Cycle safety in London has become an issue of growing concern. After five cyclists died on the road in only nine days, the Mayor Boris Johnson has had to appear a number of times on telly to justify his cycle policy. The top cornflake’s superhighways have notably been criticised for leading cyclist into dangerous roundabouts. Barclays has recently pulled out of the Boris bikes scheme, officially for unrelated reasons.
Boris has argued that these deaths were essentially due to the erratic behaviour of some cyclists, notably at red lights. This is a strange thing to say for somebody who is a cyclist himself. I do often cycle to work and I do not think that the behaviour of cyclists is the main problem. I have regularly cycled to work in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany, and I am actually surprised by the high proportion of cyclist over here who do respect red lights and signalisation. People even stop at pedestrian crossings with no pedestrians around. Official figures tend to confirm this: “in accidents were a cyclist was killed or badly hurt, the cyclist was presumed to have committed an offence in just 6% of cases. The vehicle driver was assumed to have done so 56% of the time while 39% of the time it wasn’t clear” (quoted from here). Cycling in London is great, but it is indeed more dangerous than in other places where I’ve lived; Amsterdam and Cologne are really different cases as there are separate cycle lanes pretty much everywhere. The problem, then, is drivers, not cyclists.
The problem in London is that bikes compete for the road with a restricted subset of drivers: professional drivers. Because of the congestion charge, it is completely unaffordable to drive to work with your private car unless you are an oligarch, and the only vehicles to be seen in central London are driven by people who make a living out of it: cabs, lorries, trucks, buses and minicabs. This can have two potential effects on cycle safety. First, since there are fewer private cars, the remaining vehicles can drive faster and more erratically. The total number of vehicles has decreased after the introduction of the charge, the number of cabs has increased, and average driving speeds have tended to increase, even if they have declined later on. This argument doesn’t hold all the time, however, as traffic jams are fairly common. Second, and more importantly, professional drivers tend to be overconfident. Cabs systematically stop on the space reserved for bikes at red lights, and honk their horn right at you if you take a second too long to move off. If you make a living out of driving, time is money, which leads to more erratic driving. They would perhaps be more modest and less arrogant if they were swamped in a flow of private cars like in Madrid, Paris or Rome. In London, the congestion charge has given them too much power: they basically own the road, and behave accordingly.
At a more practical level, a major source of risk is simply trucks and lorries turning left (Figure 1). This is a especially problematic issue for me as a Continental European because, seen from the back, I still expect drivers to sit on the left of their car and see me if I’m on the left of the road. However, they don’t because they sit on the right and I may be in the dead angle. If they turn left, I can be quickly in trouble. There is a fairly simple solution to this, however: forbidding trucks to turn left (Figure 2). This would involve a few more manoeuvres on their part, but they would be able to see cyclists at all stages. This could be implemented through appropriate signalisation, or more realistically, by some simple but compulsory technical modifications to lorries, cabs and trucks so that they can only turn right. Since the omnipotence of professional drivers is surely a major cause of cycle casualties, such small restrictions on their freedom couldn’t possibly hurt.
- Boris Johnson vows to continue London’s ‘cycling revolution’ (theguardian.com)
- Cycling in London, a death trap? (joelrobson1991.wordpress.com)
- Transport Minister: putting lorry drivers on bikes to give them cyclist’s point of view ‘isn’t bad idea’ (standard.co.uk)
- Are You Brave Enough to Cycle in London? (shootthescribe.wordpress.com)
- Met chief Hogan-Howe admits: I wouldn’t cycle in London (thetimes.co.uk)
- Another cycling fatality in London as a cyclist is crushed in a horrorifc accident (express.co.uk)
- Boris Johnson: cycling campaigners focusing on fatalities are scaring Londoners off roads (standard.co.uk)
- London’s Two-Wheeled Revolution