National funeral for the unknown cyclist

Campaigners will demand significant investment in comprehensive national cycle network with 7 September 2019 protest.


Transport emissions make up 33 percent of UK domestic carbon emissions. What's worse, 70 percent of all road trips are under five miles.

For the large majority of the population these journey's are eminently doable by bike or walking. But for decades governments have resolutely refused to invest the necessary resources to create a national, physically protected cycleway network.

While road and high-speed rail investment programmes are measured in the tens of billions, cycling investment is measured in the miserly low millions. 

National funeral 

The volunteer-led Stop Killing Cyclists campaign group have formed a partnership with Extinction Rebellion to stage a mass peaceful protest in London on 7 September. It is called the National Funeral for the Unknown Cyclist.

It will consist of a symbolic funeral march from Lincolns Inn Fields to the Treasury in Whitehall, led by three horse-drawn hearses and a bike hearse, containing four symbolic coffins - on for a child and three for adults. 

One of the adult coffins represents over 100 people killed in crashes on our roads every year; the second represents over 400,000 people that the UN says are already dying annually from climate breakdown  globally; the third represents the tens of thousands of UK people dying from diseases associated with inactivity.

The small child-coffin will represent the children and adults dying from air-pollution related diseases such as asthma, cancers, lung and heart-diseases. 

Thus, the symbolic coffins represent the myriad of emergencies that our current government-funded road transport system is directly contributing to.

Health impacts

The Health Survey for England found that nearly two thirds of adults were either overweight (35 percent) or clinically obese (26 percent). The NHS says that over 30 percent of children were overweight, with 17 percent clinically obese.

In the Netherlands that figure is less than half at 13.4 percent. In the UK, 2 percent of children cycle to school, whilst in The Netherlands about 50 percent cycle. In the UK about 2 percent of all journeys are taken by bike, whilst in the Netherlands it is about 27 percent. 

The Netherlands started investing significant financial resources in building safe cycle-ways, after mass non-violent direct-action die-in protests broke out in the 1970’s. These were led by the Stop der Kindermoord (Stop Child Murder), which demanded that politicians start building protected cycleways and create safe residential neighbourhoods.  

In addition, a staggering 5.4 million people in Britain are being treated by the NHS for asthma. This includes a heartbreaking 1.1 million children. Air pollution is a trigger for asthma.

Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy increases the risk of asthma in children, according to the ASAAI. The UK government estimates that up to 36,000 people are dying prematurely due to air pollution.

50 percent of air pollution in London is related to transport. Reducing car & cab usage is crucial for healthier air. 

Three demands

Despite all this the UK government has cut duties on petrol and diesel every year since 2010, whilst making public transport more expensive.

Philip Hammond said this has given a £46 billion windfall to the motor lobby and will cost another £38 billion over the coming budget forecast period.

The government’s direct expenditure annually on creating safe cycleways amounts to about £2 per person (£120 million per year). This compares to about £28 in the Netherlands. 

For the last 20 years, successive governments have declared their support for increased cycling. They all issued almost bi-annual press releases announcing a pitiful few million to “enable” the public to do cycle more. This kind of PR relies on the fact that most people do not understand that billions rather than millions are needed. 

The UN states that governments need to be spending 20 percent of total transport budgets on active travel by 2025. This equates to about £6 billion per year for the creation of a national protected cycle network.

This network is the first of the three demands of the National Funeral. The other two are that the government make all village, town and city centres traffic-free, and that it reverse the lethal diesel and petrol duty cuts. 

Autumn budget

The UN Secretary General stated in September 2019 that we had two years to start making radical cuts in carbon emissions or humanity faced extinction. This Autumn’s Budget will be the final Autumn Budget during that two-year period.

It is crucial that this national cycle protest is massive enough to ensure the Chancellor of the Exchequer hears this message loud and clear. Let's remember that the UK Parliament declared a climate emergency as a result of Extinction Rebellion's action last April.

Pouring billions into switching the national fleet to electric vehicles (EVs) will not adequately address any of the emergencies outlined above.

This is because EVs do not enable more exercise, they only reduce particulate air-pollution by 30 percent, due to particulates from tyres and road-wear. The EU says that EVs reduce lifetime carbon emissions by only 50 percent, when manufacturing is taken into account.

Climate science dictates we need zero carbon by 2025, not a 50 percent carbon cut by 2040. 

Major action 

This year's Autumn Budget must allocate six billion pounds per year towards the creation of a comprehensive national cycle network by 2025, and reverse the £84 billion give-away to motor and fossil-fuel lobbies. 

Investing in cycling is a major action we can do now. In doing so we'll contribute to addressing climate breakdown but we'll also win cleaner air, safer streets and healthier lifestyles. 

This Author

Donnachadh McCarthy is the co-founder of Stop Killing Cyclists, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, and the author of The Prostitute State – How Britain’s Democracy Has Been Bought. 

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