Cycling tragedies require a rapid response

The spate of five cyclists being killed within the past fortnight on London’s streets demands an urgent respone. As I have argued in the Observer in the piece posted on this site, the Cycling Vision set out by Andrew Gilligan,Boris Johnson’s cycling tsar, is full of good ideas, but it is all too slow and cumbersome.

In the Observer article, I mention that change must be brought about quickly and efficiently. I point to Sevilla where the transformation has been remarkable in boosting the numbers of cyclists and to New York. In contrast, TfL and Johnson have argued that care must be taken not to make mistakes and therefore that is why things happen slowly. There is a real irony there – the cycling superhighways were created in haste to meet election deadlines – Boris had to show something had been done by the time he was up for re-election and some parts of them are terrible, as the concentration of deaths on Cycle Superhighway 2 makes clear.

When I argue that things need to be done quickly, I am arguing that there needs to be a sense of urgency and, too, that temporary measures can be implemented which are reversible. So blocking off a street with plastic barriers, painting an area a different colour, putting up a few signs – all these can make a rapid change and if they are dedicated towards giving more room for cyclists and pedestrians, they are very unlikely to create new risks. The failure of Cycle Superhighway 2 was inevitable once the highway engineers were made to work within the confines of Johnson’s policy of ensuring that nothing is done to affect smooth traffic flow. It was that which guaranteed its lethal failure, not the need for haste.

  • Rangjan

    The fact that Boris Johnson chose Andrew Gilligan, a PR man, as his cycling Czar speaks volumes about what he is trying to achieve.

  • Rebecca Olds

    Rangjan – have you got the right Andrew Gilligan? See BJ’s Cycling Czar is a well-established journalist (i.e. The Daily Telegraph, The Times, the BBC) who is especially “famous” for blowing the whole WMD question wide open. I have never heard a whiff of him ever working in PR or any related field. Have you?

  • DanFilson

    No idea, but is he a practising cyclist (in the sense of being a regular user, rather than is he learning not to fall off). After all, a valid question to query Boris’ appointment as his track record in appointments is not wonderful (witness Stephen Greenhalgh, appointed as Deputy Mayor for policing despite knowing nothing on the subject and admitting he would have to do several months mugging up; and all the appointed-but-failed other Deputy Mayor etc),

  • mike rodent

    Dear Mr Wolmar (should you read this).

    This matter ain’t rocket science. Speed kills, and especially cyclists.

    You appear to live in Islington. I’ve been writing to various people to try to persuade them to challenge the police’s now long-standing decision not to enforce 20 mph in Islington. The organisation Brake, for example, who have said they have no interest in mounting a legal challenge on the question of whether senior police officers have in fact exceeded their authority in this matter. I’ve written also written Islington Council directly, and got this:

    “We are not planning to raise a legal challenge to the Police but are
    currently trying to work with them to ensure a reasonable level of
    enforcement, where it is required.


    Mike Fletcher

    Senior Engineer

    Traffic and Parking Services

    Environment and Regeneration

    Islington Council”

    Finally, I’ve written to the London Road Safety Council, who prefer to trust the waffly words of ACPO press releases. As a result of my communication with them I got a similarly terrified response from Liz Wathen, “Traffic and Safety Manager” at Islington Council. Perhaps you might like to ponder on the idea of a time limit I suggest in my missive to her:

    “Dear Ms Wathen

    Thanks. Yes, the problem is that the police came out some time ago and said they wouldn’t enforce 20 mph.

    this is a battle for territory, and no doubt the Council have their
    strategy. But the central question of whether the police hierarchy have
    the right to pick and choose the laws they enforce might be addressed
    head on, by a court case.

    As I said, this failure to enforce 20 mph limits
    by the police sends a message concerning speed limits
    generally, i.e. that the police categorise speed limits in a
    fundamentally different way to other
    classes of crime, and inevitably this is assimilated particularly by
    the stupider and more aggressive drivers. Hence there must also be a
    tendency on the part of such drivers to believe that there is a level of
    “attrition” among vulnerable road-users (pedestrians
    and cyclists) which the police and the broader legal system tacitly

    What I am basically saying is that it might be better
    to do nothing than to
    introduce a lower speed limit which is not properly enforced. I think
    ultimately the Council should put a time limit on this, not being made
    public particularly, at the end of which time, if the police have not
    yielded to the higher authority which theoretically controls them, a
    court case should be brought robustly, and against specific senior
    police officers.

    Best regards,
    Mike Rodent”

    PS I’ve often wondered (as have others) whether you are in fact Dr B. Ching from Private Eye! Maybe this terror of challenging the police should be detailed under Rotten Boroughs?

  • Rebecca Olds

    I believe he is, yes. He has certainly been a vocal supporter of cycling issues for at least 6 years and was “welcomed”, albeit cautiously, by well-known cycling advocates such as Danny Thompson of the Cyclists In The City blog – see The general view back then of course was “we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now and see how he gets on”. Up until 14 days ago, many may have felt it was too early to pass judgement on him, but he hasn’t said anything in the past week to distinguish himself from the BS being spouted by Boris Johnson. Not good.

  • DanFilson

    Another cyclist killed today.

    I have no time for Gilligan whom I did not rate as a journalist and don’t rate as the invisible bicycling guru.

    On the issue of why fatal cycling accidents happen, I do not argue or accept that it is the fault of the cyclists rather than the drivers, but I think some detailed analysis of why fatal accidents occur in London is overdue. I guess some has been done, but we need to examine holistically the gender and age profile of both vehicle drivers and cyclists, what time of day relative to dusk etc., whether parties were on their way home from work, whether midway on their journey or near to ending it, whether cycle was on inside lane, type of bicycle (trundler or speedy), weather conditions, lighting of vehicle, cycle and roadway, whether helmets were involved, even relationship status of persons involved as it is pertinent whether those involved were risk-takers or contented nesters.

    Too much debate has so far focussed on lane issues, separation of cycle ways from roads and where the courses come together again. Until we understand what causes these incidents we are in a blame game. It has been said that there is no such thing as an accident, people make mistakes, sometimes several. We need to understand why. If I knock a cup of a table with a sweep of the arm, there are usually reasons why it happens on one day and not on most days. The same is true of cycle accidents.

  • marksl

    The alarming number of cycling deaths in London contrasts with very little reporting of any in other cities and towns in Britain. York, Oxford and Cambridge have the highest levels of cycling among urban areas and there do not seem to be deaths in accidents reported in those cities. If there are, we do not hear about them. Perhaps Christian has some details.

    The provision for cycling in these three urban areas is considerable, though not to Dutch or German standards. Could layouts and other provisions which they have be applied in London ? If not, that needs to be demonstrated, and designs suitable for a larger and denser city used. Copenhagen, which has high cycling levels but not the scale of provision that one sees in Dutch cities, may be a worthwhile model for London.

  • christianwolmar

    I am not B Ching but I know who is…. I agree about the 20 mph limits and have made this point several times; what gives the police the right to decided which laws to enforce???

  • Greg Tingey

    Although horrible, please get a sense of proportion.
    For the past year, in London …

    When was a pedestrian fatality given the sort of column inches each cycle fatality is now given? 2012 figures – pedestrians 69, motor cycles 27, cars 19, cycles 14, others 5.

    Err, um, now what?

  • Paul Holt

    You are eight times more likely to die falling off a chair than a skateboard:

  • Sean

    “The alarming number of cycling deaths in London…”

    It’s not “alarming”. It’s just being reported more often – probably because a certain Mr. Boris Johnson keeps banging on about bikes all the bloody time, as if these were the only mode of transport in London worth supporting.

    Perhaps a good solution would be for the BBC to actually fulfil its remit (“Educate. Inform. Entertain.” In that order) and inform the general public that The Highway Code applies to *all* users of the country’s road network, not just drivers of motor vehicles.

    It’d also be nice if people took a bit more responsibility for their own actions and stopped demanding the impossible. Humans are not machines. They are fallible. They make mistakes. Deal with it.

    Any system that requires a human being to be as consistently accurate as a machine is inherently flawed and _that_ is the fundamental cause of those accidents. Not the drivers, or the cyclists, who are but imperfect components in an all-too-fallible system. Humans are not, and can never be, 100% failsafe. Expecting otherwise is to fly in the face of the evidence.

    The problem is the system – the infrastructure – that everyone has to work with. It needs radical redesigning, not just a little bit of tinkering. As London is a medieval city at its core, that’s a project that’ll give an entire generation of planners and designers some long, sleepless nights.