What’s going on with all these cycling deaths?
That was a question asked to me by my elder sister, who’s been told by her husband that he doesn’t want her riding a bike anymore. The statistic is terrifying — six deaths in thirteen days! — but, to put it in perspective, in total there have now been an equal number of cyclist deaths on London’s streets as there were last year. That many of them have come so close together has vaulted the issue into the public awareness. The sudden spate is horrifying and tragic, but the fact that it’s therefore hit the headlines could be seen as a good thing. Perhaps now something will change.
James Walsh asked on the Guardian bike blog, ‘Have you had a near miss owing to poor infrastructure?’ My response: no. But I assume that is because I am a better-than-average cyclist (you’d hope so, given that teaching people how to use the roads properly is what I do for a living); I cycle assertively, prominently and predictably and I know how to use the infrastructure I’m presented with safely. Too many people do not, and might see the left-hand cycle lane as somewhere they should be, and will use it even if it’s not safe to do so, and perhaps filter up the left hand side of a left turning lorry. Cycle lanes that are badly implemented lull cyclists into a false sense of security, and simply confuse road users — cyclists feel they have to use them, drivers yell at you when you don’t.
Is cycling more dangerous than it used to be? Statistically, no. Perceptionally, yes.
The debate rages about how we should improve things to make it safer for cyclists. Campaign organisations such as the LCC point to continental countries and ask why we can’t have similar provision for cyclists. Boris retorts that “there’s no amount of traffic engineering that we invest in that is going to save people’s lives.” It is the Cycle Superhighways that have come under scrutiny the most — this is where the majority of deaths have occurred, and these are the flagship, big-money, high-publicity cycle routes. I know a nervous, novice cyclist, who was thrilled when a ‘cycle path’ was built outside her house. She hired a bike and set out one morning, hoping to breeze from Kennington to Colliers Wood. When the first bus passed her, she shrieked and nearly fell off. She was expecting a safe, protected space that she could cycle happily and calmly in, and got a strip of blue paint at the side of a bus lane (thankfully, she signed up for cycle lessons as soon as she got home and is now cycling confidently).
Boris’s comments are madness; of course improved infrastructure will help save people’s lives. But until it improves, what we can do now is improve awareness — educating cyclists that the blue paint they see won’t physically protect them, and educating drivers about how to react to us vulnerable road users.
Even though I have never had a near miss owing to poor infrastructure, I have had hundreds of near misses because people don’t look properly. Almost every day. Drivers pull out from side roads without having seen me, pedestrians step out while looking at their mobile phone, people turn left in front of me, people change lane without checking that the lane they’re trying to join is clear. Sometimes I have unpleasant and intimidating exchanges with drivers. More often it’s the odd toot and a couple of words of abuse, which is equally frustrating. Drivers see me as “in their way” when I ride out of the door zone (I’ve been doored before and it’s not something I wish to repeat.) My response varies between, “You don’t ride a bike, do you, Sir?” and, “No I will not ‘get on the left’ — it’s my road too!”
I will never stop cycling. I love London, and I love cycling in London — yes, it’s smelly and busy and at times, dangerous. But my bicycle gives me the ultimate freedom to go far and fast for free. The roads frustrate me, but riding my bike is always a joy. I just hope that we can educate enough people — both cyclists and drivers — that everyone can use the roads as they were meant to be used: safely.