Cyclists Live Longer

The Times’ ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ campaign, was launched last Thursday with the front page headline ‘Save Our Cyclists’. That’s good news. There is – for example – some moving testimony from Cynthia Barlow, in the clip on this page. She talks, not just about her daughter, who was killed while cycling, but about the generalised and usually unmentionable cost of motor-dependence.  ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ is inspired by the sorry fate of Mary Bowers – who works for The Times – and suffered near-fatal injuries, when run-down by someone operating a truck. It’s interesting, and progressive, that motor-slaughter is now on the  national agenda, but an awkward difficulty with naming the problem remains.

The Times’ ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ campaign, was launched last Thursday with the front page headline ‘Save Our Cyclists‘. That’s good news. There is – for example – some moving testimony from Cynthia Barlow, in the clip on this page. She talks, not just about her daughter, who was killed while cycling, but about the generalised and usually unmentionable cost of motor-dependence.  ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ is inspired by the sorry fate of Mary Bowers – who works for The Times – and suffered near-fatal injuries, when run-down by someone operating a truck. It’s interesting, and progressive, that motor-slaughter is now on the  national agenda, but an awkward difficulty with naming the problem remains.
Motor-traffic in general, the haulage business in particular, kills people. They kill people at a rate that would be a national scandal if any other source – bad food hygiene? enemy action? unmanned level-crossings? – were responsible. A more sensible headline could have been ‘Tame Our Trucks’. The story is of death and life-changing injury consequent on hyper-mobility of goods and people. Focusing only on the hazards of cycle-travel distracts from this.

How dangerous is it to ride a bike? Epidemiological statistics are slippery. Every day I see people riding down the road. They see a bus parked at the kerb. I guess their unconscious thought process is something like – ‘I can see that bus. Anyone behind can see me and that bus. Everybody knows what I’m going to do next’. Then they pull-out and overtake the bus, relying on others to take care of them. Such behaviour isn’t the monopoly of the stereotypically reckless or foolish, some people who act that way are middle-aged, probably in salaried employment and riding well-worn bikes of investment quality. Their strategy clearly works. These people will almost all live long, healthy lives and die – in due course – in their beds. But it wouldn’t cost them anything to glance over their shoulders when they see that bus.

In bald statistical terms riding a bike is a safe activity. A typical individual has to cover millions of kilometres before being involved in a serious crash. These figures include teenage boys and also those who’ve been riding their Claud Butlers round North London since 1981, without once looking over their shoulder. If you take the trouble to ride in a considered and conscious style you are – in Inner London at least – super safe. The difficulty is how do we campaign to make travelling by bike even less hazardous, even more pleasurable, without reinforcing the widespread misconception that it’s somehow lethal.

In the 1970’s and 80’s if you ever mentioned cycling for practical travel to a politician, a planner or a highway engineer it was a sure-fire, certainty that the first sentence of their reply would contain a word from this short menu…

  • safety
  • risk
  • danger

During those comparatively lean years – in a pathetic personal quest for balance and logic – I refused to discuss bicycle travel in the context of ‘road-safety’. The vow lapsed with the publication, in 1992, of Mayer Hillman’s game-changing work ‘Cycling: Towards Health and Safety’, which put the cycling-is-much-too-dangerous-to-encourage argument underground with a stake through its heart. Cycles might bring some risks but not nearly as many as sofas and fried potatoes. What’s really deadly is not cycling.

There’s a counter-position, that cycling might really be very dangerous, and the figures for death and serious injury are suppressed because people don’t do it. Establishing causality in the reflexive fluidity of human motivation can only be a theoretical approximation. Is cycling in England considered dangerous because people don’t do it? Do English people not cycle because they think it’s dangerous?  Why does anyone ride a motor-cycle? That’s really dangerous.

The risks of travelling by bike in London are not massively greater than the risks of walking the same streets. They may even be less. They are certainly of the same order of magnitude. Why does The Times choose to focus only on dead pedallers and ignore those slaughtered while walking?

In Inner London – in certain demographics – cycle travel has become normal. Here in West Hackney it’s getting close to compulsory.

While the typical pedestrian victim of the metal plague is poor, a school-kid or a pensioner, those culled while riding bikes are much more likely to be young adults in high status employment. In evolutionary terms individuals of peak reproductive age are much more valuable, but let’s aspire to rise above such crude atavistic bias. And also to remind anyone drawn into this renewed debate, that – although very occasionally cyclists die while travelling – they’re not being killed by bikes.

Acceptable behaviour?

If you haven’t seen this, it’s worth a look. A low-resolution CCTV clip of Boris Johnson, plus entourage, on a reconnaissance trip, down ‘cycle-superhighway 2’,  Wapping, May, 2009. A man in a tipper truck makes an unnecessary, pushy, overtaking manoeuvre, his tailgate swings open, hooks a parked car, which is dragged into another, with awesome destructive force. In the incident’s aftermath one of the Mayor’s aides was quoted:- “It was pretty awful. They were shaken up and Boris was shocked. But it makes the case even more for his super highways.”

  • Fry breakfast.
  • Pour coffee.
  • Take little white pills.
  • Play sound.

If you haven’t seen this it’s worth a look. A low-resolution CCTV clip of Boris Johnson, plus entourage, on a reconnaissance trip, down ‘cycle-superhighway 2’,  Wapping, May, 2009.

A man in a tipper truck makes an unnecessary, pushy, overtaking manoeuvre, his tailgate swings open, hooks a parked car, which is dragged into another, with awesome destructive force.

In the incident’s aftermath one of the Mayor’s aides was quoted:- “It was pretty awful. They were shaken up and Boris was shocked. But it makes the case even more for his super highways.”

Really?

How much protection can a stripe of blue paint – or even a kerbed-off sidepath, or galvanised steel railings – offer when a car is dragged sideways at 30 kph?  “This makes the case even more for proper regulation of the haulage business”, is a more sensible answer. The cowboy in the truck is lucky not to have killed a motor-cyclist, a pedestrian or the pilot or passenger of a saloon car, never mind some ambitious Old Etonian on a bike with no mudguards. Truck slaughter is not a bicycle problem, it’s a lorry problem.

Heavy trucks make up such a small proportion of city traffic that you can be very circumspect around them without inconvenience. If you find yourself behind one, don’t overtake unless you’re sure you can get passed and away before it starts moving or speeds up. Never pass on the left, only on the right. (Readers in territories where the clean side of your bikes and sidewalk sides of your highways are mixed-up, please reverse that last instruction.) Keep the driver in view in the truck’s mirrors. That way you can check whether she’s paying attention, arguing with her ex-husband on a hand-held cell-phone or unwrapping a Yorkie bar.

When a truck’s behind you it’s your responsibility to make sure the driver doesn’t try and pass without taking serious, conscious account of your presence. Owning the road is important.

A friend of mine, riding up the Essex Road in N1 last week, was pulled over for running a red light. I blame the parents. Given the choice of a thirty pound ticket or spending fifteen minutes pretending to be a truck driver, he didn’t hesitate – he works in the bike trade where thirty pounds is big money – and was surprised to hear that lots of people choose the fine. I suppose they’re inexperienced, imagine they’ve nothing to learn and have too many status issues to risk a little, finger-wagging humiliation?

It turns out the punishment was painless. The big rig was brand new, with extra mirrors focused downwards by the passenger door and above the windscreen. Once in the driving seat, one officer sat beside him and asked questions while a second, dressed in day-glo, rode up the left side in a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t style.

If you like shit-kickin’, truck-drivin’, ‘g’-droppin’ country music feel free to refresh the soundtrack.

Informing people how to be safe around heavy vehicles that are being – or are waiting to be – moved, is important but it’s not progressive if passing on the simple information distracts from the source of deadly danger. POV home-movies shot from bikes are ubiquitous, mail-order cycle-retailers sell miniature cameras as bike paraphernalia. I dare say there are neophyte riders – the ones who worry about GPS – who think they need one to ride to work?

If anyone and their auntie can produce dull mini-odysseys complete with wind noise and heavy breathing, how is it acceptable for state-of-the-art freightliners to give their operators ‘blind spots’? Expecting the driver of a heavy machine to move it through the randomness of city streets unable to see where they’re going is brutal exploitation that turns the freedom lovin’ followers of Dave Dudley and Hank Snow into secondary victims. If human society persists for another couple of centuries, people will reflect on our acceptance of deadly hazard in public space, in the same way we look back at the routine cruelties of industrial slavery.

If drivers end up with too many screens and mirrors to monitor, let them move slower, or carry a co-driver who can scan half of them, or transfer freight into less cumbersome vehicles for urban drops. Any of these solutions will make haulage more expensive, which will increase the cost of goods, but that won’t be a blanket rise. Local production will benefit at the expense of long-haul.

Remember the ‘foot and mouth’ epidemic of 2001, how it spread across the whole country and led to the slaughter of around 7 million beasts? There was an outbreak in 1967 that was ended by killing 442,000. One difference between the two was the cost of haulage. By 2001 sheep were scorching round the country like hyper-active photo-copier salesmen. Making the movement of goods more awkward will encourage the development of systems more resistant to the man-made disasters of industrialised monocultures. Rich people eat local food. Civilising the movement of goods will make it cheaper.

One more anthem to put you in the mood for a ride?