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)
 
 
ALEXEI FATEEV/ALAMY
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The Catalan cauldron

The prospect of the break-up of Spain poses yet another challenge to Europe.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the bloodiest battle in the First World War, the Somme, in July, Spain is bracing itself for an even more traumatic anniversary. In July 2016 it will be 80 years since the start of a civil war that tore the country apart and continues to divide it today. In the four decades since the return of democracy in the mid-1970s, Spaniards slowly inched towards rejecting the extreme violence of the Francoist right (and elements of the opposing left) as well as acceptance of various federal arrangements to accommodate the national sentiments of the Basques and Catalans, whose aspirations Franco had so brutally suppressed. In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question, with severe potential consequences not only for the unity of Spain, but the cohesion of the European Union.

On 27 October 2015, after the Catalan elections, the new parliament in Barcelona passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months. The immediate reaction of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was to announce that the state was entitled “to use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain”. The preamble to the constitution proclaims the Spanish nation’s desire to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in exercising their ­human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions”. Probably the most disputed articles are 2 and 8, which state, respectively, that “the constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards” and that “the army’s mission is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional set-up”. Rajoy’s implication was clear: the unity of the country would be maintained, if necessary by military means.

It was Madrid, however, that broke with the federal consensus some years ago and thus boosted secessionist sentiment in Catalonia. José María Aznar’s government (1996-2004) failed to respond to demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, at a time when secession was not even mentioned. This led to an increasing awareness among Catalans that the federal transfer system within Spain left them with an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP because of the financial arrangements established by the Spanish state, an issue aggravated by the effect of the global financial crisis. Catalan nationalism thus became a matter of not only the heart, but also the pocket. Even more important was the Spanish legal challenge to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia 2006 and its subsequent dilution, after it had been sanctioned by the Catalan parliament, and by both the Spanish congress of deputies and the senate, not to mention the Catalan people in a legally binding referendum.

According to the Spanish high court of justice, some of the statute’s content did not comply with the Spanish constitution. This outraged many Catalans, who could not understand how the newly approved statute – after following all the procedures and modifications requested by Spain’s political institutions and constitution – could still be challenged. Four years later, the Spanish high court finally delivered its verdict on 28 June 2010. It removed vital points from the Statute of Autonomy 2006 and declared them non-constitutional. All this led to a revival of Catalan nationalism, culminating in a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014, which was boycotted by opponents and produced a majority of 80 per cent in favour of independence.

The roots of this antagonism go deep, to the civil war that broke out on 17-18 July 1936 when some sectors of the army rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. The rebels rejected democracy, the party system, separation between church and state, and the autonomy of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Their primary objective was to re-establish “order” by eliminating all vestiges of communism and anarchism, then quite strong in some parts of Spain.

High on the list of General Franco’s targets was Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the late 19th century. The industrialisation of Catalonia and the Basque Country left the most economically developed parts of the Spanish state politically subject to the less prosperous Castile. By the end of the 19th century and influenced by German Romanticism, la Renaixença – a movement for national and cultural renaissance – prompted demands for Catalan autonomy, first in the form of regionalism
and later in demands for a federal state.

Catalan nationalism did not emerge as a unified phenomenon. Diverse political ideologies and cultural influences gave rise to various types of nationalism, from the conservative nationalism of Jaime Balmes to the federalism of Francesc Pi i Margall, to the Catholic nationalism of Bishop Torres i Bages and the Catalan Marxism of Andreu Nin, among others. Catalonia enjoyed some autonomy under the administrative government of the Mancomunitat or “commonwealth” from 1913 onwards. This was halted by the 1923 coup d’état of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Autonomy was granted again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931-39 – but abolished by Francisco Franco’s decree of 5 April 1938.

Franco’s victory led to the suppression of Catalan political institutions, the banning of the Catalan language and proscription of all the symbolic elements of Catalan identity, from the national flag (the Senyera) to the national anthem (“Els Segadors”). In February 1939, the institutions of the autonomous Generalitat went into exile in France. In 1940 the Gestapo arrested the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, and handed him over to Spanish officials. He was interrogated and tortured in Madrid, then sent to Barcelona, where he was court-martialled and executed at Montjuïc Castle on 15 October 1940. The most important representatives of the democratic parties banned by the regime went into exile, or were imprisoned or executed. The authoritarian state designed by Franco crushed dissent and used brute power to suppress the historical nations included within its territory. The regime’s aim was to annihilate the Catalans and the Basques as nations.

***

After almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia recovered its government, the Generalitat, in 1977 – before the drafting of the Spanish constitution in 1978 – and sanctioned a new statute of autonomy in 1979. The 2006 statute was expected, at the time, to update and expand Catalans’ aspiration for further devolution within Spain: never secession.

At present, a renewed nostalgia and enthusiasm for Francoism can be found among some sections of the Spanish right. One of the main challenges of the newly democratic government from the mid-1970s onwards was to get rid of the symbols of Francoism that had divided Spaniards between “winners” and “losers” in the civil war. It was only in 2007 that the then prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, guided the Law of Historic Memory through parliament with the aim of removing hundreds of Fascist symbols reminiscent of the Franco era from public buildings. It also sought to make reparations to victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

There still exist hundreds of other references to the Fascist regime, however, with streets, colleges and roads named after Franco and his generals. The most controversial of these is the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), near Madrid, commissioned by Franco as his final resting place. It supposedly honours the civil war dead, but is primarily a monument to the general and his regime, housing the graves of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange political party. Roughly 450,000 people visit it every year, and while most of them are foreign tourists, groups of Falangists and supporters of the old regime who come to pay tribute to the dictator have frequented it. Nostalgics for Francoism, though still a small minority within modern Spain, are becoming vociferous. They find common ground with far-right-wing conservatism, particularly in their shared aversion to federalism.

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

***

The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

All this matters, not only to Spain but to the EU, because it is part of a broad trend across the continent. In mainland Europe, demands for self-determination are running strong in Flanders as well as parts of Spain. In turn, tensions between Italy and Austria over control of South Tyrol (Trentino Alto Adige, to the Italians) remain high, as do demands advanced by the South Tyrol­ean secessionist movement. Bavarian regionalism is critical of the present German (and European) political order. Further to that, modern Venetian nationalism and its long-standing demands for independence have prompted a renewal of Venetian as a language taught in schools and spoken by almost four million people.

Matters are now coming to a head. Catalonia and Spain are in flux following two inconclusive elections. In January, after a prolonged stand-off, the sitting Catalan president, Artur Mas, made way for a fellow nationalist, Carles Puigdemont. He was the first to take the oath of office without making the traditional oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the king. Felipe VI, in turn, did not congratulate Puigdemont.

The new president has announced that he plans to draw up a constitution, to be voted on in a referendum “to constitute the Catalan Republic” at the end of an 18-month consultation process. Puigdemont’s strategy envisages not a dramatic unilateral declaration
of independence, but a more gradual process of disconnection in constant dialogue with the Spanish government and Catalan political parties. Let no one be deceived by this “softly-softly” approach: it is designed to culminate, in a year and a half, perhaps sooner, in a vote on establishing a separate, sovereign state of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spanish politics are in flux. The elections to the Cortes on 20 December 2015 resulted in a victory for Conservatism, but also the most fragmented Spanish parliament ever and, as yet, no government. Almost the only thing the Spanish parties can agree on is opposition to Catalan independence, yet even here there are divisions over whether more autonomy should be granted and what response to make to unilateral moves by the Catalans.

The stakes are high for both sides. By pressing too hard, too early, Catalan nationalists may provoke Madrid. This would be a mistake. Strategy is important and recent events in Catalonia will weaken the Catalans’ democratic, peaceful and legitimate desire to hold a referendum on independence. Likewise, a heavy-handed response from Madrid will not only destroy the residual bonds between centre and periphery in Spain, but put the central government in the dock internationally. A confrontation will also cut across the only possible solution to this and all other national conflicts within the eurozone, which is full continental political union. Full union would render the separation of Catalonia from Spain as irrelevant to the functioning of the EU, and the inhabitants of both areas, as the separation of West Virginia from Virginia proper in the United States today.

In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence.

This is the last thing that Brussels wants to hear as it grapples with the euro crisis, Russian territorial revisionism, Islamist terror, the migrant question and the prospect of Brexit. A meltdown in Catalonia will create dilemmas for Europe, starting from problems with Schengen, and raise questions about continued membership of the EU. It will also work against Catalans’ expectations of receiving EU support in their quest for independence, as turmoil in Europe will prompt nation states to close ranks. The EU will not be expected to intervene, because this scenario would – at least initially – be defined as an “internal affair of Spain”. Conflict between Barcelona and Madrid would shatter one of Europe’s biggest member states.

In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union Montserrat Guibernau is a visiting scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and a member of the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater