Death of 8-year-old cyclist in Kingston shows need for urgent rethink of London street design

On Tuesday this week an eight-year-old boy, Ali Nasralla, was tragically killed while cycling home from school in the borough of Kingston. 

Tragedy is an overused word, but try reading the sad messages in the video above from his Year 3 schoolfriends without feeling a well of emotion.

According to witnesses, the fatal crash took place outside shops on a side street, near the busy A3 Kingston Bypass. 

At around 3.45pm on Monday the young boy, who was being accompanied by a nanny and his sister, was hit by a black taxi just a few hundred metres from Robin Hood Primary School.

Ali was air-lifted to St Georges Hospital in Tooting, but died the following day.

It’s impossible to know the extraordinary pain the boy’s family must be suffering, but one can’t help wonder if this pain is being compounded by wondering if they did something wrong in allowing their son to cycle to school, even accompanied.

We can imagine that Ali desperately wanted to cycle (kids at that age love their bikes with a passion), and the parents probably thought the risk was negligible.

Whatever their thoughts, the parents in this awful case will know the Mayor of London Boris Johnson is supporting them, because it was less than two years ago that he wrote a typically gung-ho article in The Telegraph hailing the “heroes” who let their children cycle to school.

His article was strongly supportive of a couple in Dulwich that allowed their children, aged 5 and 8, to cycle less than a mile to school (on the pavement, in this instance) against the wishes of their headteacher.

What’s telling about Johnson’s article is that in boisterously supporting these parents in their fight against the “barmy” world of “elf and safety” and “political correctness”, he barely mentions the unacceptable levels of road danger in the streets over which he himself has so much control.

He proudly points out that “London is now one of the safest big cities on earth, with youth violence down 10 percent over the past two years, robbery down 20 percent – and the murder rate the lowest since 1978”.

This is clearly something of a smoke and mirrors trick, because the biggest danger to primary school children cycling to school in broad daylight in London isn’t knife crime.

No, the single biggest risk to young people in this country is from motor vehicles, with road crashes being the largest cause of death and disability for children in the UK.

Yet our Mayor conveniently ignores this very danger over which he presides... 

We know that most adult Londoners themselves won't ride a bicycle on London's streets because of fear of motor traffic (which they say the Mayor has it in his power to change).

So it’s not surprising that many parents in London wouldn’t dream of allowing their young children to cycle on the road... ever!

We can explain all day that the absolute risks are very low (according to available data, Ali is the first primary-school-age child to be killed cycling in Greater London for at least six years), but until we do something radical to our city, most parents will say putting a young child on a road with fast-moving traffic is unacceptable.

The result is that in the UK a tiny 1% of UK primary children cycle to school, while London is facing a £1 billion obesity epidemic, and the nation a long-term health crisis caused by sedentary lifestyles.

There are organisations trying their best to encourage cycling to school, such as Sustrans’ worthy Big Pedal, but if we want to see significant increases in cycling to school, we must start redesigning our streets for people, especially young people.

In the Netherlands, urban planners think nothing of designing vast residential areas entirely around the needs of the family, with the test of suitability being whether a young child can play safely alone in the street.

The woonerf (or 'living street') is a classic example of that – a design that’s been around since the 1970s

Whatever the precise design used, the principle is clear: as Steven Schepel, architect of the Dutch approach, says: “In places with good housing people should drive very slowly.”

Compare this with our current mayor’s approach, which might be paraphrased: “All over London cars must drive without impediment.”

The Dutch approach of 'Sustainable Safety' ensures that when children move from areas where streets have been properly calmed on to busier roads, they're typically provided with high-quality, segregated bike tracks, affording them the necessary safety from a young age.

And this approach works: as well as having the highest proportion of bike journeys in the world for the whole population, the Netherlands has nearly half its primary-age children cycling to school in what are the safest streets for cyclists in the world. 

Here in London, our main roads are mostly no-go areas for young kids, while even streets near schools often get only the tiniest concessions to reducing danger: look how close to Ali’s school you have to drive before there’s a 20mph zone?

Cars are encouraged to drive at 30mph until they’re no more 15 metres from the school gates.

How can this be right?

And the street where Ali died was a one-way street in a 30mph zone, even though it’s directly outside a row of neighbourhood shops.

No-one is blaming the driver (we don't know what really happened), but it’s easy for politicians to dismiss a tragedy like Ali’s death as an unfortunate set of circumstances when the reality is that in many places fatalities have been designed into London's built environment.

Until we adopt a new approach, these tragedies will continue to happen.

The current mayor’s culture of accepting motor traffic flow as the prime indicator of street design success must be banished forever.

LCC’s Love London, Go Dutch campaign is calling on the next mayor to embrace Dutch-style solutions (and those from other successful cycling nations).

Please sign our petition calling for a more liveable city, one that has streets that are safe and inviting for all... especially eight-year-old boys.

Why more children must cycle to school

Health benefits far outweigh risks from cycling

Activity patterns established as children extend into adulthood 

Childhood obesity in London is reaching epidemic proportions

Heart disease is the biggest killer in the UK

Lack of exercise is the single greatest contributory factor to deaths by heart diesase

Other diseases associated low exercise: diabetes, cancer & mental health problems

Replies

This death is a tragedy and my heart goes out to the poor boy's parents.

BUT: I'm afraid I don't think 8 is old enough to be cycling unaccompanied by an adult on the road. Human cognitive development is a subtle process, and at eight, you just don't have the multi-tasking perceptual capacity necessary to ride safely on the road. I agree 8 year olds can begin to learn to ride on the road, but they need to so under adult supervision.

The traditional age of 12 for the rite of passage of the old cycling proficiency test had its value.

Oops. I just reread the story, and he was accompanied. There is obviously more detail to this incident that needs to be understood. But I stand by my previous general point.

 

Were all three mounted on bikes?

 

Maybe we need specific cycle training schemes for adults accompanying children on the road?

Powerful original post. I agree with every word.

I disagree with Douglas Carnell. It is just arbitrary to say that age 8 is too young for children to be cycling on their own. The Dutch have proved it is not too young. It really is all about the design of the environment. The top-quality environments I have seen in the Netherlands make it natural and perfectly safe for children as young as 8, and younger, to cycle to school on their own. We are just massively behind in this country, and need to raise our ambition.

David Arditti

Co-ordinator, Brent Cyclists

  • By tomcat at 09:47pm 09 Mar 2012

Yet another tragedy but this is a rather young one, I am all for cycling and at 75 still use a bike but we live in a CAR world now. The years behind me on the road have left me with some in born reactions which are needed these days but that poor little lad was still taking in what happens on the roads. The LCC do a lot to train people but cannot spread their wings everywhere and yes I am all for the idea that our roads are like the Dutch but then I have been a cyclist from the age of 15, most folk now consider bikes on the road a nuisance so there is a lot of work to do. My heart goes out to the boys family.

Tom Pettengell

My granddaughter is 7 years old and cycles to school most days. She cycles in with my daughter. However, she lives in Crewe and not in London. One of the surprising problems she had was that although she cycles in every day she could not take part in the schools cycle training because she was too young, I hope this is not the case in London.

Maybe we should ask the London schools to teach children cycling skills at a much earlier age than they probably do.

I rode past the flowers left at this stretch of road today - it is two-way for cyclists, and is part of the parallel cycling routes on this bit of the A3 where it runs North/South, but half its width is taken up by parked nose-to-tail cars, so you have to positionally joust for priority with on-coming motors/buses (and adopt primary position with regard to with-flow movement).

I'm so sorry to hear this news. My thoughts are with Ali's family and friends.

As a campaigner and advocate for children's freedoms, I know how hard it is to decide how best to respond to tragedies like this - indeed, I have written on my blog on just this topic.

As someone who has in the past argued [pdf link] for a more positive, thoughtful policy approach to cycling by children, and to more child-friendly neighbourhoods, I have a lot of sympathy for many of the points made in this piece. Nonetheless, I would urge caution on the part of the LCC and other commenters here, for reasons that I hope will be clear from the post I linked to. Please, be sensitive in making any wider points about the episode. To pass judgement on anyone involved seems to me to be particularly insensitive.

This post was edited by Tim Gill at 06:49pm 13 Mar 2012.

II run a cycling youth club.  We coach children as young as 6 and can tell you that some have cycling skills far better than many adults. And many cycle safely with parents and carers to mountain bike and track sessions here at  Herne hill velodrome. Given some Bikeabity training all of us can improve how we cycle in traffic.

We encourage all parents and children to do the Bikeability course - and if you cycle with children to always have them in front of you. Yes I do see adults not doing this. It is the safest way as you can see them and take the lane better if need be.

If the children do  a regular route they will know the way. If there are 2 adults make a child sandwich. There is training on how to ride best with children. It is  available through free and subsidised Bikeabilty lessons.

I am sure we all have an opinion on how safe or not roads are in London. However I do feel that we should not discriminate between different types of road user. We all have an equal right to cycle on roads. And really it is quite inappropriate to blame the victim in this case.   What is the problem here that cyclists are marginalised therefor we should not cycle?

We must be advocates for cycling and in doing so campaign to make it safer. Training is a must however experienced  you think  you are. I see some pretty awful cycling in London - and awful driving. Please do not blame this child for doing what he has a right to cycle.

Streets are for everyone not just motorised vehicles.

@Tim Gill Your comments, and indeed your blog post make interesting reading. However, I hope you'll agree we've been more than sensitive to the needs of the family, and have refrained from passing judgement on the driver when we don't know the precise details of the case.

Our message here is a broader one: that the immediate environment around this child's school provides inadequate protection from motor traffic, as is the case with most schools in the UK. The speeds motor vehicles are allowed to travel turns them into killing machines, while the rest of the street furniture does almost nothing to encourage an appropriate level of caution.

And (at the risk of repeating ourselves) the silent killer is the fact that our children are getting even more dangerously unhealthly every year because they're effectively barred from 'active travel' (cycling and walking) by these very streets that are often little more than conduits for motor vehicles.

  • By Soheil at 10:19pm 10 Aug 2012

Today I learned about the  accident. May god give patience to the bereaved. First Time when I visited London, I noticed how narrow the streets and pedestrian zones are built.

I was like many who have written their comments here not by the the accident of Ali. The fact is that the distance between the sidewalk and a passing car is tight. While Ali was a Adult, he would have had no chance!

If one loses his balance on a bicycle, and in this moment a car drives by, an accident is inevitable. Have look on it by 'Street View' of Google and you'll see what I mean. It's just easy to assign the parents or the children blame. This makes the streets not safer for cyclists. Whether for children nor for adults!

London needs safe bike paths. And for that you need space!

Why must children die first so that speed limits reduced? The laws of physics do not change. The higher the speed the bigger the pulse: P = m.v

Speed ​​limits are the easiest and most effective solution to reduce the risk of londons streets. 

With less speed Ali would have flown less than three feet into the air. And he would have survived the accident.

If the car continues to race next to the foot and bike paths, Ali may not be the latest victim!

This post was edited by Soheil at 10:23pm 10 Aug 2012.

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