Cyclists have a bad reputation: riding too fast, running red lights, going against the traffic up one-way streets and clipping the wing mirrors of cars caught in jams. But do they deserve this reputation – and, if so, what should we do about it?
The Independent TD Finian McGrath told the Dáil recently: “A lot of cyclists are truly obnoxious. There is a zeal among cyclists that they are right and all other road-users are wrong . . . They are quick to take offence, but God help you if you criticise them.”
The radio presenter George Hook says today's cyclists "cycled through red lights or across the road at an early age because they were led to believe the rules didn't apply to them. When the same people became bankers or lawyers or politicians, they reckoned regulation didn't apply to them."
Fintan O’Toole’s column in Tuesday’s ‘Irish Times’, in which he wrote about cyclists who hurtle around corners without looking and curse any pedestrian stupid enough not to get out of their way, has drawn more than 200 online comments.
Dublin Cycling Campaign is used to animosity. Its chairwoman, Muireann O'Dea, who cycles to work in central Dublin, says there is an overemphasis on cyclists breaking red lights.
“Most cyclists cycle responsibly, but the small number who don’t are very visible, which causes all the controversy. People driving in Dublin are quite stressed, and they resent cyclists whizzing past them. We’d like to see better behaviour by all road users. If you’re a novice cyclist, it’s very intimidating if a car speeds past you,” she says. “The 30km/h speed limits have made it safer for cyclists, but we’d like to see it extended into the suburbs and around schools. And to see more enforcement of speed limits.”
Mike McKillen, chairman of cyclist.ie, believes much poor behaviour among cyclists is a response to vulnerability in traffic, hostility from motorists and poor cycling infrastructure.
On Pearse Street in Dublin, he points to numerous cyclists using the footpath. “With its four lanes, Pearse Street has all the worst aspects of traffic management. How is a cyclist expected to go from the left side to the right? That’s why you’ll see them cycling on the pavement. It’s wrong, but it’s a response to vulnerability.”
He advocates more cycling training, for both adults and children, and for motorists to learn to respect cyclists – giving them adequate space, not parking in cycle lanes and not cutting across cyclists to turn left, for example.
Chief Supt Aidan Reid of the Garda National Traffic Bureau says prosecutions of cyclists for breaking red lights have risen. “The court service now takes 20-30 summons for cycling offences on the same day, which helps gardaí do their job. Our hands would also be strengthened with the introduction of fixed charge penalties for cycling offences.”
In countries where motorists and cyclists show more respect for each other, much higher numbers of car users also cycle. “I was astonished how well behaved everyone is on the roads when I visited Copenhagen,” says O’Dea. “If a cyclist is crossing a junction, the motorist will wait. I didn’t see any road rage when I was there.”
McKillen says that in Ireland most cyclists also drive but most drivers do not cycle. “It is this stark absence of a large cohort of everyday cyclists from policymaking that leads to a from-the-windscreen view of road safety and traffic management both in the RSA and the Garda. We plead for a change in culture.”