John McLellan: Cycling key, but beware the dangers

There are many hazards for cyclists on the Capital's roads. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

There are many hazards for cyclists on the Capital's roads. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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Phone-hacking journalists, greedy bankers, sleazy politicians; it’s difficult to know who’s lower in public esteem. But get behind the wheel of a car and there is even more competition for the “Most Despised on the Planet” award.

I speak, of course, of cyclists. They mount pavements without any heed to the safety of pedestrians, they ignore traffic signals, and they veer out into the road risking their own lives and potentially ruining the life of the driver who knocks them over.

Half of them don’t have lights, wear dark clothing and, hey, who needs a helmet if you just keep your distance?

And don’t forget that holier-than-thou “I’m saving the planet” smugness about them, especially as they glide past 4x4s in all their ridiculous lycra-clad glory.

To make matters worse, they are 
taking up ever more road space, culminating with last Saturday’s Evening News front page about how they are even taking over the pavement at the foot of The Mound.

There will be a fair few readers of this article who will agree with all of the above, and not a few cycling enthusiasts whose blood will be boiling by now.

But the truth is, I am one of the despised. But give me a chance. Yes, I am a journalist, but I have never hacked a phone. Honest.

Yes, I worked in politics and for the Scottish Conservatives to boot, but I didn’t fiddle my expenses or make wild promises of access for cash. Honest.

And yes I am a cyclist, too. I do wear a helmet, use lights, have a bright jacket and am not trying to save the planet. Honest.

In this increasingly congested city, over the years I’ve simply found it to be the best way of getting about and if it means getting a bit of exercise, too, then all well and good.

The increasing popularity of cycling is beyond question – this month’s survey by the Spokes pressure group counted 192 bikers heading north on Lothian Road from 8-9am and 186 heading into town on Forrest Road at the same time. That’s approximately a 40 per cent increase in bike use since the surveys began seven years ago.

What is also beyond doubt is the steady flow of serious injury. In London there were five deaths in the space of nine days earlier this month. Last year in Scotland there were nine deaths, and by the time of the “Ghost Bike” protest at the Scottish Parliament in July seven Scots cyclists had lost their lives.

When you’re a cyclist, it goes without saying that error of judgment costs lives, both by cyclist and driver; the recent video of the cyclist being cut up at Yeaman Place in Fountainbridge was chilling.

So, too, was the footage of riders splayed across the road at Haymarket, victims of newly accessible tram tracks potentially thrown into the path of buses and, eventually, trams.

In my years of cycling to and from Holyrood I was fortunate enough to avoid serious scrapes; the most danger I encountered was a maniac who deliberately swerved in front of me at Viewforth and clipped the handlebar, all because I’d had the cheek to pedal round a double-parked taxi.

The danger, it has to be said, would probably have been from the consequences of catching the driver, which I only narrowly failed to do.

And so this week I conducted my own Edinburgh cycling audit, setting off on Wednesday morning at 8.30 on the well-worn Merchiston-Holyrood route. By bus and foot this can easily take 40 minutes, by car I’ve known it to take half an hour, but by bike it’s as little as ten minutes.

First problem was the rear light. Dud batteries, but as it was light and I had a yellow jacket, I reckoned it was safe to go.

A smooth run down Gilmore Place – well, as smooth as possible across rutted old roadworks and potholes – and on to Home Street brings up the first dilemma: go up Lauriston or hop on to the pavement to nip up the High Riggs.

The coast is clear at the taxi rank so up I go – sorry cycle-haters – on to the broken-glass strewn cobbles and up to the West Port. Technically, Lauriston Street is one-way, but again if nothing is coming it’s safe to cross over and head down to the Grassmarket.

As I head up the hill, a girl in a Fiat pulls out in front of me, forcing me to brake. Par for the course. She stalls at the Victoria Street lights, so maybe she’s just passed her test. No harm done.

The Cowgate is usually hellish for bikes, littered with potholes and the road routinely blocked by brewery or laundry trucks and the early deliveries to the Sheriff Court, but today it’s quiet. Holyrood Road is tighter than normal because of the building work on both sides but there is no real problem and I’m at the Evening News HQ about ten minutes after leaving home. Pretty good.

One advantage of cycling is the ability to communicate easily with other road users. Apparently. I can recall one driver making his feelings known to me very clearly, something about me taking his f*****g parking space, on account of a cycle lane being established where he usually left his white van. Nothing to do with me, guv.

Or a woman standing on the corner of Holyrood Road at 10pm, not trying to cross the road who, when I saw there was nothing at all in sight and went through on red, inquired whether I was f*****g colour blind. No, dear, just doing what millions of pedestrians do.

And so yesterday I saw the unmistakable figure of Better Together chief Blair McDougall marching purposefully down Holyrood Road. I said hello to him from the roadside and he kept on going. Either he didn’t hear me or maybe he’s wary of anyone wearing yellow.

The St Mary’s Street junction is a headache for all road users and yesterday morning was no exception. Try a right turn on a bike and there is traffic coming from two directions to contend with.

Down Jeffrey Street and Market Street is straightforward, not so Waverley Bridge when tour buses seemingly parked are actually at the lights and you end up in the wrong lane for a left turn.

And a car-free Princes Street should be a piece of cake if it wasn’t for being constantly leapfrogged by buses.

Time for a short detour at The Mound to try out the new cycle path designed, we’re told, to “create conflict”. It’s actually designed to allow cyclists to turn left instead of being forced up to George Street, and from what I experienced if you slow down and give way to pedestrians there is no need for conflict at all. A bit like hopping on to the pavement at the High Riggs, or indeed on to the canal towpath at Fountainbridge. If you’re considerate there’s no problem; if you behave like an idiot and think the wee bike pictures on the road entitle you to behave like Chris Hoy on a velodrome you’re asking for bother.

And so to the notorious tram lines to Haymarket. There’s not much room in the lane down Shandwick Place where the wheels are inevitably going in the same direction as the tracks, so you need to keep your wits about you if you’re not to get stuck and fall over.

I guess Continental types are more used to the bike versus tram line contest, otherwise the Dutch would have become extinct decades ago.

Like The Mound, there is a funny slip road for bikes at Haymarket Station which seems to take you into the old taxi rank and brings you out next to the tram stop facing a set of traffic lights at an awkward angle, to the confusion of drivers and pedestrians. What happens when there are trams there is anyone’s guess.

And the future for cycling? No mention in this week’s independence White Paper/election manifesto that I could see and the Scottish Government’s last document on the subject was published in 2010, the same year as the city council issued its Active Travel Action Plan.

Then a target of ten per cent of all journeys being made by bike by 2020 was set, but those 192 rush-hour bikes on Lothian Road this month represented 20 per cent of the traffic.

So maybe that 2020 vision is not as ambitious as it seems.

HOW TO STAY SAFE ON THE TRAM ROUTE

Here is the city council’s advice for cycling along the tram line. In summary, the tracks are made for trams, not your bike, so mind out:

1. Cross the tracks close to a right angle;

2. Keep your wheels out of the tram tracks;

3. Take care when cycling in the rain;

4. Wait for the green light, a tram could be coming;

5. Trams are quiet, you may not hear them until they are very close;

6. Plan how you will cross the tracks;

7. You may prefer to get off your bike.