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Being a bicycle in the bus lane

By Elspeth Hoskin

Being a bicycle in the bus lane

Getting a bike when I first moved to London five years ago is probably one of the greatest decisions of my adult life. Despite the exhaust fumes, the aggressive Uber drivers and the oblivious pedestrians – cycling to and from work is one of my favourite parts of the day. 


Why? Because it gives me time to think. Sometimes, it’s just about making observations – the transparent trousers of the man in front of me, the epic view crossing Blackfriars Bridge, the bags of leaves in autumn (WHERE DO THEY GO??). But other times, my mind can really wander.


This happened when I was cycling down Kingsland Road, a long straight road with lots of bus stops. It was quiet – just me and the 141. We started together at the same traffic light. The light went green and my speedy legs got me ahead but his brute force allowed him to overtake me. Then he stopped at a bus stop. I sailed past. He caught me up and overtook. Bus stop. Same again. Eight bus stops later and I could sense his frustration, ‘Get out of the way, you don’t belong here, this is my space’. 


It got me thinking. A road can be compared to life. It can take many forms – short or long, uphill or downhill, a backroad full of potholes or a smooth, straight highway. It may have a bus lane. Whatever the road, we are all trying to get from point A to point B, however easy or difficult it may be. Your ability to travel anywhere depends on your transport choice, which works like an upgrade system. Through a combination of pure luck and hard work, you have the chance to move on to something faster along the way. Some people move fast, from bike to scooter to SUV. And the general rule of the road is the bigger your vehicle, the more authority you have. But the system is fundamentally flawed. Depending on your gender, race, background or sexual orientation, some people start off in a sports car, while others have to begin on a bike.

Being a woman means I start on a bike (albeit quite a nice one). And even if I manage to pedal really hard and earn myself a nice Audi one day, there’s another flaw in the system – one that everyone is scared of and not many talk about. If I ever stop and take my foot off the gas for, let’s say one year of mat leave, chances are I’ll get downgraded. Unless I had a designated parking spot, someone else would surely snap up my ride, leaving me with something lower down the ladder.


Yes, this system is unfair. A lot of people fight against it and believe that everyone should start with equal opportunities, but not many others listen. Either because they don’t think it concerns them, or they let their privilege blind them and choose to believe it's not an issue. Of course, the privileged could opt to start on bicycles to level the playing field, but why would they when there’s a motorbike waiting right in front of them?


Now, don’t get me wrong, I love being a cyclist and there are lots of benefits. One of them is that we look out for each other. We tell each other if a backlight isn’t working or if a tyre looks flat. If conditions are bad, we grin and bear it together. If there’s a particularly challenging stretch of road, we offer advice, encouragement and congratulations upon completion. Plus, we are agile. Buses might be faster, but their size means they take longer to stop, start and change direction. If you find yourself on a bike, my advice is, play to your strengths. Take advantage of the quiet routes and cycle superhighways, cut through traffic, wiggle up side streets and fly down hills with the wind in your helmet.


But there are disadvantages.


Sometimes cyclists hit potholes. Sometimes their legs get tired and they can’t face any more of those long uphill struggles. They start comparing their bike to others. They forget the community that supports them and they turn on each other. They arrive at their destination tired and irritable. And do you know what would have been nice? A lift. Someone higher up in the system to recognise the problems and lend a hand. That would be nice.


In an ideal world, we would all be cyclists. Bikes are a gloriously green and perfectly practical alternative to cars. And it would be a whole lot fairer if we were all putting in the same hard work, weathering the conditions together and following the same rules. But let’s face it, not everyone is willing (or fit enough) to cycle everywhere.


Instead, in a more realistic world, we must learn to share the road. We need to respect, tolerate and help each other when we hit any obstacles. Yes, we might be travelling in different ways, but we all have just as much right to be there. So if you’re a driver, throw some words of encouragement out your window the next time you see a bike struggling up a hill. If you get frustrated with a slow bike in front of you, understand that breathing down their neck won’t help them go faster. And the next time you see a cyclist with a flat tyre, offer them a ride.


Why bother? Well, aside from it simply being the right thing to do, we need to remember that different modes of transport bring different benefits for all of us. That cyclist means less cars in your way, less fumes in the air you breathe and less of a strain on public transport. Essentially, when you empower a cyclist, you open up the street for all of us. And when you don’t, we all get stuck in a traffic jam.


So whether you’re out on the road or just journeying through life, take a moment to appreciate your position. Respecting where everyone else is and working together will help us all move forwards.


Either that, or you can just get on your bike.