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.
Show Hide image

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)
 
 
Chris Ball/UNP
Show Hide image

The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

0800 7318496