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.
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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.
“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)
 
 
Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).