London cycling in crisis: Now is the time for change

The last nine days have seen five cyclist deaths on London’s roads. On Tuesday last week a man died after colliding with a tipper truck on Mile End Road. The same day a coach and cyclist collided near Holborn; the man died of his injuries on Friday.

On Tuesday a man died after colliding with a bus in Croydon, and yesterday a woman died on Bow Roundabout following collision with a left turning lorry before last night a man died following a collision with a bus in Aldgate. This came amid a spate of serious injuries to cyclists around central London.

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As an advocate of cycling what I have seen over the last nine days has shaken my belief in the notion that cycling in London is safe and I join with the frustration, anger and sadness of the thousand people at last night’s candlelit vigil at Bow Roundabout.

The fact is the new, largely segregated stretch of CS2 from Stratford to Bow, designed to encourage more people to cycle, still leaves cyclists with a hellish crossing at Bow thanks to a lose-lose cyclist priority light system. When the cyclist advanced light goes green, traffic from the right is already advancing at speed.

Cyclists who arrive at the junction later, for the main set of lights, risk conflict with left-turning vehicles from behind. It seems to me there is no safe option as it stands but to cross on foot, and I won’t go near it on a bike.

Andrew Gilligan, London’s cycling commissioner, responded to the fatalities telling BBC London we mustn’t rush into measures that make things worse. We need to change the infrastructure, and urgently in places like Bow roundabout, with time for cyclists to cross separate from traffic, and this can’t happen a moment too soon. We also need to change the behaviour of our traffic.

Yes, things are better than they were in London, but the fact is drivers still fail to understand the danger they put cyclists in by intimidating them. Some still try to ‘teach’ us not to take primary position by beeping or yelling and driving at us at speed.

It is enough to send a cyclist less sure of their right to be on the road into the gutter where they are more at risk from being invisible to the next driver. At least 70% of cyclists I see in London ride so close to parked cars they’re almost brushing wing mirrors. And who can blame them for wanting to stay away from traffic?

I led a friend from out of town around London by bike yesterday, and it made me see London’s roads with fresh eyes. We were heading down Kingsland Road to Bishopsgate. At Shoreditch High Street, faced with three lanes of heavy traffic, including articulated lorries and buses, about to diverge in three different directions, with no space for cycling but what you can fight for, my friend and I got off and walked. It’s bad enough on my own, but I was frankly worried for my friend.

We need to check traffic speeds: in a city whose average speed is less than 20mph traffic still races from one light to the next, creating a thoroughly hostile and dangerous environment. We need better education of both drivers and cyclists that being seen is being safe. We need enforcement against drivers that intimidate and endanger others’ safety.

This is not a war on the motorist, this is a war against the dehumanisation of our city. The vehicle that poisons our air makes it dangerous for our children to play in the streets while condemning its owners to ever-rising fuel costs and misery in traffic jams, subsidised by all of us.

In 1973 Holland reached a crisis point when the stop the child murder pressure group formed, a reaction to increasing space dedicated to cars and in road deaths, especially among children. That started a chain reaction that led, over those 40 years, to the safe streets the country now has.

The recent London deaths, too, have reached out beyond the cycling community. At Bow last night where the London Cycling Campaign once more demanded safe space for cycling, the 1000-strong vigil was the top story for BBC London, ITV London Tonight and LBC, with the deaths making national news, too.

At last night’s vigil, LCC’s Ashok Sinha said: “We urge Mayor Boris Johnson to respond to the anger and frustration clearly felt by Londoners at the recent tragedies by agreeing to prioritise pedestrian and cycling safety above motor traffic flow, both at Bow and at some many other streets and junctions where our lives are threatened each day.”

The mood is ripe for change; now is the time for that response.

Related links
Fifth cyclist killed in London in nine days