I had a mechanical malfunction on the bike on Monday – my back wheel managed to lock up as I was pulling onto a roundabout, leaving me stranded. I was fortunately not too far onto the roundabout, and hadn’t made too aggressive a jump into a gap in the traffic, so I was able to get myself and my crippled bike off the roundabout and onto the verge and I even managed to fix it with a minimum of swearing and looking around hoping somebody would come and rescue an obvious damsel in distress.*
Anyway, once rolling again I decided to avoid that roundabout at least until I was certain my bike wouldn’t let me down again. It’s already the scariest bit of my journey into Bigtown – a two-lane roundabout where a major trunk road meets a minor residential road, with the traffic mostly assuming it can go straight on. The only way to cross is to find your gap and go for it as hard and as fast as possible, using all your cyclecraft skills to hold your lane, while simultaneously assuming that you are invisible and hence prepared to either accelerate like a madwoman or slam on the brakes when – regardless of your road positioning, amount of hi-vis or lights visible from space – White Van Man decides to pull onto the bit of the roundabout that you were going to be on next. As it happens, there are toucan crossings on both sides of the roundabout allowing cyclists to cross without having to get the bit between their teeth and ride as if the very hounds of hell were after them, so I resolved to use those instead.
This resolve lasted approximately two trips before I reverted back to the roundabout. It’s not that I want the adrenaline rush or even prove that I’ve as much right to the road as any other traffic, etc. etc. etc. It’s just that I haven’t got all bloody day. And that’s approximately what it takes to use the toucans. For a start, there are two of them, one for each carriageway of the road, and they’re not synchronised in any way, because lord knows, someone might want to cross one half of the road but not the other half and spend the rest of the week standing on a traffic island. For another start, they take forever to change – because we mustn’t impede the flow of traffic to let people cross, now, must we? And for a third start, they’re all caged in with ‘pigpens’ so that even if you cross the first half and see a gap where you could nip through and cross the second you have to manoeuvre your bike around Hampton Court Maze first by which time the moment is lost. Add in another bike – or a pushchair – and the whole traffic island becomes effectively gridlocked. As you stand there, pressing buttons and waiting while whole aeons pass, watching the sun glint off the ‘cyclists dismount’ signs that festoon the shared use paths around you, it’s pretty clear where bikes and pedestrians stand in the great scheme of things. We’re not anything like as important as the grown ups in their cars, swooshing off the bypass up to Glasgow. Indeed, we’re not even as important as the people nipping into the drive-thru McDonalds on the corner.
The part of Bigtown in question is one of the poorest in the county, and one that sees some of the highest bike usage around. The local primary school’s racks are always filled with bikes – even in the depths of winter – and 17% of pupils ride to school. But I’ll bet you when they grow up those kids will get a car as soon as they can afford one. Why wouldn’t they? Everything about the roads around them tells them that’s what they’re supposed to do. If Bigtown really wanted to see people cycling they’d build roundabouts like these – but instead we design cycle facilities as if cycling was like smoking: something a few addicts might do because they can’t help it, but not something to be encouraged.
*not, I hasten to add, that all damsels *need* rescuing, although sometimes they wouldn’t mind.