Learning from London (Or Are We?)

Six cyclists have died in London in two weeks. This cant possibly be breaking news for anyone who is reading a cycling blog (or reading in general) as this rash of fatalities has been widely covered by major news outlets from every conceivable angle. BBC News alone has published pieces such as London Cycle Deaths: Chris Boardman [former Olympic cyclist] Wants HGV Ban, 8 Radical Solutions to Protect Cyclists, and Is Cycling Getting More or Less Dangerous? On the surface, the fact that this unusual cluster of incidents has brought commuter safety to light seems positive, but is the ensuing discourse productive or misleading?

Source: BBC News

Lets start with some facts: In 2002, London had an average of 300,000 cycle trips per day and twenty fatalities for the year. In 2011, London had an average of 500,000 cycle trips per day and sixteen fatalities for the year. In 2012, annual fatalities decreased to fourteen. This year, including the six very recent deaths, the current total is also fourteen with one month to go. As the number of cyclists and cycle trips increases and fatalities decrease or stay roughly the same, the statistics indicate that cycling is not becoming outrageously more dangerous each year in London. However, the statistical anomaly in recent weeks has led to many people, both reasonable and radical, to voice their opinions on how to improve safety for cyclists.

  • Ban HGVs (heavy goods vehicles) during peak times thats the solution that former Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman proposes. Nine of the fourteen cyclist fatalities this year have involved an HGV (although not all during peak times), and in Paris, where there are restrictions on these vehicles, no cyclist fatalities occurred last year.
  • Crack down on headphones this seems like an obvious safety measure for cyclists but was still met with some resistance when recommended by London Mayor Boris Johnson. The pro-cycling mayor also suggested that cyclists be more careful, which resulted in backlash from some cyclists who believe that Johnson is promoting cycling without doing enough to address infrastructure concerns.
  • Remove traffic and road signals altogether yes, this is from the list of radical solutions but there is a group of shared space advocates who believe that pedestrians, cyclist and drivers would all be more aware and respectful of each other if left to their own devices (suggested case study for these folks: Montreals 1969 police and firefighter strike).

The list of recommendations is long and diverse, and most of the proposed solutions have merits as well as drawbacks. For example, restricting HGV traffic may seem like an obvious remedy, but Johnson points out the potential for an increased risk when the ban is lifted and HGVs rush back onto the roads (as well as the economic consequences for the citys businesses if such a restriction were to be imposed). Boardman doesnt address these counterpoints, asserting that [the] longer we delay, the more lives will be lost.

To be clear, my intention is not to trivialize the tragic incidents of the past few weeks, nor am I suggesting that we shouldnt learn from each injury or fatality, whether the cyclist, motorist or infrastructure is at fault. But there is no single perfect, all-encompassing, repercussion-free fix. Lets turn this very unfortunate string of events into an opportunity to have a productive conversation. Lets take responsibility for our own safety (Im talking to you, cyclists who think that wearing headphones while riding in the city is a good idea). Lets look at the big picture and work together to come up with a comprehensive solution that includes pedestrians, cyclists and motorists, as none of these modes of transportation are leaving our cities any time soon.

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