Last week, two cyclists were killed in incidents in Oxford and London. This year’s death toll stands at 14 for London, averaging more than one per month. This year is little different from any of the previous three (On average, from 1986 to 2010 , 17.2 cyclists died per year). It’s staggering. These shocking incidents (both involving trucks) bookended the week in the saddest possible fashion. I check our twitter account reasonably religiously, receiving instant updates via tweetdeck and my blackberry. Every day I receive at least one message that will detail a death, serious injury or a near-hit (‘near-miss’ is a oxymoron). Last week I learned of the death of Min Joo Lee, a 24 year old Korean student studying fashion in London. Her sad death has ignited a debate in London that has potentially wider implaications for local authorities all over the UK. To ensure her memory endures, a ghost bike has been erected in her memory at the junction between Euston Road and York Way. It’s a beautiful gesture, but If we see just one ghost bike mounted against a lamp-post, it’s simply too many.
To my mind, British society needs to take the time to reflect properly on what has become a sad and central feature of modern life. The car has been placed on a lofty pedestal and seen as a motorised deity rather than one of a number of enabling transport tools. Quite why the car is still viewed as some deeply desirable status model is hard to fathom. They are expensive to buy, extortionate to run, belt out carcinogenic fumes and can be as dangerous to those in them as those outside of them (and that’s leaving the wider environmental debate relatively untouched).
If you ever want to perform a simple experiment to see how a cycle doesn’t pollute the environment where a car does, find yourself a nice sized garage. Shut all of the doors and windows. Hop on a turbo trainer or a set of rollers for 10 minutes and maintain a nice steady momentum. Perhaps experiment; speed it up until you’re slightly breathless, then back off and relax a little. The worst you’ll be is slightly sweaty. Now try a similar experiment with a car. Shut all the doors and the windows. Sit in the drivers seat and rev the engine. Just remember a decent oxygen mask or tip off your emergency standby team; you’re going to need them as you slide towards carbon monoxide posioning. Incidentally, I hasten to add that I am no car hater (I bought a new car recently – I like it, use it when I need to and leave it at home when I don’t), but like other forms of dangerous machinery, their use should be subject to constant review and careful account taken of all of their impacts. The safety of people should always be the number one priority.
These days I’m more aware of road safety issues than ever and those Twitter updates are rather less than reassuring (though clearly essential). After 20 years of off and an on cycle commuting and 15 years of triathlons and cycle racing, I should be as comfortable as I’ll ever be, but nothing makes me feel more exposed than when I walk my daughter to school each morning. The school is a little under a mile away and for around half of that journey we are walking next to a busy road. Despite the 30mph speed limit and big bloody flashing ‘CAUTION SCHOOL’ signs, cars continue to roar past as we walk single file over an intolerably narrow pavement. The emphasis on safety is not geared towards the biped. It’s the car that’s holding all the cards. I’d love to let Evelyn cycle to school in the future, but unless there’s a change of tack in policy, she’s going to be walked by her Dad until she’s in her teens. So I’m rather hoping that Sustrans new ‘Free range Kids’ initiative – a 20mph limit and more kids on bikes – will engender further media attention and get motorists to think a little more widely. Heck, it would be even nicer for a few of them to down keys and hop on a saddle occasionally. Rather than this endless race to our next destination, let’s favour our current one by acting responsibly and safely.