Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Life in Britain: Transportation

I don't know if this is exactly going to be a series, but I thought that since I had been living in Britain (or at least, to be specific, Oxford) for just over two months now, I would try to comment on some of the quirky or interesting things that have come up.

I'll begin with a vignette from last night to explain why I've chosen this particular topic to begin with.  Tim and I and an English grad student friend all went to the Magdalen Film Society's showing of The Maltese Falcon.  As my friend and I were locking up our bikes, which we discovered were exactly the same make and model, we had a brief discussion about what bike paraphernalia it is wise to leave with one's bike.  For instance, I've made a policy of leaving my helmet with my bike, because it was never stolen all of last year when I biked in to work on campus everyday.  Hardly anyone leaves their helmets with their bikes here for fear of thievery.  My friend also said that she had been told to take her lights with her.

(Interesting point: if you are biking at night, you must have front and back lights or you may have to pay the police a fine - This makes sense, since the roads will almost always be clear here, so cycling all year round is much easier than in Saskatoon, where the roads are covered in snow for a good chunk of the year.  Also, with the time change, it starts getting dark around 4:00 pm here!  You definitely need lights on your bike). 

My lights went missing a couple weeks ago, but I figured at the time that they had possibly fallen off, or maybe been stolen and if so - in my innocence, I assumed this would be a one-time thing.  So again, I was not that concerned.  But what should we discover on leaving the theatre?  Our back lights were gone.  Alas.  So now I am quite seriously considering taking my lights with me from now on.  (Why would someone steal bike lights?  Do they have resale value?)

Other points on cycling in Oxford.  They profusion of bike lanes and bike paths and the relative flatness of the terrain, really make getting around on a bike very simple.  I think it has great advantage over driving a car around town (unless one has a family, or needs to haul stuff around), because you don't need to worry about one-way streets and you can't really get stuck in gridlock.  Oh, the joy of being able to whiz up the bike lane past the backed up cars during rush hour, as they all wait patiently to enter the roundabout up ahead.  Schadenfreude!

Also, the bus is a wee bit pricey here and it would take about an hour to walk down to central Oxford from where we are, so a bike is a great thing to have.  I can get down to the libraries, my college, and the English Faculty in approximately 15 minutes, depending on how lucky I am with traffic lights.

My pet peeve re: other cyclists.  Slow cyclists, especially cyclists who are slow because they are TEXTING!  a) This must be very dangerous and b) if I am hemmed in by cars on my right, so that I can't pass, then I am stuck behind a person who is toodling along without a care for no other reason but that they must see what their friend has written.  This has only happened a couple times, but it raises my ire, let me tell you.

Incidentally, it surprising how easily one can get used to cycling on the "wrong" side of the road.  It really feels quite natural, except that I now have right turns and left turns slightly mixed up in my head.  At home, right turns were easy; now you must wait for a great deal of oncoming traffic.  It seems a bit strange.

As for relations with other vehicles, the cars generally do seem to keep a good eye out for cyclists, and I haven't ever been in peril of being squashed by anyone making a left turn into me.  On the other hand, Tim was hit - very softly - by a car who did make a left turn into him, even though he was just minding his business in the bike lane.  The driver somehow managed to very lightly hit the back of his wheel.  And then drove off after making sure he wasn't injured.  But the damage was done.  The wheel had to be replaced and the necessary expenditure made.

As for being a pedestrian, I've discovered that one tends to cross at corners at controlled intersections (though often the cross walk can be set back a ways from the corner - we noticed this especially in Edinburgh).  However, you don't generally seem to cross at corners otherwise, but at random "islands of safety" set up in the road.  And even then, the cars never stop for you.  You must make your dash very wisely.  I've only found one actual crosswalk in this city, at which the cars do stop for poor, lowly pedestrians.  And that's it.

One last note about pedestrians.  While I sympathize with their plight of not having right of way, I also have an axe to grind with the ones who clog up the designated bike paths.  Sigh.

As for trains, they are uniformly wonderful.  Except when they are full and one can't get a seat.

Future topics of discussion include: food and grocery stores and the weather.

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