Shifting gears: how can we make London’s roads safer for cyclists?

| 30th July 2018
Photograph of cyclists laying in the road at a Stop Killing Cyclists protest

Stop Killing Cyclists

Flickr
The Stop Killing Cyclists’ march on Parliament will take place later this year. MARIANNE BROOKER argues that London’s transport network needs a radical, communal overhaul

Women’s innovate insistence that they too would take to the wheel underscores important connections between freedom of movement and freedom of identity that are as relevant today as ever. 

The hills, heat, helmets, bottlenecks, overtaking busses, being overtaken by busses, men who shout, men who stare, potholes: cycling in London has its drawbacks. 

My commute from south to central London is 10 miles each way, takes about an hour, and saves me around £100 a month. I don’t own any Lycra and my trusty - or just rusty - bike is older than I am. Cycling helped me get to know the city that I now call home: everything is much closer together than you’d think and sometimes that’s good to realise. I’m fitter and happier.

But serious collisions – like this one, between a woman cyclist and a cement mixer – cut through the everyday frustrations and bring severe dangers into sharp focus. Reading about it, a slow-burning militancy bubbled over. This city’s blind spots are numerous and they eclipse more than we can afford to lose. 

National funeral

The activist group Stop Killing Cyclists was set up after six cyclists were killed in London in November 2013. At their first ‘die-in’, 1500 cyclists laid down in the road to protest traffic violence. 

The group has called for a ‘National Funeral for the Unknown Cyclist’ on 13th October 2018. The procession and rally on Parliament Square will call for a £3billion per-year investment in cycling, and a reversal of tax cuts on toxic diesel and petrol. 

Their most recent demonstration was in June 2018 outside Woolwich Town Hall. Three cyclists had been killed in as many weeks in south east London. A fourth was then killed on the A102, on a roundabout along the path of the planned Cycle Superhighway 4. 

As the website Beyond the Kerb pointed out, the Government’s recent Cycle Safety Review procured its independent legal advice from Birkett’s, a member of the Road Haulage Association’s legal panel.

True to form, the review was authored by Laura Thomas, an ex-director of the Freight Transport Association. With this in view, can we really expect the radical changes that we need?

Direct vision

Notoriously, back in 2009, 10 out of 13 fatal cycling accidents in the capital were women, and eight of them were killed by Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs). 

According to Transport for London (TfL), HGVs drive four percent of the city’s road miles, but are involved in 50 percent of cyclist deaths. 

By 2024 HGVs will need a visibility rating of at least 3/5 to drive through London. The Mayor’s Office believes there are currently 35,000 trucks operating in the city that would receive a zero rating. These trucks will be banned by 2020. 

This policy is called the Direct Vision Standard (DVS). It will assess what a driver can see directly through their cab windows, as opposed to indirectly through cameras or mirrors.

Direct action

I wonder how far we might push this standard. I’m lucky enough to have never been injured on London’s roads, but I think of a pedestrian who once grabbed hold of my handlebars as I stopped for him at a zebra crossing. He looked right at me and shouted: “What are you waiting for? You’re waiting for me!”

I couldn’t work out whether it was meant as a threat or a daring provocation. He seemed at once to be saying, this is my space, get back – and what’s stopping you here, go faster

Did he think that I was too assertive, or too timid, or a heady, misogynistic mix of both? In any case, though many looked on, nobody intervened; though he saw me look scared, he went right ahead. 

There was no restrictive mirror or raised cab – but I still felt swallowed up in a zone that nobody was really seeing. 

It’s time that London confronted these social, infrastructural, and environmental blind spots. We need safe roads. Insisting on direct vision is one step in that direction, but perhaps it’s only direct action that will get us the whole way there.  

‘Near Miss’

In 2017 Cycling UK wrote that 20 percent of men report being ‘regular’ cyclists, compared with eight percent of women; men travel on average 86 miles per year by bike, while women travel 21. Three quarters of women never cycle. 

In response, the same champion of UK cyclists published its aspirational 100 Women in Cycling list in June 2018.

‘Women’, Cycling UK wrote, ‘have always lagged being men in taking up cycling’. Despite some good work, something in the language here jars, to say the least. 

June was a busy month. A report published by the charity Sustrans detailed some aspects of the gender gap in UK cycling in great detail, but didn’t include statistics on gender-based traffic violence or harassment, despite the stark female mortality figures. 

A report compiled by the Near Miss project, and published in the Journal of Transport and Health, utilised 1500 cyclists’ testimonies regarding incidents that didn’t result in injury. They found that women cyclists are twice as likely than their male counterparts to experience harassment or bad driving. 

Is it simply the case that women are ‘lagging behind’?

Ovarian Psycos

By contrast, the Goldsmiths research project Bikes and Bloomers highlighted some of the ways in which women on bikes were at the centre of historical debates around gender, mobility, and public space. 

Women’s innovate insistence that they too would take to the wheel underscores important connections between freedom of movement and freedom of identity that are as relevant today as ever. 

Today, collectives such as 56a Bikespace London emphasise the relationships between autonomy, community, and environmental sustainability.

Further afield, films such as Ovarian Psycos show how women cyclists – the ‘runaways and throwaways’ – confront racism and violence along the barrios and boulevards of Los Angeles. 

Our roads are the fault lines that trace a huge range of connected issues: violence, povertypollutiontoxicity.

Rather than corporate developments such as the UnderlineSkycircle or the Thames Deckway, might we turn instead to radical, communal reclamations of our transport network in order to encourage and protect cyclists?

This Author 

Marianne Brooker is contributing editor for The Ecologist, focussing on change makers. She is also a PhD candidate at Birkbeck College and a lecturer in English literature at Canterbury Christ Church University. @curiousvolumes.

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here