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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Saturday, 14 September 2013

White bicycles and the death of the London cycling dream

Seeing a photo of a flower-bedecked white bicycle locked to a lamp-post in Toronto reminded me of how, about 8 years ago, I started counting the white bikes of London. Now I know that each white bike marks  the spot where a cyclist has been killed, and in London this almost invariably means killed by a truck or lorry rushing to a construction site.

The first one I saw was on Blackfriars Bridge, and although I didn't at that point know what they
A ghost bike on Blackfriars Bridge, London in 2008 - marking the spot where a cyclist was killed in a traffic accident
meant, it soon became very clear. That bridge, with its crazy sandwich of  bus, bike and car/lorry  lanes had earned itself a deadly reputation in the early 2000s. I think that concerted campaigning by LCC etc finally succeeded in changing things - but not before a few more had died.

A week or two later I saw another white bike tied to railings at the intersection of Clerkenwell Road and Goswell Road in EC1 (I put a photo of this on Flickr).  By white, I mean completely white - frame, wheels, tryres, handlebars, spokes, the lot.

These were, of course, what we now know to call  ghost bikes, marking the spot where a cyclist had been killed in a traffic accident.

I've seen at least a dozen since then - although I wonder if the practice is fading, as there have been many cyclists killed this year but no signs  of the white cycles near the scene.

Here some of the locations in central London alone:
  • The Bow Flyover  roundabout (A11/A12 junction)
  • Notting Hill Gate
  • Victoria Park
  • Angel Islington
  • Bishopsgate
  • Dalston Lane
Until 2006 I was puzzled at just how many riders were being crushed under the wheels of left-turning trucks. Then I was knocked off my bike by a right-turning car (just a broken collar bone), and I stopped being so damned complacent.

More than 30 years of riding through central London at least four times a week had taught me some things - but it never quite robbed me of the stupid notion that with a little common sense, you were fairly safe in the  mainly slow-moving traffic of London's congested streets.

Until that moment when an old fellow, utterly lost, up for the day from Portsmouth,  decided to quickly cross the Wandsworth Road into Victoria Rise on his way to visit his daughter.  Only then did I really learn that there are instants where  you can do nothing to save yourself. Apart from bracing every muscle and throwing yourself towards the least invasive parts of the car that you are crashing with.

A year after that, with the Olympic park under construction, as well as massive new buildings in the City and elsewhere, London became infested with gigantic cement-mixer trucks, mobile cranes, dumper trucks, etc, all charging around the city at ludicrous speeds, presumably to avoid late-delivery penalties.

And the number of deaths and serious injuries went on rising.  We saw a young woman with her  right leg crushed under the front wheel of a lorry yards from then work office in Dock Street, E1. Weeks later came my closest-ever near miss when a council dustcart sped past with an inch or two between us. It didn't hit me but I fell off into railings in an attempt to avoid worse.

Today - another death. A young woman killed in Aldgate. By another fucking dumper truck.

Where do they come from, these lethal vehicles? Many from a location near here, just of f Silverthorne Road in Battersea, SW8, there's a massive depot where the cement lorries go to refill. Presumable the stuff comes off barges from the Thames, and is pumped into silos which drop it into a constant stream of 6-wheel trucks. The streets around here are covered with gravel, shed by the speeding trucks as they lurch around the tight corners of these suburban streets. Just another peril for cyclists, as these stones shoot out from under car tyres straight into your eye.

Yeah, cycling is getting more dangerous in London. I am old, I don't care too much, but my son's 26, I am truly scared for him. I used to think that if you made eye contact with every driver about to occupy the boot of road in front of you, you would be OK. But with these trucks, it's different. They are too high up in their cabs for eye contact. They are under too much pressure, they do not have time to think.

This is surely a criminal tendency on our roads - it has gone too far, there have been far too many deaths at their hands, it is beyond coincidence.

So now, every time I hear news of a cyclist killed somewhere in central or north London, I freeze. My son now cycles from Islington to Bloomsbury and back every day. I freeze until the news bulletins come in with more detail: "A man, thought to be in his forties...." Relief, guilt.

Still we cycle because really, when it is good, cycling in London is as good as the best drugs, the best of any experience. Believe me!

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