Got your burka on? Great, let's go cycling!

Too often when I read about cycling and indeed 'cyclists' in our national newspapers it is with a very heavy heart.  I've lost count of the amount of times I've been compared with the anti-Christ by disparaging tabloid hacks merely because of my choice of personal transport. (And hell, it aint my emissions killing 1000s of people in London every year!)  So imagine my surprise when author and columnist Bella Bathurst wrote a piece in The Guardian recently decrying the use of high-vis jackets by cyclists - not because she hates cyclists (indeed, one of her own books is entirely devoted to bikes and bicycling), but because she hates the jackets some of us where...

"No Jacket Required"

"Up in the hills of Perthshire, about 100 miles north of the point at which the Romans gave up, a friend and I took our bikes and set off along the old drove roads. Coming round the corner beside a hill loch, we saw two other cyclists about half a mile away on the far side. It wasn't difficult to spot them; one of the cyclists was wearing a fluorescent yellow high-visibility jacket. There followed one of those perfect British cycling moments. As we passed, we read each others' thoughts. They were thinking: "Amateurs." We were thinking: "Twats."

In that lovely sunlit setting, the jacket looked as silly and discordant as a car alarm. There is no evidence that high-visibility cycle wear prevents accidents. Reflective strips are useful in the city and lights after dark are essential, but high-vis is just a uniform and the point of uniforms is to make people more anonymous. Instead, high-vis has become our modern cloak of invisibility. Stick on a pair of boots and one of those workman's yellow jackets and you could probably wander straight into the MI6 building without anyone giving you a second glance.

The most common cause of injuries to cyclists is hitting opened car doors and I've lost count of the times I've watched some lunatic human banana riding three inches out from a line of parked cars.

The most successful cyclists are those who ride properly and look like themselves. If you cycle along confidently in a purple-spotted cape with a bunch of leeks poking out of your backpack, motorists are going to notice you, and if they notice you, they'll avoid you.

High-vis kit is a ripoff and an eyesore and no one, at any time, needs anything lighter in the hills of Scotland than an open mind. And – perhaps – a bit of money."

Are attitudes towards cyclists and cycling here in the UK changing?  Is riding a bike becoming normalised?  We can hope...  But how sad that, on quiet byways in rural Scotland, someone felt the need to wear such a jacket in the first place.  Indeed, I've lost count of the amount of times I've seen people pootling along the traffic-free Greenway near my house, with fleuro tabards and jackets on, and wondered who exactly they hope it's going to help spot them?  The birds and the bees?

Busy4
A sea of high-vis at last year's SkyRide
 
IMG_6503
Effortless everyday and ordinary cycling, Hackney
 
But my opinion about the people wearing this gear is slightly different to that of Bella's.  I don't think of people who wear this stuff as 'twats'.  I see them as the product of market forces (remember my earlier post about the Public Face of Cycling?) - because let's face it, if there is money to be made in selling fleuro gear, manufacturers will try their hardest to make it seem necessary.  I also think it is very telling that it has become the norm for cyclists to be seen to be protecting themselves from the risk of danger that is wrought upon them by others; it is the 'done thing' to wear your helmet, wear your high-vis kit, cross your fingers and hope for the best.  Which to me points to two things; firstly that even people who are actually out there cycling don't feel especially safe or welcome on the roads, and secondly a systematic failure in equality when sharing the roads is occurring.  If we have to don ridiculous and unpractical clothing merely in order to ward off the unwanted advances of other road users, something is going wrong somewhere... 

You heard it here first folks, high-vis kit is the burka of the cycling world.

P.S If you're at a loose end this evening, why not take a quick ride over Hyde Park to Kensington & Chelsea town hall to hear me speaking on 'Inviting Cycling' - I do promise to try and be entertaining!

33 comments:

Cleo said...

Two things: firstly, it's up to the person in the car to look prior to opening their door into the path of a cyclist, and though all cyclists should ride defensively and with a view to potential dangers, this article appears to place all of the responsibility onto the cyclist, which is false.

Secondly, did the writer of this article stop to think that maybe, just maybe, the cyclists they encountered do most of their cycling through urban areas, perhaps during darkness hours, that their cycling gear was primarily used for that, and that perhaps their useful clothing for cycling around rural areas (windproof, waterproof) etc happened to be fluorescent? All I get from this article (as quoted) is a lot of privilege speaking, and no real thought about the issue.

ibikelondon said...

Hi Cleo,

Thanks for your thoughts. I read this article slightly different to you in regards to the first point - in that I see it as Bella Bathurst saying that in terms of car doors being opened, the onus should be on the driver, not the cyclist, and therefore having to wear fleuro should be superfluous.

As for riding in urban areas in the dark, I agree that lots of people feel safer and more comfortable wearing hi-vis, but the point I think the article is trying to make is that it is a confidence trick; it doesn't glow in the dark and it doesn't reflect light back and is therefore largely unnecessary.

Would you agree though, that in terms of placing the onus of safety on the vulnerable is exactly what high vis gear does in the first place?

townmouse said...

I don't think it's necessary to call anyone a twat, whatever they're wearing! As someone who's made the move from London to the remoter parts of Scotland it did take me a while to adjust to the fact that I didn't need to wear my scary yellow jacket to be visible (and apart from anything else it was the only halfway waterproof thing I had). My only concern is that if you're knocked off your bike, not wearing hi-vis (and a helmet) may count against you, however bright the day. In fact, I even see walkers who feel the need to wear hi-vis because they are walking along the roads - that really is a shame

Personally I am delighted around here to see ANYONE on a bike and I don't care what they're wearing as long as they're pedalling and always give them a cheerful greeting and they always greet me back. Which is part of the reason why I moved out of London in the first place.

ibikelondon said...

@townmouse You're right, of course, that anyone riding a bike is to be commended. And the T word is a pretty strong thing to be throwing around.

I've heard your point about wearing safety gear 'just in case' one might end up in Court one day trying to prove liability, and I can't help but feel that true and common though it is, it is a very sad state of affairs indeed.

Vivian said...

Most of ta have only one jacket, mainly because they are quite expensive. These two people probably cycle in a city every day and they did not feel like spending more money in a "countryside jacket". Remember, they were in the north. You need a jacket there. Always.

My cycling jacket is black, by the way, and I cycle in London!

oneloosenut said...

I have loads of cycle apparel: all that make me look like a twat. Some of it is Hi-vis and if one car has seen me and not hit me, it's worth the £20 that I parted with. The helmet makes me look bad too. But likewise I stopped caring about what others thought of my fashion statements a long time ago.

jamesup said...

I wanted a cycling jacket, if there was a nice blue one that'd be super, but their wasn't, it was hazmat yellow or suicide black...

So yellow it is, and on occasion it's given me an extra bit of help when someone is being an idiot (which on occasion is me).

Philip Loy said...

I feel much safer cycling in my hi-viz underpants, don't care what anybody says.

Slow Rider said...

I feel a lot safer and am much more visible wearing an ugly hi-viz jacket rather than my usual dark clothes. The bright fluoro colour does make it easier for bus, truck and car drivers to see me, therefore I am safer. I don't look or feel very 'cool' (see pic of Hackney cyclist) but I would definitely recommend wearing a hi-viz jacket cycling in certain parts of London.

Kim said...

I agree it is time to end the Taliban approach to road safety, it really doesn't help anyone.

Kim said...

Oh and the burka analogy isn't new, I have been using it for over 18 months now... ;-)

Cleo said...

Yes, I agree that placing the onus on the vulnerable is a good thing (if you know you're going to be in a position of vulnerability it makes sense to maximise your safety). My cycling jacket is fluoro yellow because it was that or pink (insert rant about all women's sportwear being bloody pink here) - my boyfriend has a royal blue reflective jacket that also works. To me they work as splashes of colour that a driver may catch sight of more readily than a grey/black combo - but that's an educated guess.

Besides - you can't very easily by a cycling-fit windproof waterproof jacket (for women) in any other colour...

ibikelondon said...

Hey Kim, I've just seen your post about the Taliban approach to road safety, great minds do indeed think alike! Excellent article.

Vivian said...

Probably the two cyclists here in question live in a city, they cycle to work and they use high viz jackets, which you need mainly in the winter when it gets dark so early. And the jackets are not exactly cheap. Not all of us can afford a "city jacket" and a jacket to match the colour of the countryside!

I'm a bit disapointed at the Guardian for publishing this rubbish!

Vivian said...

By the way, I live and cycle in London and my jacket is BLACK!

philip said...

I returned to cycling last year after a long break. Living in London I was somewhat lacking in confidence. To begin with I wore a helmet and high-vis, which did make me feel safer. After about 6 months I ditched both as my confidence returned. It transformed my cycling experience!

magicroundabout said...

I really don't get this. I agree that anyone cycling is good but you know what, I drive a car too, and as a driver I find it really helpful if people are wearing something that makes them stand out and easy to see.

I wear hi-viz, reflective stuff on my bike starting at around dusk because even the most careful driver could easily miss seeing me.

I wear hi-viz/reflectives on my bike because, as a driver, I've had several occasions where a "bike ninja" has come out of nowhere at me and I've had to react quickly to prevent something nasty happening. (And, note, I reckon I'm a careful driver, and as a cyclist, I'm always on the look out for more vulnerable road users too!)

I wear hi-viz/reflectives because, when I've been driving country roads at night I've come across groups of cyclists on training rides and been incredibly thankful that they're lit up to the max and I can see them a long way off.

I'd love to live in a world where hi-viz wasn't necessary. But what you say, Mark, is right: I as a cyclist "don't feel especially safe or welcome on the roads", and until that changes I'm gonna make myself as safe as possible and encourage others to do so too.

The slow cycling/segregated cycling groups go on about not wearing helmets because they'd rather do other things that prevent them having accidents in the first place. I see wearing hi-viz as a way of preventing having an accident.

There seems to be lots of stats and research on helmets. Anyone got any on hi-viz?

ibikelondon said...

@magicroundabout Quite. I don't see it as the fault of any cyclist that they feel the need to wear this stuff, (we're not into blaming the victim here!) I just think it's sad that it is even necessary. Especially as 'special kit' is just another barrier to cycling. I think reflective and high vis stuff should't be confused. I think reflective material, like decent lights, can be invaluable on a bike, whereas I'd question the need for high vis as it's a bit ubiquitous.

Your right that there's lots and lots of research about helmets (on both sides of the argument) but I've never seen any about high vis or reflective clothing. Be careful for what you wish for mind!

The purpose of this post is not to put a downer on cyclists who choose to wear reflective or high vis gear, more to try and point out that we've got the road safety equation wrong. As I said; "If we have to don ridiculous and unpractical clothing merely in order to ward off the unwanted advances of other road users, something is going wrong somewhere... "

Anonymous said...

Hi-vis is common sense. Rough annual London stats: 10 deaths, 3000 seriously injured, let's estimate 30000 knock-ed off shall we? Duh.

ibikelondon said...

@Anonymous Oh dear, we really brought the tone of the debate down there didn't we? Did you even read the whole article?

If you think hi-vis stops you from being knocked down by lorries which can't even see you (the primary killer of cyclists in London) then I'm afraid you are terribly mistaken.

The stats you provide speak for themselves; 3000 seriously injured. How many of those do you think were *not* wearing high vis? Not many, I should think, considering it's prevalence here. Which just goes to show how f*cked up the whole road safety argument goes.

magicroundabout said...

"If we have to don ridiculous and unpractical clothing merely in order to ward off the unwanted advances of other road users, something is going wrong somewhere... "

You have ideas for doing this in a sensible and practical way?

ibikelondon said...

Lots of ideas, magicroundabout, it's the getting them implemented that's the hard part!

magicroundabout said...

And in the meantime?

Cyclists need to be seen. Cyclists have a responsibility to be seen (see Highway Code rule 59).

Yes, we should be pushing hard for safer roads and better infrastructure, but until we get them I don't think we should be branding hi-viz and reflectives as "ridiculous and unpractical". To me, they are highly practical and effective ways of making myself safer at night. Far from being a barrier to cycling, they ENABLE me to go out on my bike when it's dark.

I think suncream is slimy, smelly and annoying, but, sadly, I need to protect myself from the sun's UV rays.

I think my wellies are uncomfortable and a bit stupid-looking, but my garden's quite muddy and I don't want to ruin my best shoes when I'm digging.

I've been clearing some mess out of my loft recently. It's an enclosed space that gets very hot and is full of irritating loft insulation. But I'm up there in long-sleeved tops, goggles, and a facemask. I look totally ridiculous and get really hot and sweaty but you know what, my eyes don't itch, I don't end up coughing my lungs up and I don't come out in a fibre-glass induced rash.

Sometimes our environment needs us to don protective clothing to stay safe. It might look a bit daft, it might be ubiquitous, but I think people should accept that as a trade off for being a bit safer in a dangerous environment.

ibikelondon said...

You misunderstand me, magicroundabout, my point is that unlike wearing protective gear to avoid breathing in loft insulation, which is right and sensible, high-vis (and not reflective, which is something different) doesn't *have* to be necessary, and indeed in an idealistic world (see Holland or Copenhagen) shouldn't have to be. The point I am trying to make is not that you shouldn't wear the stuff, even if I do think it's ineffective and pretty hideous to look at, but that as the vulnerable party why is the onus on us to protect ourselves from the attacker? We wouldn't say a girl in a short dress deserves to be raped, likewise we should't say people who choose not to wear high-vis gear deserve to be hit by cars. By all means, make yourself visible (I find a good set of lights, an upright bike and riding defensively does the job for me) but let's put more onus on the perpetuators of danger looking out for the vulnerable instead of the other way round.

Yes, high-vis is I am sure sensible in certain circumstances, but it is a sad indictment on the status of our ability to 'share the road'.

Oli said...

I don't understand the rage felt by 'keen cyclists' against hi-viz.

Anything that helps to make a potentially dangerous activity safer is a good thing.

Saying 'we shouldn't have to' is irrelevent - and implies that we do actually need to.

Where are your stats to back up the claim that hi-viz does nothing to protect?

magicroundabout said...

I don't mis-understand you, and I support your more general points. What I find frustrating is that the cycle campaigning people speak so negatively of things like helmets and hi-viz.

Yes, I long for better road safety, more and better segregated infrastructure, and for the onus of our safety to be on vehicle drivers, but we don't have that. I would love to feel so very safe that I don't need hi-viz.

But I don't, and until I do I will wear such things.

And I think the reason I've commented and continued this discussion (and thank you for engaging, I do appreciate your replies and explanations) is that I get a bit fed up of cycle campaigners making me, and others who feel the same way as me, feel like we're "sad", "ridiculous", "impractical" and...in the case of the article you quote, something that's so rude I'm not even going to quote it.

I love being part of the online network of cycle campaigners - you guys are mostly inspiring, informative, engaging and lots of other brilliant things, but every now and then I read something like this that makes me feel like I'm at odds with you guys. Like I'm doing something wrong.

I'd just like a little more respect for people who feel vulnerable and want to protect themselves. There are so many great, amazing, positive things to say about cycling and its potential that I don't think cycle campaigners need to resort to writing negatively.

No further comments from me. Thanks for the debate - you've been very gracious, and I hope my comments have helped in some way.

I'm not off to re-tweet links to your articles about how cycling brings freedom - they brought a smile. :-)

prolix said...

I have enjoyed reading your articles. It is well written. It looks like you spend a large amount of time and effort in writing the blog. I am appreciating your effort. .

High Vis Jackets

Anonymous said...

I think everybody on the road should always weir high visible vests. Especially in the dark or in the winter time. Kids are hard to see in the winter as nearly all their coats are dark of colour. It can safe lives!!! Visible Safety first!!!!


http://www.greensideonline.com/shop/Hi-Visibility_Jacket.html

Unknown said...

These are generally cycling clothing reasonable priced and as soon as you've enjoyed cycling gear clothing one, you probably will never choose to ride your bike without one.

Unknown said...

Cycling helmets are possibly the most important pieces of cycling clothing and should be worn at all times whether you are riding cycling gear clothing mountain biking courses or out on the roads.

Unknown said...

If your jersey is cheap cycling clothes usually too limited, it will irritate sensitive skin zones and and cause you to be itch while riding.

Chimera said...

my doctor says I have to wear a wide brimmed hat in the sun so a cycle helmet is out of the question. I'm very noticeable in the hat. In winter I rely on brightly coloured leggings - being of an age when these are deemed no longer permissible by Jenni Murray &co. Local alcoholic told me she nearly ran into me at night, so I always wear the loomie waistcoat I got free from Calor after dark. Can't someone make some cycling gear (brimmed helmets,summer leggings) for all the people who have to protect themselves from UV?

Automotive Buddy said...

Excellent, well written post. I often find myself screaming at supposedly pro cycling articles and news stories because of their poorly structured arguments full of hole which allow easy picking and justification by the motoring brigade to knock down any augments presented with. Well done.