lot of people, not much space and no one makes eye contact,” said Scheele. “As soon as you get outside the M25, the same people will cheerily nod and say hello if you see them on their bike, but there’s none of that in the inner zones. But that’s no bad thing. It means you can treat cycle commuting as a really fun game. Everyone is racing but no one will acknowledge that they are.”
“There’s always someone to have a little race with. Many times I’ve had guys go out of their way to cut in front of me at a red light only for me to whizz past them once they change to green. They hate being overtaken by a woman and generally come huffing and puffing past me at the next set of lights, only for it all to happen again! It’s better than interval training!”
While getting from A to B in London on your bike may now be quite streamlined, this was not always the case. Courier and author, Emily Chappell has been cycling around London for work and pleasure for 10 years. When she began in 2006, cyclists used to nod to each other in recognition and chat. Despite missing this, she wouldn’t go back. Chappell told the Guardian:
“I wouldn’t go back to the bad old days when cyclists were dismissed as a bunch of bearded eccentrics, and roads were designed to keep traffic fast, rather than to keep people safe. I welcome the long overdue improvements to cycling infrastructure, even as I secretly, somewhat guiltily, mourn the days when I used to have the traffic to myself.”
The London Cycling Hierarchy
Like tube or train travel in London, you have to be assertive to get on, and according to Vicki Scheele, there is a pecking order:
“There’s a definite hierarchy on the roads of London – the Boris bikes, shoppers and Bromptons at one end (actually some of those guys can be quite pacey!) and the Lycra-clad cycling club ‘middle-aged man in Lycra’ (MAMILS) at the other.”
City Cycling Etiquette Tips
When you are cycling in London, or any UK city, there are some general etiquette rules. For Vicki, her top tip would be to follow the rules of the road.
“Some cyclists think the rules of the road don’t apply to them. If we all do the right thing, ride sensibly, don’t cut anyone up, or be where we shouldn’t, then all road users will get along just fine and generally quicker, too. It’s too easy for cyclists to just nip into a space or hop on the pavement without thinking. That said, there are as many daft people in cars, buses, lorries and taxis as there are on bikes.”
Of course, it’s not just the general rules of the road you have to follow, but the unofficial ones too. Here are some top etiquette tips for cycling commuters.
1. Call passing
Let others know you are passing by ringing your bell or calling to them. This applies to pedestrians too.
2. To draft or not to draft
For hard-core cyclists, there is an argument whether or not you can draft when commuting. Drafting is the practice of riding in the slipstream behind someone’s rear wheel and thus greatly reducing the effort you need to expend to keep your speed up. This question was posted on the Guardian’s Bike blog and generated 317 comments. The general consensus seemed to be that it was fine as long as you do not get too close to the cyclist in front.
3. Towpath commuting
The UK is fortunate to have hundreds of miles of beautiful canal towpaths. However, these paths are narrow and need to be shared by bikers and walkers alike. The increasing traffic on towpaths, especially on London’s Regents Canal, has resulted in British Waterways asking etiquette experts, Debretts, to come up with a code of conduct for commuters. The company which brands itself as “the modern authority on all matters of etiquette, taste and achievement”, came up with five points. These included cyclists being aware of pedestrians at all times and to ring their bell two times, and that pedestrians should allow cyclists to pass.
4. Keep to the cycle lanes
TFL and other city councils have spent millions on cycle lanes, so if there is a designated cycle path – stick to it. While it’s not compulsory for you to do so, it makes for a safer journey for both you and motorists or other road users.
5. Overtaking other cyclists
It is okay to overtake other cyclists if you are going faster, but do so safely and do not break the Highway Code to make the manoeuvre. When you do overtake, make sure you pass on the right and let the other cyclist know you are passing, ahead of time.
Country Road Commuting
Not everyone who commutes lives in the city; some of the luckiest commute to work on picturesque country roads. Even in the Greater London area, country roads and lanes are myriad, and it is not uncommon for home county commuters to cycle to their nearest station and then commute into London by train.
In the city you may need to cycle defensively. But in the country, road cycling means you have to make more of an effort to be seen and watch for animals and pedestrians who might not be expecting you. Samantha Hill, director of the Breakpad Bike Shop in Kirroughtree, Scotland, regularly commutes to work through the beautiful Scottish countryside. We asked her for her take on rural road cycling:
“As a cyclist, you do need to behave differently depending on the level of traffic. Never wear headphones, Hill suggests to always ride to be seen, and try to make eye contact with drivers ahead of you.”
“In the city, you have to be a ‘confident’ rider. Everything is much closer to you; the traffic is fighting for your space and you have to make clear signals and think and react quickly. Our rural area is great for road cycling as the roads tend to be very quiet. We do have to watch out for pot holes, sheep and deer though!”
Country Road Commuting Top Tips
Fresh air, low levels of traffic and hopefully a great view; country commuting might be the stuff of dreams for city riders. However, just like in the city, the Highway Code still applies to cyclists out in the sticks. Hill has some top tips that will help you have a safer and more enjoyable journey.
“Rural cycling is great. Take a map, have a route planned, tell someone where you are heading and what time you think you’ll be back,” said Hill.
“Strava is a great app to map your ride and set your goals. You must dress to be seen, and don’t wear clothes that are the same colour as the tarmac. Choose your roads wisely; you don’t want to find yourself on a rat run during rush hour, or on a road full of pot holes or cow poo.”
Commuter Cycling Etiquette Tips
1. Make more of an effort to be seen
High hedges, sharp bends and lack of street lights can make seeing cyclists more difficult for motorists on country roads and lanes. Make sure your bike has both a rear and front light and ensure that you are wearing high-vis gear.
Horses are large and unpredictable animals. Like you would in a car, slow down and give the horse and rider a wide berth. Don’t ring your bell, make loud noises or get too close behind. Do let the rider know you are passing in a calm manner – a simple ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’ will suffice. Also, do not change gear as you’re passing, as these kinds of mechanical noises can spook a horse.
3. Wild and farm animals and dogs
In the country, people do not always keep their dogs contained. Nicola Brady, a Guardian Bike Blog contributor, lives in rural Ireland, where dogs can be an issue. Brady deals with this by having “an expletive-filled rant shouted at the owners as [she passes] their house. Alternatively, a letter to the local police will do the trick.” While she’s clearly joking, make sure you ride quickly but safely past.
While sheep are highly unlikely to attack you, they are not considered the cleverest of creatures and have been known to run right in front of cyclists. So, slow down when you come across sheep in or near the road, and let them make the first move.
Finally, whether it’s the Scottish Highlands or Richmond Park, deer can be an issue, especially in the dark, or when they are most active at dawn or dusk. They can jump out at any moment. You may think a cyclist colliding with a deer is so rare that it’s not worth keeping in mind. However, a cyclist competing in the Dublin Triathlon was knocked over by one during the race, much to their surprise. Be vigilant and ready to react quickly when necessary.
4. Dealing with motorists
On many country roads, motorists, especially locals, can drive very quickly and without due vigilance. They are used to the roads and don’t expect to encounter anything. Brady recommends: “Assume everyone else around you is stupid. Presume that the driver behind you wouldn’t think of oncoming traffic round a bend, and either signal to him or pull out, not giving him the space to overtake.”
No matter where in the country you commute on your bike, cycling commuter etiquette is all about being safe and considerate to your fellow riders.
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