Death rides a bicycle: Why is riding a bike so often lethal?
Cyclists make 570,000 journeys each day in London – and every one of them could be their last.
A "ghost bike" tribute to Min Joo Lee. The 24-year-old fashion student was killed by a heavy goods lorry in a bike crash in King's Cross, London. Photograph: The Times/News Syndication/Mikael Buck.
“I’m determined to turn London into a cyclised city – a civilised city where people can ride their bikes safely and easily in a pleasant environment”
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, Cycling Revolution London, May 2010.
Close to my house in Lambeth in central London, there is a road junction where, once a week, I nearly die. The other day, while I was waiting to turn right to cycle up North Street, as the traffic on Wandsworth Road blasted towards me on the left and past me on the right, an HGV driver miscalculated his angle and aimed his lorry straight at me. There was no gap for me to escape into on either my left or my right. All I could think of doing was to stare at the windscreen of the lorry that was going to kill me and use mind control to make him shift his wheel or just hope that he was going to see me and do it of his own accord. It was all so fast – and I never saw my potential assassin – but one of these things happened and he adjusted his course. I shivered as he barrelled past.
The following day, I was at the same junction, waiting again to turn right. The lights had just changed to red, so I pushed down on my pedal to make my turn before the traffic moved against me. Suddenly, a boxy red Cadillac overtook a bus and was about to speed through the red light and kill me – but the driver at last saw me and managed to stop with a foot or two to spare. Shaking my fist and imprecating the sort of loud, meaningless sounds that come out of one’s mouth in these situations, I went up the hill in some kind of safety.
Having endured several experiences of this sort at this junction in the past, I have learned mostly to avoid this situation but sometimes – when the timing is off, the morning conspiring against me – it’s unavoidable. Usually I’d wait for the pedestrian green man to go on in all directions and then turn slowly, giving precedence to any pedestrians. This is one of the rules I ride by: if I’m breaking the Highway Code, I’m not going to impede, alarm or scatter pedestrians when they have the right of way. If, to avoid a greater evil, I happen to be temporarily on the pavement, then I will be courteous and apologetic as I make my progress. They have priority but my first imperative as a cyclist is to carry on living.
My most recent near-death experience was, unusually, the result of the negligence of a taxi driver. Unfriendly and aggressive to cyclists as many of them are, they almost always allow us to live. They don’t like us, however, and will give us only a narrow margin of error and they often fail to indicate, as if to do so were somehow demeaning, or else they will put on their turning light as a sort of afterthought only once they’ve changed direction. That is what this one did, abruptly turning left on Charing Cross Road on to Shaftesbury Avenue, by which time I was already on his inside. I braked, jittered, avoided falling. He turned left, I chased after him.
He was depositing passengers outside a hotel, which is where I spent some time haranguing him. Foolishly, I was bent on getting him to apologise, to admit that he had made a mistake, to acknowledge that he had turned without looking, that he had nearly killed me and that if I had died it would have been his fault. This was never going to happen: a matter of professional vanity as well as, probably, personal principle. “I’m not going to hold up London for a pushbike,” he said. I could see his point but he was not looking at mine. “You were behind me,” he said. “I was inside you,” I said. “Look,” he said, “there’s thousands of you.”
This is where we got to. I tried and failed to make him see that there were not thousands of me, just one, with a wife and two children and others who would mourn my passing.
“The thing that makes cycling safe in London is when people have the confidence to do it in numbers. The more you can get on the roads, the safer it is going to be for everybody.”
Boris Johnson, after the death of a cyclist riding a “Boris bike” on Barclays Cycle Superhighway 2 on 5 July
Transport for London has estimated that there are 570,000 bicycle journeys in London every day, which is a rise of roughly 80 per cent in the past ten years. In central London nearly a quarter of the morning commuters are cyclists: in the rush hour, cycling is cheaper and quicker than any other means of transport. And anyone who cycled happily as a child never loses that sense of freedom that being on a bicycle brings.
When I first started cycling again in London, about 20 years (and five stolen bikes) ago, it took about two weeks of terror for me to begin to forget just how physically exposed I was. You have to bracket off your vulnerability; otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to negotiate the dangers. This vulnerability rises back into consciousness only when you have, or witness, an accident or a near accident, or when you reach safety.
The conditions cyclists endure perhaps account for some of the pious ferocity of the Lycra road warriors, some of whom are treating the city as their own racecourse. These are the ones who run every red light, mounting the pavement when the way ahead is blocked and continuing their journey with hardly any less speed, scattering pedestrians at zebra crossings as they pump away with their self-adored legs. They are protected by their sense of their own virtue – they are carbon-neutral, therefore their way is the better one. Car drivers are selfish, therefore cyclists can do what they like.
But even though they’re dangerous to themselves and to others, and give cyclists a bad reputation, they are the small minority. Most of us stop at red lights (I’m often grateful for the excuse) and would welcome police enforcement against those who don’t. Most of us have a code of courtesy to other road users. The ones who make the roads most dangerous are the drivers who consider it beneath them to indicate; parents in 4x4s, texting and tweeting with a screaming baby in the back on suburban school rat-runs; drivers who stop their cars in bicycle lanes; parked cars that suddenly have open doors . . . The list goes on. I have a particular antipathy to Audis, for example; but at the top of everyone’s list would be the HGVs.
“. . . these superhighways are central to the cycling revolution I’m determined to bring about. 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 the safety and confidence of everyone using the routes and reinforcing my view that the bike is the best way to travel in this wonderful city of ours.”
Boris Johnson, 2009, on the launch of his Cycle Superhighways
Most cyclists who travel around central London will have seen the mayor on his bike, suited, trouser-clipped (more Philip Larkin than Bradley Wiggins), with the expression of someone who is expecting to be recognised but is really in rather a rush and can’t stop to chat. Boris Johnson has raised public awareness of cycling and made it easier to join in by implementing the scheme of socalled Boris bikes that are available for hire around the city. He has not succeeded in reducing the numbers of bicyclist deaths and severe injuries.
On 12 July, I was part of a “flashride” that was organised by the London Cycling Campaign to draw attention to the dangers of cycling in the capital. A week before, Philippine de Gerin-Ricard, a 20-year-old student from France, had become the first person in London to be killed on a “Boris bike” as she was cycling across Aldgate gyratory on Cycle Superhighway 2. She may have strayed out of her lane to avoid roadworks; but whatever the circumstances, the notional lines that separate cyclists from industrial traffic are not sufficient. This is the main road between the City and Canary Wharf, where the cyclists’ “superhighway” is a narrow stretch of blue, often impeded by parked cars, and into which traffic necessarily encroaches. She was the third cyclist to be killed by a lorry in the vicinity of CS2. As the victim’s mother said, none of us can “understand how they can put bicycles and motor vehicles so close together at this spot”. Her death was the second in London in a fortnight, after a hit-and-run by an Audi in Lewisham at the end of June. (I make a small apology for the focus on London in this piece: but this is where I live, and bicycle.)
“. . . as for my blue bike lanes . . . there is no ban on allowing your wheels to stray into them; they are there purely, as you know, they are there for indicative purposes . . .”
Boris Johnson, 22 July 2012, speaking on Sky News
We should give the mayor some due. Since he took office in 2008, London has become more attentive to cyclists. There are more dedicated bicycle lanes; the “Boris bikes” have put more cyclists on the roads; London has taken stuttering steps towards a cohesive bicycle-route plan. But since he’s been in office, 65 cyclists have died in the city.
The road surfaces need improving – every day, I have to swerve into traffic to avoid potholes. We need separate bicycle lanes that are more than “indicative” lines of paint. London should follow the example of Paris, which has banned HGVs from the city between the hours of 8am and 8pm. There were no cycling deaths in Paris last year.
About 1,500 of us on the LCC’s “space4cycling” flashride milled around by the green opposite Tower Hill Docklands Light Railway station waiting for it to begin. There was conversation about accidents and near accidents, and the dangers of the superhighways. I was in a suit, my neighbour in Lycra. We compared the dangers on our regular routes. I asked him if he stopped at red lights on his commute from Bromley to Bishopsgate, and he said that he did. Only if there were clear sightlines to empty roads and no pedestrians would he sometimes go through. He talked about the arguments he’s had with motorists who say that if they pay a road tax so should cyclists: “The road tax was abolished! They pay an emissions tax.”
I didn’t have the opportunity to pursue this conversation, because I’d just caught sight of someone I thought I recognised, the sister-in-law of a very good friend of mine. I texted my friend to ask him if it was likely that Ann should be part of a cycling campaign, and he texted back that it was more than likely and would I call him. He was at King’s College Hospital, beside his 15-year-old son, who had had his pelvis broken that afternoon. Cycling home along the Wandsworth Road, he had been knocked off his bike by an HGV, whose driver had cut across to turn into a side road without looking or indicating. Guy had to be pulled out from under the lorry. The doctor attending him said: “Everyone has a little bit of luck in their lives and you’ve just had yours.” I don’t know how well this registered with Guy, who was vomiting at the time, in reaction to the morphine he was being given for the pain.
The marshals invited us to make some noise, and we rang our bells and there was some chanting of “Blue paint is not enough!” and then we slowly set off. The route took us to Aldgate and to the site of Philippine de Gerin-Ricard’s death, where a wreath was laid and we stopped for a minute’s silence.
The ride itself took about 20 minutes or so and that part of London stopped for us, whether the taxi drivers liked it or not; but the expressions on the faces of drivers waiting behind police marshals for us to go through were curious and sympathetic rather than annoyed at being made to wait. At the end, we gathered in Altab Ali Park, off the Whitechapel Road, and Guy’s aunt addressed us, calling on the mayor to take action and Transport for London to make the city safer for cyclists, and asking us, without yet knowing that her nephew had very nearly joined them, to remember the recently dead.
And then we cycled away from the park, most of us heading west into town, along narrow blue strips on potholed arterial roads, towards homes and workplaces and hospitals.
David Flusfeder’s latest novel, “A Film by Spencer Ludwig”, is published by Fourth Estate (£7.99)