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