If there’s one thing I didn’t miss while being away from London for three months, it was the increasingly common, always grim news of another cycle death in the capital.
In this short time away from the city we call home, no less than five cyclists died on London’s streets, the latest being Moira Gemmill, who died in a collision with a Crossrail tipper truck at the notorious Millbank / Lambeth Bridge roundabout.
This week, I and hundreds of her friends, colleagues and fellow cyclists attended a ‘die-in’ vigil at the spot where she died. It’s not the first ‘die-in’ I’ve attended, and I fear it won’t be the last. Cycle campaigners from London Cycle Campaign and Living Streets spoke passionately about the urgent road safety issues that this needless, tragic death raises, while a colleague spoke movingly about Moira’s life and work, including the amazing impact she had at the V&A Museum. She was, by all accounts, a brilliant and hugely talented woman and will be much missed.
After the speeches, we lay down our bikes and lie on the tarmac surrounding the roundabout for a couple of minutes, reflecting on her death and creating a powerful visual representation of the unnecessary, life-threatening risks we face while riding on London’s busy, fast, cramped roads.
While it’s true that ‘danger’ is a hard thing to quantify and is never that far away (a coach crash while we were in Vietnam left ten dead; the Mekong boat route that we took in Laos recently experienced a fatal sinking), it’s also true that the dangers faced by London’s cyclists and pedestrians are unacceptably high, and mostly avoidable.
All too often, roads and junctions are designed to facilitate the needs of the motorist, and engineered to ensure the fastest movement of traffic around the city. This makes far too many of our roads and junctions unsafe for cyclists and pedestrians. Add that to a big increase in the number of cyclists in recent years, and continued traffic growth (with no restriction on the number of dangerous HGVs roaming the city’s streets) and it’s clear that something has got to give. That something is road space for cyclists. The ongoing Space for Cycling campaign in London is calling on TFL and our ‘cycling-mayor’, Boris Johnson, to actually spend and deliver on their promises of segregated cycle lanes and improved junctions, re-designed to keep all road users safe.
Coming back to London after three months away on the seemingly chaotic roads of SE Asia at first made me think that perhaps if we all adopted Asian style driving etiquette, it might be safer for cycling, but now I realise the driving cultures are just too different for that transformation to ever happen.
SE Asian traffic flows like a river – not stopping if at all possible, and never doing anything suddenly. There is order in the chaos, and everyone plays by the same rules. London drivers sit impatiently at red lights and then floor it on green; they see a rare bit of empty road space and accelerate into it; they see a light on orange, about to go red, and speed right through it. Lorries bomb past you, not at 20mph, but at 30 or even 40mph, rarely giving you safe clearance. The 20mph speed restriction painted in huge characters on the tarmac is universally ignored.
And it’s also true that, as a cyclist, I feel more impatient, more ‘competitive’, and take more risks on London’s roads, particularly when they’re busy, both with vehicles and other cyclists. The sense of having to compete for road space, and assert yourself in the face of driver aggression and encroachment, surely contributes to this mentality. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that you’re not, in fact, in a (rat) race to get to work, and just take a few seconds to slow down and breathe.
SE Asian traffic tends to be a mix of motorbikes, kids on bikes, a man walking his cattle to market, and the occasional coach or lorry. London traffic, on the other hand, is dominated by vehicles – cars, buses and, most noticeably, lorries. Take the lorries away and the roads suddenly feel a lot safer to cyclists; that’s because they are. All five London cycle deaths this year have involved HGVs.
When you collide with a lorry, your chances aren’t good. In SE Asia, while accidents on urban streets are indeed common (I witnessed three in three months there), collisions tend to be minor ones between scooters, and at relatively low speeds. Cuts and bruises rather than severe injuries and death are the most likely outcome, although of course all accidents are best avoided if at all possible.
So, for London, since it seems unlikely that we’ll abandon our addiction to high speeds, aggressive driving or frustration-inducing traffic control measures, we must instead make our streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians right now, in the only way we can: create dedicated, safe ‘space for cycling’ (segregated cycle lanes), and ban or restrict the number and movement of HGVs in the capital, especially during the morning and evening commuter rush hours. No more excuses or delays.
In the longer term, we need to cut traffic speed and try and change our driving culture to one of consideration rather than competition (perhaps automated, driverless cars will one day see things change more radically…)
It’s all the more galling and appalling that the junction where Moira Gemmill was killed had been recommended for improvement by TFL three years ago, but the plans were rejected by Westminster Council, and no new ones drawn up. That’s a failure all round, and needs urgent attention, along with all the other notorious junctions.
Cycling in London isn’t as fun, and certainly doesn’t feel as safe, as cycling in Hanoi, Phnom Penh or even Bangkok, which is bizarre when you consider all the rules, regulations and ‘traffic management’ systems we have in place here and which these Asian cities mostly lack.
Creating safe, segregated space for cycling is perhaps the only way we can improve things.