London cycling death toll is utterly intolerable

Opinion piece by LCC Chief Executive Ashok Sinha

(First appearead in the Guardian Bike Blog on 14th November 2013.)

 

Shocked. Appalled. Angry. As a cycling campaigner you steel yourself for the news of yet another cyclist being killed or seriously injured in a collision with a motor vehicle on London’s streets.

But the news of a woman being killed on the notorious Bow roundabout on Wednesday shook me. Maybe it was because it was the third such death at Bow. Maybe it was because the London Cycling Campaign has consistently warned the mayor that his ‘early start’ traffic lights are flawed. Or maybe it was because we have now seen five cyclists killed in collisions in our city in just over a week, with a spate of others being hit and now fighting for their lives in hospital.

Unusually, this morning I woke up wondering when the next fatal collision might be. It wasn’t long before I received a text saying another cyclist had been killed late last night in a collision with a bus on cycle superhighway 2.

This death toll is utterly intolerable. One struggles to imagine the pain of the bereaved family and friends. Why should the simple act of using a bicycle to travel to work, school or to meet friends carry with it such risk? Would we tolerate this if the same risks were attached to tube travel, or driving?

Last night, the London Cycling Campaign ran a ‘flash protest’ at Bow, in reponse to another death at the roundabout. During this sombre yet passionate gathering of around 1,000 cyclists who responded to our last minute callout I spoke to several cyclists who were waiting at the traffic lights to cross Bow roundabout. They hadn’t heard about our action; they weren’t there to protest: they were simply on their way home after a long day's work. It wasn't a scientific survey, but every single one of them I spoke to said that crossing that junction was a test of nerve and awareness.

Some said they found the new signals confusing. Others said they ignored them as the best way to protect themselves. Others said that after the latest death this would be the last time they used this route. One even said he’s had enough and would be mothballing his bike. Each individual was outraged that we, as a city, do not treat this death toll of cyclists – and indeed pedestrians – as a citywide emergency.

Mayor Boris Johnson has to answer some big questions. Londoners have given him the privilege of immense power and budgets, and we want to know when the dying will stop. To his credit, the mayor did heed the calls of our Love London, Go Dutch campaign, and has taken the first step to install properly protected lanes on the cycle superhighways (blue paint has had its chance) – as well as putting big money into better provision for cycling. But – and this is a big but – will he put safety ahead of his policy of ‘smoothing the flow’ of motor traffic?

Our proposals to install safe crossing for cyclists and pedestrians at Bow were rejected because they would delay motor traffic too much. This is the nub of the argument: until the mayor and all London’s politicians realise that a human life is worth more than a few extra seconds on a journey, we will not reach the goal of a civilised ‘cyclised’ city that the mayor wants, and which we support him in trying to reach.

Until this realisation happens, more parents will not come home to their children, and more parents will bury their children. All because the victims exercised their right to cycle on London’s roads but were not given the protection they deserve.

Johnson can send a crystalline signal to everyone that he 'gets this' by putting in safe crossings at Bow, removing Aldgate one-way system, and providing protected space in the section of superhighway 2 that connects them. This would transform this stretch of road into an example of the highest possible standards in cycling safety.

That would be the best way he can respond to the families of those who have so tragically lost their lives there and give confidence to everyone out there, cycling today on London’s streets.

LCC is running a petition called 'Tell the mayor to stop cycling deaths now'

Replies

  • By Noemi at 2:14pm 15 November 2013

It is time for the LCC to be serious about going DUTCH. Going Dutch can't be just about segregated cycle paths but requires a fundamental change in the law. Just as on the continent and especially in Holland those operating vehicles especially HGV, and especially in a professional capacity, should have a legal duty of care towards more vulnerable road users.

One of the most shocking aspects of the Bow roundabout tragedy is that the previous two fatalities had NO legal consequences for the drivers. In one instance it was he lack of proof that the driver didn't indicate which was sufficient to throw the case out of court. Not that there was proof that he indicated NO there was no proof he didn't indicate.

In what other area of professional conduct is it possible that your inattention has fatal consequesnces for innocent passer-bys yet you face no legal consequences face. Come on LCC time to be bold and ambitious.

  • By valuigi at 2:26pm 15 November 2013

 

Boris is a disgrace. For pro cycling campaigners to ask him to 'say something and respond', or to say ‘lets send a message’ is ridiculous.

 

He's happy to talk all day long about how he's going to do things, how the money is a few years away, blah blah blah.

 

Its about doing things NOW.

 

There is CHAOS on the roads. Five people, dead, in nine days. The mayor has absolutely no grip on the problem, he is compeltely floundering, and all he can talk about is how he is going to invest, one day over the rainbow.

 

The time for talk is OVER. We want action NOW. Not in a few years. If I hear one more Boris speech about how he's going to invest a billion pounds in a few years time, about how he has a ‘vision’, about how its all just around the corner, tantalisingly within reach, just hold on a little bit longer, I will personally pelt the man with an egg the next time I see him for the sheer insult to our intelligence as Londoners that is.

 

I want the roads fixed IMMEDIATELY. He's had SIX YEARS to do something, and its going to be many more years before the amount of MASSIVE INVESTMENT necessary will be built. Not just a little bit of investment, a splash of blue paint, I mean ALL OF IT. BUILT IMMEDIATELY. PROPERLY.

 

When will you cycling campaigners ever get it?

 

Boris is NOT on your side. He is IDEOLOGICALLY OPPOSED to thoroughly investing in public services. He will talk about investment, but he wont CARRY IT OUT NOW. His connections in the motor industry and the oil industry want cars and lorries prioritised, cyclists are just not as important, and that is how it will always be, it will never change, UNTIL YOU VOTE THE MAN OUT.

 

Remember this come the day of election. Remember how angry you felt when you heard the news of those deaths. Never forget.

 

You can plead with Boris all you like. You can protest all you like. But it will NEVER CHANGE. The only way to make REAL change happen, it to VOTE HIM OUT OF OFFICE for his disgraceful manipulation that are DIRECTLY leading to the un-necessary DEATHS of cyclists.

 

With Boris, its not what he says, its not about how he looks, its about WHAT HE DOES, and what he does is give speeches about how he loves cycling, talks his vision, about this mysterious one billion pounds, and then actually goes out and spends just a few thousand pounds instead, painting the roads blue. So much for the one billion. He hasn’t done anywhere near enough in his six years, nothing like the comprehensive investment that are causing cyclists to die through incompetent road layouts.

 

Vote him out. People are dying, action must happen now, and Boris Johnson, Conservative career politician, is NOT the man for action, as six years of talking and ludicrous blue paint lanes have shown.

 

Imagine a different kind of mayor. Imagine someone who would right now be facing up to this challenge by putting himself AT THE FRONT of the debate, with maximum publicity on television, instead of cowering with short paragraphs in newspapers or lame local news interviews where he SHOCKINGLY and SHAMELESSLY blames cyclists for bad driving, fully aware that this is a distraction from the true issue that so many roads are poorly designed.

 

Imagine a mayor who could actually LEAD London on this issue, who right now would be standing up and saying ' I am going to be getting things built right now, I have approved the funds, we go to work on the roads immediately'. When this problem started happening years ago, I immediately committed to planning and investment, and now the plans and designs are READY TO GO we can start building TODAY.

 

No, you dont have a mayor like that. You have a Tory mayor who makes you shrug. A Tory mayor you like to plead with for help, and a Tory mayor who pleads back with you that he’s trying his best, but who then walks away, and FAILS to spend the money necessary for the public investment, so his Tory party can keep the cash, and instead cut taxes for millionaires.

 

This is an issue that goes all the way to the top of the Conservative party, from the leader of the Conservative party in London Boris Johnson, through to the leader of the Conservative party sitting in number 10, David Cameron, who has has been slyly silent on this issue, pretending as though he has absolutely no influence over the money and budget for investing in the state of roads in the capital of the country he governs. Where is Cameron on this? Hiding.

 

Don’t believe the divisive tactics by the Conservatives use on this incredible issue. The drivers blaming the cyclists. The cyclists blaming the drivers. This is exactly the same tactic as blaming the poor for being poor.

 

We are all on the roads trying to get to where we each need to get to each morning. I cycle every day. I like drivers. Drivers like cyclists. We work together to use these poor roads every day, to go about our daily lives together. We are UNITED in our desire to get to our places of work and education as quickly and safely as possible. It is the ROADS that are poor, the ROAD DESIGNS that leave us frustrated. As a western democracy, as an apparently global world city, it is disgraceful how poor our road design is and the failure of those in power to fix it.

 

You won’t read this sort of thing in your Evening Standard newspaperson the tube Londoners, because its the truth, and the truth is not what they want to print, they don’t want you to feel ANGER at thos who are RESPONSIBLE, that those in charge are currently allowing to happen, they want you to believe it is a sad but inevitable part of life, which it absolutely is not, we DO NOT have to accept these INHUMAN road designs, newspaper readers have to FACE UP to the truth.

 

You have two years to remember this. Two years to polling day. There will be many distractions in the meantime. They will tell you its all about to get better. Tell you how all the other candidates are terrible, how the world will collapse if you vote for anyone else except the Tories. Just vote for us one more time.

 

Don’t you believe a word of it. They’ve shown their hand, and now the game is up. The question is, as a voter, will you remember? Remember how you felt. Remember the anger you felt at the COWARDICE and PRETENCE of those in charge like Boris Johnson and David Cameron.

 

Never forget.

 

  • By anita at 6:39pm 15 November 2013

That Boris hasn't got a clue is obvious, and that he represents the motor industry is also obvious. Perhaps a large, noisy demonstration outside his office will help slightly?

 

That one cyclist dies is a tragedy for the individual and the family. That 5 have died in 9 days is utterly ghastly and the most impassioned and eloquent outpourings of sympathy I could muster couldn’t touch the families of those so cruelly cut down on London’s roads this week.  

 

So what is to be done? Do we really expect any government, left or right to be able to wave a wad of taxpayers’ money at the problem and suddenly make it safe for us to cycle London’s streets? Is it just a wave of sensational journalism, playing on our voyeuristic fascination at the thought of a crushed human being? The photo of the mangled bike, the video of the victim, back from the dead? Is it just political posturing, lining us up for the next election?

 

If this is a catalyst for Boris to ‘act now’, what will he do? What can he do? Forget the motives, what are his options? Should he really be spending disproportionate sums of money to protect a tiny minority who freely make the choice to take a risk, when there are plenty of other deserving causes chasing a limited pool of tax money? What about the homeless, the abused, the displaced? Do we cyclists barge them aside in the queue for government handouts?

 

Yes, I did say that we freely take risks. Cycling is inherently dangerous. If you propel yourself along a crowded thoroughfare at 20 mph with no more to protect you than a plastic hat and a thin layer of lycra, then you are taking a risk. I don’t suppose we do this consciously as we set out in the morning on our bikes. Nor do we when we get in a car, or walk on a pavement. Maybe we do when we take our bikes to the top of a hill and tear down just to feel the wind of freedom in our thinning middle-aged hair and the life affirming fear of death.

 

So how does Boris, or anyone else take the risk out of cycling in London. Make it like Amsterdam? How? By removing 7 million people? How do you tame the snakes’ nest of roads that entwine our capital? Please spare me the sanctimonious whining from cyclists demanding action, spare me the party political posturing and the attempts to win photo-journalism awards out of heart-breaking images. There are certainly things that can and should be done and all power to LCC for promoting them. Motorists can do better too. But that is not the answer and maybe, dare I say it, it could be part of the problem. For as long as cyclists look to someone else to keep them safe, they become yet more vulnerable.

 

Only by taking personal responsibility for not becoming another dreadful tragedy will I dramatically improve my chances. If, for a moment, I think I have been made safe by a piece of blue road or a box with a painted picture of a bike, then I am more likely to die. I know Bow roundabout is a lethal killer; I need no more evidence. I will not cycle around it. Lorries turning left are dangerous. Lesson learnt the hard way. Wet leaves and thin, slick tyres are a bad combination. I have the bruises to prove it. Buses pulling into bus stops; cars pulling out of junctions; pedestrians on iPhones. Unless I am prepared to take the risk and to do my best to anticipate these things, I should give up cycling.

 

If there is anything to come of the tragedy of the last 9 days, I don’t want it to be that Boris wastes our money on fruitless schemes that try to garner votes but just dull our freedom. I want freedom and the price of freedom is risk. I want life and the price of life is death. Just not yet, if I can help it.

 

  • By rlkswan at 1:35pm 16 November 2013

This is a good video, maybe LCC should sponsor some more:

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/video/2013/nov/15/cyclist-london-cycle-superhighway-2-video

Shame you missed participation in the Newsnight interviews last night, Ashok.

 

Monday 18th November And then there were 6.

How many more have to die? I have taken to telling people rather fatalisticly that it is only a matter of time before a skip lorry gets me.

I am a Dutch woman and would like to add some Dutch facts to this blog, because my country gets mentioned a couple of times. The Netherlands have +/- 16 million inhabitans. 13,5 million own a bike. Going to work or school on bike is very common. On an average working day 5 million cyclers have 14 million cycle-rides (to work, school, sportsclub, supermarket etc). We have +/- 35.000 kilometer of special bicycle path.

Each year - unfortunatly - we have:
180 cyclers killed in traffic
1700 cyclers seriously injured in traffic

The Dutch cyclers union is off course trying to influence national and local government for (even) more action. A new trend is accidents with electric bikes. Usual used by elderly people who go way to fast with those electric bikes.

I think that British drivers (both car and lorry) just are not used to cyclers. And I assume when they take lessons for their drivers license they are not trainend for this. Dutch people are used to watch extra careful for cyclers. Especially because Dutch cyclers are a wee bit anarchistic. Driving through a red traffic light (usually if there is not a car in sight) is for instance not uncommon. Of course parents do set a good example and would not do that in front of their children!

Dutch traffic law is interesting: you have two kinds of liability: 'guilt liability' en 'risc liabilty'.  An accident may not be the fault of the cardriver. Yet he is 'risc responsible' because the cycler is a more vulnerable party in traffic. Foreigners tend to react 'emotional' when I explain this to them. 'So the accident is not my fault yet I/my insurrance has to pay?! Yep! :-)

What does it cost? The Dutch spend 400 million euro per year on cycle infrastructure. The Danish and Flemish have simular figures.

Ik think every cyclist in London is very brave! Real pioneers. Personally, I would be scared to bike in London! Be careful!  

If it comes to accidents with lorry's: this is information on the Dutch cyclist union website:

"Since January 1, 2003 is the blind spot mirror is mandatory for all trucks. The Cyclists Union has fought years to get this done. There were thirty annual fatalities among cyclists and pedestrians because the truck driver could not see them in a turn. Fateful accidents? No, a large proportion of these accidents were preventable. According to the Cyclists Union by better mirrors or a camera is the 'blind spot' reduced for trucks. A plate between the wheels (solid valance) prevents cyclists to come under the wheels. The dense valance is not yet mandatory."

This post was edited by dutch cyclist at 8:55am 19 November 2013.

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