Stop killing cyclists
Yet another cyclist has been killed on London’s roads. On the morning of 22nd May, a man in his 50s was involved in a collision with a lorry, suffering fatal injuries. The news of this latest tragedy upset and angered me more than usual. I have just returned from a trip to Copenhagen, a cycling Utopia where the city is built around the bike, a city where, while accidents and collisions are not impossible, their likelihood is far less. How can it be that in London we force fragile cyclists to share the road with multi-ton lorries?
My day job is as a cycling instructor: I teach both children and adults how to use London’s roads safely. The role exists because TfL wants people to cycle, for all the benefits it brings, but they want them to do it without being killed. The style of cycling I teach is, without doubt, defensive. We instruct our trainees to take the lane, to dominate the road, to prevent drivers from overtaking if there is no space to do so. Eye contact is essential to alleviate potential conflict. The door zone should be avoided at all costs. Signalling is clear, purposeful and bold. Cyclists should assert their right to use the road, demonstrating with their position that they are entitled to be there and showing competence and confidence. We teach speed: if you want to ride with the traffic, you should behave as such. Everything, from how to get on and off your bike, is about staying alive.
I love my job and I feel that I do a service to the people of London. But on returning from my little Danish holiday, it struck me just how much the techniques I teach are survival tactics. The style of riding we encourage is balshy, bold and brave. Riders must be vigilant, constantly on the lookout for something that might kill them. The roads are no place for the timid. In my first few years as an instructor, I was keen that everyone should learn this brilliant syllabus and be trained in how to negotiate traffic safely. But why should cyclists have to be taught simply how to survive? Anyone should be able to use the road safely, without ever having had a lesson. It’s akin to training pedestrians in martial arts. It shouldn’t be like this.
My experience of riding in Copenhagen was a pleasure. Even as a complete newcomer (and with limited experience of riding on the right hand side) I could negotiate the city with ease. The style of riding there could not be more different to what I teach. Cyclists make very little eye contact, because there is no need. Signals are subtle; speed is less frantic. No one takes the lane. It is not necessary to employ defensive riding techniques, because the infrastructure never requires cyclists to mix with vehicles for which those techniques are vital. On every road there is a clear, wide cycle lane, with its own traffic light at junctions. Making turns is simple and safe. The cycle lane has priority over motor vehicles turning off the main road, and that lane has sufficient space for the many and varied cyclists who use it: young and old, slow and fast, office worker and school-run parent.
As my time in London has gone on, I have increasingly come back to the infrastructure question. When I first moved to London I thought, it’s fine, we can share the space. But the more experienced I become and now, having seen first-hand a true cycling city such as Copenhagen, I am fully of the mind that we need cycle lanes. I am neither a motor vehicle nor a pedestrian, yet most of the time I am required to share the space with one or the other of these groups. Why can I not have my own space? Infrastructure does not mean the finger of green tarmac that is painted to the side of the road as an afterthought, a way to remove cyclists from blocking the flow of traffic. Cycle lanes in this city are woefully inadequate. Flagship schemes such as the Cycle Superhighways need far more thought. A large portion of our infrastructure is misleading, useless, and might as well not be there.
“Why would a cyclist go up the inside of a lorry?” asks a group of HGV drivers on the Safe Urban Driving course. “It’s common sense.” But it’s not the cyclists that lack common sense, it’s the infrastructure. And until we drastically invest time, money and political will in changing it, cyclists will continue to die on London’s roads.