This day started just like any other day – very early. But today, I didn’t jump on the train to Gatwick Airport to spend a regular day at the Evans Cycles towers. Instead, I steered my bike towards Southwark where I was to meet the cycling cops to spend a day with them.
Inspector Graham Horwood, the bike unit’s boss waited there for me and after he picked me up, we went behind the big office building, which is the home of the unit, to get the bikes. While we quickly prepared ourselves and the bikes for the day, Graham, the leader of the unit quickly explained that there are two “bike units” and that how they differ from each other: their unit consist of traffic officers and their main job is to look after the traffic. The other unit, which is based in the same building, is mainly responsible for bike theft.
We agreed that we were going to “snake” during the day: his colleauge, Mike Hollowell would ride in front of me and he would ride behind me. There was one important rule, however: if they spotted something and decided to chase it, I wasn’t allowed to jump red lights: one of them stayed with me and we were to catch up later. Bummer, there goes my preferential treatment.
Mike and Graham quickly agreed where they wanted to start patrolling and we saddled up. While we crossed Blackfriars Bridge, I asked Graham, how many miles they normally covered a day, so I can prepare myself mentally. “It varies greatly, sometimes it’s only 15 miles, sometimes over 25 miles”. That’s doable distance, I thought, so I was a bit relieved. Because these guys are fast if they want to be fast – nothing reckless, of course, but the pace definitely didn’t resemble to a nice Sunday afternoon spin in the park with the family.
We soon reached Farringdon, where they spotted the first offender: a cyclist, who tried to turn left from Clerkenwell road onto Farringdon road. While it makes perfect sense, a road sign explicitly forbade to do so, thus they didn’t really have a choice: they stopped him and asked him if he knew why he was pulled over. He didn’t see the sign, so Graham started to fill out the paperwork.
I asked how penalties worked. Basically, you get a ticket of £30, but if you were a first time offender, you had the chance pay only £16, if you were willing to complete an online course – on responsible cycling. Our first offender was hesitating, but as he hadn’t had any previous offences, he opted for the cheaper version.
In the meantime, Mike caught another cyclist, who cycled southbound on Farringdon Road and jumped a red light in the same junction, without any scruple. “If a cyclist gets knocked off in this situation, it would be mitigating circumstances for the driver, it could lessen the impact of any offences, because [the cyclist] shouldn’t be doing it” elaborated Graham on why you shouldn’t jump red lights.
We carry on westbound on Clerkenwell Road and suddenly we are surrounded mostly by cyclists on Boris bikes. The situation begged the question: are the Boris bike riders less disciplined than the general cycling public? Not necessarily, as it turned out, they are just as disciplined participants of the traffic as other commuters. However, if someone commits an offence, the number of the Boris bike goes into the report and if someone is a regular offender, TfL could potentially ban that person to participate in the scheme. “How about the couriers? Do they live up to the expectations and commit more offences than the average?”. “Not really”, says Mike, “Most of them are good. There’s always the odd one that keeps going, on a fixed wheel bike and it’s hard work to catch them”.
Until this point, we only dealt with cyclists. But Graham was very adamant on that they are not targeting cyclist only: they wanted to make the roads safer, and from that perspective, it didn’t matter who committed the offence. After a brief encounter with a red Mazda with a flat tyre, I almost became part of a pursuit: a big BMW SUV’s driver was on the phone near Holborn. Mike started to chase him, me and Graham were right behind him, when we ran into a red light. It was the end for me, the guys sped off and caught the BMW at the next light. While technically, they are allowed to jump red lights, unlike police cars and motorbikes, they don’t have the necessary equipment to make themselves seen and heard properly, so if the oncoming traffic is blocking their way, there’s not much they can do.
By the time I got there, they are already filling out the paperwork, the guy admitted that he was using his phone. The officers were treating him just all the other offenders: very politely and respectfully. Within a couple of minutes we let go of him and carry on peddling in Central London. After riding through a couple of quirky backroads, so we can turn right in an orderly fashion onto Clerkenwell Road, we quickly hit Ludgate Circus, where our next offender, another driver using his phone, meets his destiny. This time, it’s a bit more serious. First, he was driving an LGV, so potentially, he could do more harm, and secondly, he was driving one of those lorries, which transport prisoners. I wasn’t aware of this, so when we walked past the vehicle and there were loud bangs coming from inside, Graham nudged me and said that these are prisoners. I thought he was joking but he explained that the prisoners are transported by a private company.
The driver missed his turn and got lost, he was trying to contact his dispatch centre, but transporting prisoners don’t exempt you from the Highway Code: you still cannot make phone calls.
While Graham is waiting for the detailed information on the truck, whether it’s insured and registered properly, he complains, that one of the most common and worst mistake we, cyclists do, is when we approach a big vehicle like that LGV on the left and assume that they can see us. They can’t. Most often, not because they are ignorant or not paying attention but because even with big mirrors, there are massive blind spots where cyclist often “hide”, most of the them oblivious of the fact that she/he cannot be seen. (Check out this video that explains the problem in further detail)
After letting go of the prison wagon, we headed to the City of London police HQ to have a little rest and grab some food. The canteen is dirt-cheap and the breakfast is excellent. As we settle down, two guys from the same unit appear and join in. funny stories were flying back and forth, they all seem to very enjoy their jobs. When I ask why do they like their job, they all agree that being approachable plays a big part. As Mike put it, “If I was on a motorbike, [rider] wouldn’t talk to me, because they feel there’s something between you. But now, on a pushbike, they chat away, it’s really nice get talk to people, to get their views on things. They also appreciate that we are on bikes.”
Soon, we were back in business, roaming on the streets of Central London. For the rest of the day, they predominantly stopped drivers, for various reasons, but the most popular one was still making calls whilst driving. There was one guy who tried to trick Graham into putting his name incorrectly to the ticket, but he sensed that’s something wasn’t right so a quick call the Dispatch gave him the correct information.
The cycling-related part of their shift was about to end, so we slowly headed back to Southwark. Their duties, of course, didn’t stop at cycling around and handing out tickets: they have to write up each and every offence, so if and when it gets to court, they have an accurate record of the events, though it rarely happens, there are few people who contest a £60 fine.
I snap a couple of final photos and then leave the guys to finish their administrative duties. A good day, they concluded, it was a bit chilly, but at least it wasn’t raining. As I take a final glance at the view from their 9th level office, I hear as the Film squad asks some obscure question about fake numberplate in a car insurance commercial. Graham chips in then after resolving the problem, he goes back to his screen. Those reports will not type themselves into the computer.