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

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Questions and theories about the trucks that are killing cyclists on London streets

Caution, keep clear: eight fat wheels accelerating fast from the rmc site at Silverthorne road.

On Monday 22 June 2015 a 26-year-old woman became the eighth cyclist to die on a London street this year - and all but one of them was killed by heavy goods vehicles.

The woman killed yesterday outside the Bank of England died in now grimly familiar circumstances - crushed beneath the front wheels of left-turning tipper truck at a road junction.

How often do we have to read that terrible phrase: "crushed by the wheels of a left-turning tipper truck"? And how many more times will we have to read it this year, this decade?

There's little doubt the deaths will continue while London's construction business booms, and cycling to work becomes more and more necessary for cash-strapped workers. So that at the same times of day, every day, there are thousands of each of these totally incompatible forms of transport hurtling down the same  narrow, complex web of streets towards the same central honeypot.

Pundits are busy speculating why so many women are being killed this way in central London (six out of the eight deaths this year were of women, mostly young women).

But of the all the theories put forward and all the angry debate, no one seems to have asked two questions.

First - when they say a tipper truck, what precisely do they mean? Are they always really tipper trucks? It would be helpful if media reports were more specific in each case. There are many shapes and sizes of tipper trucks, but some of the newest ones seem to be incredibly powerful and to accelerate like sports cars.

Second - how often do they consider the nature of the construction business, and the sort of pressure drivers of these trucks are  working under to deliver their materials at the right time??

Photo: Bill Hicks
The notorious Walkie-Talkie tower: how many truck loads of
cement, steel, glass and plastic went into building this
monstrosity? And how safely were they driven to the site?
Look at a building like the (hideous) Walkie-Talkie in Fenchurch street, imagine how much concrete,
steel and glass went into its construction, how many truck loads had to be negotiated through the narrow streets of the square mile. And how many tipper trucks to clear all that excavated mud, stone and debris from demolished buildings on the site.

Look at the way the construction industry deals with the logistics of such a site: material shave to be there at exactly the right time, there's no space to keep stockpiles of steel. And above all the concrete on which all these vast buildings rest has to be poured within 90 minutes of its mixing.

The lorries which have scared me most often are the massive four-axle ready-mix trucks with their giant rotating barrels on the back, but I guess that's because I live close to one of the main ready-mix supply depots.

Here the just-in-time method is at its most acute - they fill up with ready mix at one of the many depots in zone 2, then they have a very limited time to get to the building site.

If you don't trust me, check out some of the business school papers on the topic. For example,  this one from the University of California, Berkeley (1999), Iris D. Tommelein1 and Annie En Yi Li2's paper, Just-in-Time Concrete Delivery: Mapping Alternatives for Vertical Supply Chain Integration. 

As these authors point out, "Since concrete should be placed no later than ninety minutes after the addition of water, travel from the batch plant to a site should not take much more than half an hour or so. A plant’s operating radius therefore tends to be limited based on the nature and condition of haul roads."

They of course were not thinking of the road conditions in London. If a driver is delayed to the point that the load is useless, what happens? Do the driver get just the same pay, whatever? Are they incentivised? Are there bonuses, reasons for pushing just a bit harder to get there at exactly the right time?

It's just a thought. Some of the other suggestions for this tragic death toll are equally plausible: for example, that females tend to be less aggressive and more careful, hanging back at junctions, but being invisible to the driver, become victims of their own caution.

Tipper truck at Battersea Power Station
Is Boris going to restrict the movements of these trucks? Is Parliament going to legislate to stop the use of unsafe trucks or unsafe incentives for drivers? Probably not in the next five years. Despite the big noise about safer cycle paths, there's clearly not much progress in other areas where a little rearrangement of traffic could make a big difference.

It's clear that the safest way to deal with traffic lights in heavy London traffic is either to jump the light - to move off when the pedestrian green lights ar eon, say: or at least to push to the front, occupy the centre of the lane, and move off in front of the first bus, car or truck.

Either that or stay well back. Having cycled in London for about 40 years, I've come to the conclusion that the best way of not becoming another statistic is to ensure you make eye contact with every driver potentially crossing your path. This worked for me quite well until August 2006 when I was hit by a right-turning car, straight in front of me on a main road. I had looked at the man driving, he seems dot see me, I accelerated, he accelerated faster than me. Bang.

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