Where is the Mayor to soothe cycle death anger?

I can't remember such palpable anger about cycling in London before.  People have stopped me in the street to express their dismay.  I've had a torrent of calls from friends telling of their disbelief.  On the internet there's been a flood of messages asking "When is the Mayor going to act?"

 Police investigators at Bow, following the fatal collision between an HGV and 24 year old Venera Minakhmetova on her bicycle.

In just ten days in London, five people have been killed whilst cycling.  A further four pedestrians have also lost their lives.  Three of those cycling deaths took place on or near Cycle Superhighway 2 where five people have now lost their lives riding since 2011.  One of those deaths was on Bow roundabout where three cyclists have died in collisions involving lorries in two years, on a road layout a Corononer recently described as "confusing" and "an accident waiting to happen".

We don't know yet what happened in each of the deaths over the past 2 weeks, but we do know they all involved large vehicles and most took place on roads or junctions which are known to have a history of cycle collisions.  And what was the Mayor's response?

Clearly perturbed by the negative publicity he was receiving and under pressure, he told LBC Radio:  "There's no question of blame or finger-pointing. That doesn't work in these circumstances...But unless people obey the laws of the road and people actively take account of the signals that we put in, there's no amount of traffic engineering that we invest in that is going to save people's lives."

Boris launching the first substantially segregated cycle superhighway in Straford recently. (Picture; Lucy Young, Evening Standard)

There is a suggestion that one of the cyclists who recently died was on the wrong side of the road at the time of his fatal collision, but poor cyclist's behaviour does not explain away the other deaths, or indeed the raft of fatalities that have happened in London since Boris came to power.

As I told BBC London news; "This is a leadership crisis for Boris Johnson.  He's been encouraging people to cycle in London for 5 years now.  In that time, nearly 80 people have been killed.  
It's not a question of reckless behaviour; people aren't throwing themselves in to the path of danger for fun.  It's a problem with specific kinds of large vehicles, and it's a problem with specific junctions which we know to be dangerous."

If that sounds a bit harsh in the face of Boris being the "cycling Mayor" who clearly understands what a good thing bikes can be, let's take a moment to reflect on what has gone on over the past few years.  As Cyclists in the City blog skillfully outlines, and as the below BBC news package highlights, the cycle superhighways - where 6 riders have lost their lives so far - were this Mayor's initiative.

At their launch in 2009 Boris boasted of his blue lanes "No longer will pedal power have to dance and dodge around petrol power - on these routes the bicycle will dominate and that will be clear to all others using them. That should transform the experience of cycling - boosting safety and confidence of everyone using the routes..."

At Bow roundabout, the London Cycling Campaign were so concerned about road danger there that they recommended the superhighway be re-routed elsewhere.  Transport for London's own consultants expressed very grave concern about the suitability of the site, but were ignored.  A habit of ignorance was to permeate all of Transport for London's cycling plans, as previously highlighted on this blog (and this one), and countless cyclists deaths were foreseen and avoidable. 

Of the problems with Heavy Goods Vehicles that have plagued London's cyclists for decades, and which are responsible for the majority of deaths in our city, Boris Johnson first talked about introducing a peak time ban three years ago.  "[A central London lorry ban would] stop polluting heavy goods vehicles travelling through London and make a real difference" he said in 2010.  

Since then, nothing.

Cycle Superhighway 2 in Mile End failed to protect hospital porter Brian Holt, 62, who died cycling home from work following a collission with an HGV.

I am happy to praise progress by the Mayor and TfL where it is made, as in this post extolling the virtues of the new segregated cycle lanes constructed in Stratford, and I've frequently pointed out to my fellow cyclists the importance of understanding how to cycle safely with trucks.  
But this time it is not just me who is saying out loud that Boris is not doing enough to keep vulnerable road users safe.

The BBC's flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight, looked at road design and cycle safety in depth and asked "Why don't we do more to keep cyclists safe?'  London's Sunday Politics, asking the same question, found in favour of reforming the London Lorry Control Scheme to effectively introduce a peak-time ban of trucks.

Conservative MP for Finchley Mike Freer said "We do have to look at the black-spots, there are clearly problems with Bow roundabout.  ...just cycling down a piece of blue paint doesn't make me feel any safer."

In an open editorial The Mirror newspaper wrote "it is not inevitable that more cycling will lead to more cycling accidents" under the headline "...cycling safety is imperative..".  

The editor of The Times wrote "getting on a bike and pedalling it for a few miles along a British road should not be such a potentially life-threatening activity. 
...while the new so-called superhighways can justly be criticised as little more than strips of road painted blue, the mayor’s pledge of almost £1 billion to overhaul provision in the capital, where possible keeping cyclists apart from the cars, buses and HGVs whose current proximity can be so threatening, is less easily dismissed. Such investment will be money well spent. Given the recent tragic toll, the fruits of such investment cannot come soon enough"

Shadow Infrastructure Minister Lord Adonis has called for an urgent review of the Cycle Superhighways programme, whilst the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe described HGVs as "killing machines", urging caution from all road users.

"Boris Johnson accused of dodging responsibility over cycling deaths" rallied The Guardian newspaper, with an eye-watering video documenting the experience of riding on the Mayor's flagship Cycle Superhighway 2.

Most damningly of all, an Editorial in the pro-Johnson London Evening Standard stated: "This is a question of political will, not physical road space: other changes to our roads once branded unthinkable, such as bus lanes and the congestion charge, are now accepted parts of the system. London is a working city with a multiplicity of road users — cyclists, pedestrians, car and lorry drivers. Yet it should be possible for all of us to share the roads, given decent provision and mutual consideration. We can be a cycling city to rival any other in Europe: we just have to want to make it happen."

The tragic front page of London's Evening Standard on Thursday (image via Cyclists in the City blog)

London's architects, following the death of prominent planner and cyclist Francis Golding, came out in support of the London Cycling Campaign, stating "there has never felt a greater need to urgently address our roads". 

Over 25,000 concerned Londoners have signed a petition welcoming the recent investment announced by Boris Johnson but urging him to act quickly and decisively.  Thousands have joined the London Cycling Campaign in emailing the Mayor asking him to act.  1,000 of people surrounded Bow roundabout in protest last Wednesday, whilst grassroots activists are organising a vigil and "die in" at Transport for London HQ this Friday.

In short, all of London is waiting for the Mayor's response.

If he wanted to he could really put the screws on TfL, fast-tracking plans for his east-west "Crossrail for Bikes" which currently will not even be consulted on for several months.  He could define a timeline for his recently-announced north south cycle route which is currently uncosted, unplanned and with no fixed deadline.

Johnson's planned north - south central superhighway from Elephant to King's Cross has no set timetable for delivery.

And as an interim measure, he could look very seriously at wider 20mph zones in central London, urgent reform of the capital's most dangerous junctions, and introduce the lorry ban he has been mooting since 2010.

Instead, he chose this week to run scared with his focus on red light jumping by cyclists, in an attempt to deflect the glare of publicity around his own glacial progress.

These dangerous junctions and dangerous lorries are not going to go away.  If he wants to remain credible as "the cycling Mayor", Boris must act boldly to soothe London's cycle death anger. 

We're waiting.

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Andrea said...

Let's have an epic goal for the 29th November: 100,000 people, from all types organisations: road safety, air quality, civil liberties, etc.
A clear objective: for TfL to drop its "smoothing traffic flow" mantra and adopt the following:
Provide safe, healthy, fast and inexpensive transport options to all Londoners.

Russell Gowers said...

I agree with some of your article and disagree with the rest.

Certain junctions are dangerous for inexperienced cyclists, Bow Roundabout being one (and Waterloo Roundabout being another - using it frequently as both car driver and cyclist, I'm surprised there aren't more incidents here. But I digress) We know this, and something must be done about these points in order to make them safer for cyclists and clearer for motorised vehicles.

But here are some points I take exception with:

- "raft of fatalities" - really? Sixteen deaths per year are sixteen terrible personal tragedies for the families and loved ones of the departed. But this is not a "raft of fatalities". More yearly deaths occur from falling off cliffs, and nearly as many from dog bites.

- "Wider 20mph zones" - what would this solve? How many of the most recent deaths have been caused by drivers travelling in excess of the speed limit?

I believe that the lion's share of issues occur at choke-points, where different types of vehicle are forced into close proximity. Traffic lights, roundabouts, filter lanes. The number of times I've nearly been knocked off on Putney Bridge, because the stupid cycle lane forces me to cut in front of two lanes of traffic if I want to turn right, is ridiculous. This is what we should be focussing on, and not speed limits - and in this respect I would suggest that TFL's "smoothing traffic flow" mantra is wholly appropriate.

bikemapper said...


I have just seen your performance on Newsnight (courtesy of the other Mark). Totally awesome, man! Brilliant stuff.

Hat off to you, sir, hat off to you.


Paul M said...

I suppose there is something in what Russell (above) says, in that statistically the number of deaths is small and dog bites, falling off ladders, even playing golf might be more dangerous statistically. However, what I want, and I have always assumed you want, is to have an environment in which people's perhaps irrational fears are addressed, so-called subjective safety, which is best achieved by separating cyclists from motor traffic where necessary and integrating it with heavily controlled, restricted and calmed traffic elsewhere (which is where 20mph comes in).

I am never entirely sure whether raising road danger is productive or counter-productive. No doubt some people will say that we are scaring people off, but conversely highlighting the dangers is probably the only way that we are going to make anything change.

So, Mark, what do you think of the proposed "Die-in" at Palestra on 29th? I am quite keen to participate in that and I have signed up, but am I going to frighten the horses if I lie down in Blackfriars Rd? Also, is there a risk that the protest will be ridiculed, or will simply piss off too many people we are looking to for support? Is this in fact our Stop der Kindermoord moment, or not?

Fred said...

Dear Boris, Firstly cyclists usually found not to have contributed to their accidents by jumping lights, not wearing helmets or avoiding hi vis (or in fact any other poor cycling). In fact lorry drivers texting instead of checking their mirrors is a bigger issue than the lot of those combined. Secondly, we put in central reservations, air bags, crumple zones and seat belts to protect drivers from their own mistakes and the mistakes of others - why can't we do something to protect cyclists and why is there absolutely no provision for a pedestrian to cross bow roundabout safely? Surely it's not a crazy suggestion to allow people to cross the road without dodging HGVs. Fred

Michael J said...

Bow Roundabout is unbelievable. This is the only crossing point for pedestrians, bike riders or motor traffic of the A12/A102 road for a mile or so. Additionally the other crossing points are either via very winding routes through industrial estates, or via other major road junctions.

Essentially someone living at Bow isn't able to walk to the shops at Stratford High Street only a mile away.

East London is full of these barriers to walking and bike riding - the Lea River and various canals, the A102/A12 (M11 Link Road), and further out the North Circular. More safe motor-vehicle-free crossing points are urgently required. Bow Roundabout is just an example of the complete disregard road planners have had for people walking (and the elderly, families with children, etc)

Unknown said...

Super article, don't let up as cyclists rights to a safe journey are no less than those traveling by car or public transport.

Cycleccino said...

Good blog, well explained. Here's mine on the factions of cyclists and drivers.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Mark.

In a difficult fortnight, it's been heartening to see the likes of you, Rachel Aldred, Danny Williams etc...presenting sensible views on national platforms. I particularly loved the stats you ended with on Newsnight!


Anonymous said...

As I understand it, the argument is not that cyclists disobey the road signals, but that road users do. This seems honest and fair.

secondly, it looks like cycling deaths are lower than they used to be?

Am I missing something or is this a knee jerk reaction to a particularly bad week?