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)
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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror