Yesterday was a fantastic day for cycling in Britain. In the afternoon, after an astonishing performance in the time trial, Bradley Wiggins won the Gold medal while his Team GB mate Chris Froome got Bronze.
Update: On Twitter, the Lord of the Cyclists later said his views on helmet laws were misreported: “Just to confirm I haven’t called for helmets to be made the law as reports suggest. I suggested it may be the way to go to give cyclists more protection legally I involved In an accident.”)
This death makes me very sad and very angry at the same time. The fatality is related to the Olympics in several different ways. The most straightforward connection is that he was killed by an official games vehicle. (Here’s an appalling report by an eye-witness of the crash.)
However, being on the right side of the law gives small consolation if you’re “doored”. Additionally, even if you’re not severely injured, running into a car door is really painful, as I can report from first hand experience.
Henry is said to be the ninth courier who died on London’s roads while working.
There is a poignant video on Youtube about the work of cycling courier that features Henry Warwick. It’s an episode of a TV series called “Ed’s up”, where Ed Robertson, a member of the Canadian band “Barenaked Ladies”, tries out dangerous jobs.
In this episode, Ed works as a cycling courier in London and is incorporated by Henry.
Watching the film now is absolutely terrifying for a number of reasons.
The manager of Rico Logistics introduces Henry as “one of our most experienced riders”. Apparently, Henry was working as a courier in London for more about 20 years.
Ed muses about the risks for cyclists on London’s streets in a way that appears both prescient and repugnant at the same time.
For instance, Ed asserts that
“London is a city of eight million people. With that comes dangerous traffic which does not bode well with me at my new job. (…) I think I’m more afraid of this than I’ve been of any episode I’ve ever done.”
Horrifying is a scene in a video where Ed discusses the map of London and asks the manager of Rico: “Where will I die exactly?”. The answer he get is: “Oh, you could die anywhere”. The managers the tells Ed:
“Remain nervous. If you remain nervous, you remain alert and be scared. If you don’t watch out, you’ll die.”
I take issue with Ed’s suggestion that the dangers on the roads are an act of God which is clearly wrong. London’s roads are dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians because the mayor and Transport for London give priority to motorised traffic and stick to a road design that poses unnecessary risks to weaker road users.
The traffic planning decisions of Transport for London triggers situations where even very experienced cyclists like Henry, who was on road for almost 20 years, have no chance.
This is a point made by a number of people on the London Fixed Gear forum. For example, somebody calling himself “Badman ratio” writes:
“IT DOESNT MATTER HOW GOOD YOU ARE or how good you THINK you are, sudden death or being maimed for life can snatch you off your machine quicker than you say fixie. Henry was probably the most experienced/exemplary courier in London, if not Europe”
Lorries and other large vehicles are the single most important threat to cyclists in London. Since 2006, 89 riders died on the streets in the capital, at least 50 percent of them were killed by “heavy goods vehicles” (HGVs) or busses. The latest victim was a male rider who was killed last Friday at the junction of Bishopsgate and Wormwood Street by a left turning coach.
“We believe that more needs to be done to educate cyclists, drivers, road designers and those in government who are charged to lead and protect us to do more to prevent injuries amongst cyclists.”
London’s car-centric road layout and badly designed lorries are the main reasons for this tragedy. Due to a lot of construction work in the city, HGV traffic currently is on the rise in a lot of areas like King’s Cross, the City and the Southbank.
So how should cyclists cope with lorries?
An experienced London rider once gave me the single most important piece of advice:
“I avoid lorries like the plague.”
That’s basically it.
In a nutshell, the basic problem is that due to a misguided design of the vehicles, the drivers can’t see cyclists which are directly in front and alongside their vehicle. Lorry drivers have to deal with blind spots that are frighteningly large, especially on the left side of their vehicle.
This leads to three typical ways how lorries kill a cyclist.
Overtaking a lorry on the inside (“undertaking”)
One general advantage of the bicycle can turn lethal when it comes to lorries. As a cyclist, you can pass vehicles queuing in front of traffic lights. However, due to the massive blind spots of HGVs, the driver can’t see you when you’re alongside the vehicle.
When the traffic lights turn green and the lorry turns left, your life is at risk. As the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) describes:
“When turning left, a lorry will often pull out to the right first. This creates a wide gap on the left side between the vehicle and the kerb, which many cyclists think is safe to ride into. But in fact this is a very dangerous place to be.
As the lorry begins to turn, it will swing back to the left very close to the kerb. The gap between the kerb and the lorry will disappear in an instant.”
“[James] Moore had been riding in a cycle lane and drew level with the tanker’s front axle virtually as it began pulling away. He tried to cycle straight on but was hit by the lorry, which had stopped in the advance cyclist’s “box”, and had been indicating a left turn.”
“He suffered injuries including a broken left fibia and tibia, a broken pelvis, a collapsed lung and several broken ribs. He was in a medically-induced coma for three weeks and in hospital for three months.”
This is how James Moore himself recalls the crash:
“I do remember quite clearly cycling along past the junction. Suddenly, without any warning I could see, the lorry turned on me. I remember screaming ‘Stop, stop’, I think, and I think I’m going to die. Then I can remember being under the lorry and in considerable pain.”
Hence, one of the most important safety tips is: Never cycle on the nearside of a lorry.
“Don’t pass a long heavy goods vehicle or bus in a traffic jam unless there’s a full, open lane next to it. Keep your distance. If you ride close to the side of such a vehicle it may begin to merge toward you, leaving you no way to escape.”
Another important piece of advice, also by RoSPA, is this:
“If you have to stop or give way at a junction where there are no motor vehicles waiting, it may be best to wait at a point about 1 metre away from the kerb, to ensure that other vehicles arriving after you (especially lorries) pull up behind you, rather than alongside you (where they may forget that you are there and fail to see you when they pull off).”
I’m also very wary when I have to pass a lorry on the right. The blind spots are smaller, but they are still existing. Hence, I take care to have some extra space (1,5 Meter or more) between me and the lorry.
Waiting in front of a lorry at a junction
Unfortunately, there’s also a significant blind spot in front of the lorry. The driver can’t see you when you’re standing in an Advance Stop Box directly in front of the lorry. When the lights turn green and you’re not out off the way quickly enough, you’re at the risk of being run over by the HGV.
“I was recently stopped by police in the City and invited to sit in various HGV vehicles that increasingly chock our city. The idea was to make cyclists aware that they cannot be seen. This was shockingly the case. Drivers are completely blind even if you are in front of them in the ‘cycling box’.”
I try to avoid standing right in front of a lorry at a red light. If possible, I just wait behind the lorry and don’t try to get in front of it. However, there are situations when you’re already waiting in front of the lights when a HGV turns up behind you. In such an occasion, I try to move forward into the junction as much as possible and try to make eye contact with the lorry driver. When you can see him, he can see you, too. When you look him in the eye, there’s a higher probability that he has realised that you’re there. When the lights turn, I make sure so get going as quickly as possible.
If it’s safely possible you might also consider jumping the lights in such an occasion.
A similar danger arises when you want to cross a congested street right in front of a lorry. If the traffic clears while you are still in front of the HGV, the driver can’t see you. Lisa Pontecorvo died in such a situation while wheeling her bike across Holloway Road in 2008. This is how a shopkeeper, who caught the crash on CCTV, described her Lisa’s death:
“Traffic on this side of the road was stopped. She started to cross the road but stopped between the lorry and a car. She was waiting for traffic on the other side to stop. The lights changed and the lorry started to move.”
Even though I’m aware of the danger I foolishly got myself in a similar situation recently when I was trying to cross Kingsland Road at the junction of Tottenham Road. Fortunately, I escaped without any harm but cursed myself afterwards abundatly.
Being passed by a lorry that then turnes left / clips you
“I’d been on the cycle lane and [a royal mail HGV] cut in on me as he overtook me at speed. I had to stop and lean onto the pavement and he missed be by less than 10cm.”
A related situation occurs when a lorry overtakes you at a junction and then turns left. Dave H. puts it this way in a comment on this blog:
“Many of these deaths arise when a large vehicle overtakes and turns left. All that publicity about not going down the inside is a huge smokescreen about the real cause of left-hook crashes.”
This probably is the most awkward situation because there are fewer things you can do to avoid it. I try to cycle as little as possible on busy roads with lots of lorries but of course it is impossible to avoid them completely.
This is Dave H’s advise how to minimise the danger:
“You will protect yourself from this hazard by learning to competently look directly behind you and ideally clocking the driver of any truck square in the eyes – to make sure they have seen you (and they are not reading a map/using the phone etc) That means NO SHADES. As a back up you have a stereoscopic vehicle detector called EARS – TAKE OUT THOSE KILLER EARPIECES. Many coroners’ reports note that the dead cyclist was unlikely to have heard the truck/tram/train coming up behind and even sounding their horn because they had shut down their second most important piece of safety kit. Finally the eyes and ears are rendered useless if you have the brain disconnected – you are riding a bike on a busy road – it is illegal for bus drivers to multi-task and other drivers can also be prosecuted for similar behaviour, cyclists should be equally focussed.”
Another important aspect is road positioning. Don’t cycle in the gutter – this induces lorry drivers to pass you and gives you little room to maneuver. John S. Allen devotes an entire chapter on road positioning in his excellent e-book “Cycling Street Smarts”, that is freely available on the internet.
Here are some situations I encountered in London in the last year.
This is an example of a harmless looking situation that could easily have come dangerous. I was cycling southbound on Upper St. Martin’s Lane in Covent Garden and approached this lorry at the junction of Long Acre and wanted to cycle straight on. The lorry was waiting in the lane for straight on traffic and was not indicating. However, when the lights turned green, it made a left turn anyway. If I would have passed the lorry on the left side trying to get in front of the vehicle and the lights would have changed in that moment, I would have been in trouble. However, I just waited behind the lorry.
I took this picture in Islington on Cross Street at the junction of Essex Road and wanted to make a right turn onto Essex Road.
While I was waiting behind the lorry, another rider passed us and positioned herself in front of the vehicle. I guess that she can be seen by the driver (I’m not completely shure, however).
Nevertheless, I think she took unnecessary risks. First of all, she did not try to make eye contact with the lorry driver who – as I could see in his rear mirror – talking on the phone and hence not fully concentrating on the traffic. Secondly, the rider stands in front of her traffic lights and hence will find it hard to realise when the lights switch to green. However, in such a situation, it is important to get out of the way of the lorry as quickly as possible.
Maybe this is just wishful thinking. Maybe, however, the 2nd February 2012 might be seen as a historic day for cycling in London when people will look back in a few years.
Today might be remembered as the day when the real cycling revolution in London started.
Today, “The Times” , one of the oldest newspapers of the world, kicked off an amazing and impressive campaign to make British cities safer for cyclists. “Safe our cyclists”, the newspaper urged on its front page.
The University of the Arts London has launched a campaign called “Right to Ride” after Deep Lee, one of its students, was killed by a lorry at King’s Cross last year.
Local newspapers like the Evening Standard and the Camden New Journal report meticulously about cycling related issues and the London Cycling Campaign works on a large initiative called “Go Dutch”.
On top of all this comes the impressive and vocal campaign by “The Times”, triggered by the accident of Times reporter Mary Bowers who was crushed by a lorry in November in front of the newspapers offices in Wapping and has been in a coma until today.
This campaign might be the tipping point.
The fact that “The Times” embarks on the topic proves that cycling has become mainstream. It’s not just the pastime of tree huggers or overly active lads in lycra. It’s an everyday activity that ordinary people do. It’s the fastest, cheapest and most environmentally friendly way to get around in central London. And we have the right to cycle without constant fear.
In an election year, the safety of cyclists has become one of the big issues in London. Until today, Transport for London and Boris Johnson have not taken the issue seriously. They have chosen to ignore the fact that planning priorities and road design are to blame for many deaths and injuries of cyclists.
This approach has become much, much harder to hold up.
It is with deeply mixed feelings that I realised a few days ago there will be a new docking station for Boris bikes north of King’s Cross. It will be on Crinan Street right next to King’s Place, where the Guardian resides. It looks like it will be opened soon.
On the one hand side, it’s really good to see the expansion of the cycle hire scheme in the King’s Cross area. The network of docking stations is particularly patchy in this part of the city. Although I’m only a very casual user of the scheme (I prefer to use my own bike) it’s very convenient to have a docking station right next to my office on Crinan Street.
On the other hand, the new docking station really gives me shivers. If you want to use it, you have to ride your bike on one of the most notorious and cycling unfriendly areas of central London – the infamous King’s Cross gyratory.
A TfL representative insisted that introducing a cycle lane at the junction would “cause considerable queues”, stressing that there was “limited time” to conduct a review of the proposed changes for the junction because of a “commitment” to make them in time for the Olympic Games.
There are no bike facilities on York Way whatsoever and cycling there is absolutely counter intuitive. Between Euston Road and Wharfdale Road, the left lane is used as a bus stop. Northbound cyclists who keep left happen to be squeezed in the middle of the traffic: busses on their left, fast moving cars and lorries on their right.
I cycled there quite often and came to the conclusion that the “safest” way to ride there is if you position yourself on the road like a cyclist in Europe would do: I keep on the outer right lane next to the curb.
However, if you want to carry on north behind Wharfdale Road, you have to cross two lanes of car traffic because York Way ceases to be a one-way street there. To get to the docking station on Crinan Street, you have to cross York Way with its four lanes of fast moving, aggressive drivers. (The better way to get to the docking station is a right turn onto Wharfdale Road and then a left into Crinan Street, but tourists and people not familiar with the area won’t know.)
I consider myself an experienced cyclist who tends not be scared easily but I always feel extremely queasy when I cycle on York Way. I usually use Pancras Way as an alternative to York Way . However, this tiny street between King’s Cross Station and St. Pancras Station currently quite often comes closer to a car park for cabs than a street. In peak hours, it is almost impossible to cycle there at all. On top of that, Goods Way north of St. Pancras currently is a one way street in eastern direction and you have to cycle illegally on the curb if you want to get to King’s Place.
Leaving the docking station on Crinan Street by bike is a similar nightmare since you can’t use the York Way south of Wharfdale Road. Imagine you cycled to the docking station on Crinan Street and find out it is full. If you’re not aware of Pancras Street, cycling back to the docking stations south of King’s Cross resembles a very personal “Tour du Danger”.
All in all, the docking station on Crinan Street makes the case for segregated cycle lanes in the area even more compelling. Anything else would just be irresponsible and a gamble with human life.