3 Dec 2013

Cycling in Britain's cities – mad and dangerous

Let’s be candid: it’s hell out there. I know. I blog a bit about cycling, and I’m afraid I feel another one coming on.

I normally cycle the same route into work every morning, from north London. But this morning I had to get to south London to get some curious house keys cut and thence back to work. It was hell.

Between 8.00am and 9.00am, there are today literally tens of thousands of bikes carrying their riders to work in the capital city. On the far end of the Vauxhall Bridge I was in a phalanx of 47. I counted them. By Waterloo there were 54 in my direction and roughly 40 at the adjoining lights. At the bus jam at the northern end of the bridge 50 bikes were battling with buses, cars, and trucks, for road space.

Coming up Kingsway, the buses were so jammed on the cycling lane that we fanned out across two lanes of traffic, motorbikes threading their way through, pedestrians dashing across. Why aren’t yet more people killed?

On Holborn I was overtaken by a mad 30mph freak in lycra, pink earphones in his ears. Idiot! You need all your senses about you on a bike.


I never made eye contact with a single other cyclist, though I tried. Every one of us was for herself or himself. Every one of us was constantly within 20 centimetres of a truck wheel which, were it to get us, would mash us in a second.

This is mad. And it’s not just happening in London. It’s evident in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpoool, Coventry and beyond.

You cannot inflict sporting greatness on a country and its people through Olympic cycling exceptionalism, and expect the normal not to emulate and get on their bikes. It’s good for obesity, good for the heart rate, good for congestion, good for bike shops, and good for the environment… It’s rotten for the potential cycling death statistics. That more have not been killed by this onrush of cycling is down to sheer luck and not judgement.

An urban planning revolution is needed right now, for the good of the pedestrian, the cyclist, the driver and the travelling public. Separated cycle ways; reduced inner city street parking; a ban on all HGV vehicles in the two rush hours – and that’s a beginning.

The political leader, who confronts the urban traffic disaster and beats it, is the political leader who will change society and win votes. Not one of them dares.

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33 reader comments

  1. Peter Kenyon says:

    Lost your charm, Jon? I cycle most days. Occasionally in the rush hour. But never have any problem making eye contact with fellow cyclists, than passengers on the tube, possibly less. I just marvel at the generally good levels of courtesy among cyclists given how many of us there are on the roads, compared with 40 years ago when I first commuted from Archway to Westminster.

  2. Rod says:

    The politicians of all parties are keen simply to kick every decision into the long grass after the next election. Building power stations, building roads, sorting out immigration.

    How is dealing with the cycling problem in our cities going to be different

    They are simply concerned with sitting in the House for less days each year

  3. Robert Dixon says:

    I have commuted East Finchley-Balham-East Finchley for 20 years and agree it’s a battle out there on a commuter bike but it’s the best form of transport for this journey. I agree headphones etc are crazy, as is speed, I restrain myself on speed and had a few near dos due to speed around Swiss Cottage area, especially near the school drop off zones. However, I did East Finchley-Highgate-Regents Pk-Hampstead-East Finchley this morning (same time as your journey) and I couldn’t of had a more enjoyable hour on a bike and was in perfect harmony with the drivers around me.

  4. Kim (@kim_harding) says:

    Why should you need all your senses about you on a bike? In places where cycling is common it is not like that, I have seen places in Europe where the bicycle as transport really works. It is nothing like the UK, the problem here is we make cyclists ride with heavy motor traffic and then blame the victim when there is a crash. Things have to change, if we want a better quality of life for all. First stop blaming the victims.

  5. StuartM says:

    You say “It’s good for obesity, good for the heart rate, good for congestion, good for bike shops, and good for the environment…”

    Add good for balance of payments (lower oil imports), good personal finances (not paying for so much petrol/service/etc.), good for NHS (healthier population=lower healthcare costs), good for the roads (bikes wear road surfaces far less than a car), we need to spend less on road infrastructure (as proper cycle paths are far cheaper to build than roads), etc.

    So it really does make you wonder why the best our politicians can do is splash a bit of coloured paint on existing main roads and then watch the tragic fatalities accumulate. So many make out how keen they are on cycling but they seem to do nothing about it, despite the many benefits.

    This country really does need to think again and re-direct funding in favour of cycling. And that is across the entire country, not just the cities. My local country lanes are a disaster, so full or potholes they are dangerous and some “repaired” surfaces so uneven you can only freewheel across them. All local highways departments need to be forced to think and to demonstrate they are developing (and maintaining) cycling infrastructure.

  6. mark says:

    Why does it have to cost so much, and make it out that cyclists are the ones causing the problem? What is it about cycling that stops someone being human? If you drove your car into a pedestrian it would be terrible. For a professional driver to do it in a truck would be a catastrophe, but drive what you want into a cyclist and it is suddenly a question of budgets, and planning.

    Cyclists even battle amongst themselves, did the nutter in the lycra really cause you so much bother? was he breaking the speed limit? I doubt it. So as the needless killing continues, it is just so much easier and cheaper to blame people for keeping fit, and legislate against them.

    In reality, if people who kill cyclists were dealt with as if they had killed real people for no other reason than lack of care. It would put people off. If it was made clear to the rest of the population that they do not have the right to plow straight through a person, killing them, even if they are on a bike. Then you might see some change in the deadly trend of killing people on bikes.

    It is such a shame that the issue of whether or not it is right to kill someone through lack of care, is seen as a political issue.

    It is without question wrong to kill someone just because you are in a rush, and they are on their bike.

    1. Paula McGivern says:

      I agree. – why are there no common actions being taken on behalf of the families of the victims ? Inviting people to use a bicycle and offering ‘ routes ‘ that put them clearly and obviously in a dangerous place I.e.in blindspots must carry some responsibility. Equally, failure to fit adequate sensors on your vehicle and permitting these vehicles to use the same route must also carry duties of care.When will the people responsible for causing these road deaths be held to account? How many more families will have to suffer because of the failure of intelligent informed leadership to simply enforce existing highway rules and copy New York? Just look at what has been achieved there in a short space of time, on a relatively small budget – recreated spaces for people .Where is the leader we need ? She must be out there somewhere thinking about this call to stand up for all those people who do the right thing every time they ride there bicycle.

  7. Roger Stowell says:

    …or make the other parts of the country as desirable as the SE which is nearly as impossible as creating safe cycling in a city decidedly unsuited to it. I haven’t lived there for 13 years, but on my visits, from the French countryside, I notice lots of tall, shiny buildings and traffic jams of the smartest cars in the world: very little change, save from when I used to drive daily from Twickenham to Clerkenwell, in a very non PC gas guzzler, there were very few bicycles. As long as the traffic remains the same, it will be dangerous on two wheels. Best to add dream cycling to dream schools, dream hospitals, dream trains on time, dream on…..

  8. Jeff says:

    Ultimately, it comes down to the density of our already insanely overpopulated cities and nation. Something that Jon Snow only seems interested in exasperating.

    1. paul gannon says:

      Giving space to cycling would free up room as bikes require a lot less space than motors – so they are ideal for cities, whereas motors clog them up, cause pollution, etc.

  9. Philip Edwards says:


    Don’t know what you’re complaining about.

    The “free market” will sort everything out.

    You know, just like it did with the banks, utility companies, mainstream media, unemployment, poverty and debt.

    So get on your bike and stop whingeing, to coin a phrase.

  10. Joe says:

    Its not that mad Jon. The traffic in New Delhi or Kabul is mad, but at the end of the day London is a busy city and rush hour will always be that. A rush.

    Road users do need to be taught to tolerate each other better, but in all honesty cycling in London is a piece of cake.

  11. Philip says:

    And a proper highway code for cyclists, which they are expected to obey? I say this as a middle-aged cyclist who gets abused by drivers & pedestrians because of the occasionally monumental arrogance & stupidity of other cyclists. A bad cyclist is no better than a bad driver.

  12. coffeebiker says:

    I am a cyclist commuter and I have been for the best part of 20 years when I started cycling to school (South West London). When my job has meant my journey has been more than 10 miles I have used public transport or the car. But in total I have cycle commuted in 5 cities (London, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Liverpool, Glasgow). And so I agree that a urban planning revolution is required to make cycling safer, preferably along the lines of Barcelona/Paris/Amsterdam.
    An example of stupidity to mean is “the greenway” in Tolworth, South London; a combined cycle path that ges from the train station and ends…. in the middle of the road at a three way junction!
    Another is the fining of cyclists for minor offences, when car drivers are on their mobile phones, smoking, stopping in the cycling bokes, parked in cycle lanes, and ignoring double yellows etc

    I disagree that it is mad. Health benefits are obvious. Environmental benefits are huge. However, you have completely destroyed the social aspect. Everywhere I have cycled, a complete stranger, on a bike, has stopped to chat at the red lights or just on passing. Mountain biking trail centres are the most friendly of places. Even intimidating velodromes quickly become less scary once you have a go. In Europe you will see people chatting as they cycle to work, or deliver the children to nursery on cargo bikes

    In short, cycling, even commuter cycling is a social activity, with the associated benefits attached.

  13. Patrick says:

    I’ve lost count of the times cyclists around me simply ignore the rules of the road when it suits them. They seem as a group to have a sense of entitlement that beggars belief (and no, I don’t drive).

    As for HGVs: if the cyclist can’t see the driver then maybe – just maybe – the driver can’t see the cyclist? Surely the cyclists are at least partially responsible for placing themselves in what they should know are visibility blackspots?

    Any suggestions as to how these things can be improved needs in my opinion to include better education for cyclists and stronger punishments when they get things wrong. They can after all get themselves killed thanks to their own lack of attention – headphones are mentioned in the blog entry as one demonstration – yet the motorist is always assumed to be the one responsible.

    Simply changing the system so that cyclists can continue to behave in such a mindless and selfish way is not really an acceptable solution in my opinion. The behaviour of cyclists needs to change too.

  14. scarce says:

    I was wondering thr stance Mr snow would have on the surrent issue of cylist vulnerability given the spate of accidents; fatal or otherwise;
    HAs mr snow ever been knocked off and been injured in his years of bicycling?.

    They should really let cyclists ride onthe pavement; Theres so much more contriol;and saftey
    for a bicylce to coocrdiante his peddle power to the changing environemnt of pedestrains than being in the direct and indrect blind spots of smal;l and large vehicles whoa re probably speeding anyway

    He must be so hot and swaerty when he gets to work.

    I tried cylsing to work for 6 months to save money when my work premsies weere near., but stopped when my swaet was too pungent int he absence of showering facilties at work. How many miles a day does Mr snow actually cycle?. Wonder how many bicyles his worn out?> or had any pinched /vandalised

  15. Parimal Kumar says:

    The roads of London (and other big cities) are deeply congested at peak times and public transport (especially in London) has become quite expensive and extremely overcrowded. It’s natural for people to start considering other choices for mode of transport. It’s the bicycle that comes into its own. Sadly, the road conditions presented to potential cyclists in our cities effectively filter out the genteel. The cyclists left on our streets are young, fit and for the most part male and exhibit higher risk tolerance than the rest of the general population. There is an additional factor to consider in London (vs, other cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen) – it’s shear size. The distances for commuting in London often mean that average speeds have to be 15-20mph on a bicycle for it to make sense from a time perspective. Very few people can afford to live under 2 miles of where most people work in London (City or West End).

    1. SQW says:

      This is ridiculous. Many female and male commuting cyclists in London have round journeys of up to 20 miles (or more) a day, and these include plenty aged over 30 of both sexes. Look around you! Cycling is usually quicker than going by public transport unless for long journeys of 15 miles or more. Much more pleasant, too.

  16. michael says:

    Jon you are spot on. The city needs “urben planning revolution” and for this to happen you need bold leadership with vision and transpereancy.

  17. Jes Smith says:

    Spot on Jon. I just get frustrated that politicians and possibly transport planners don’t want to know.
    They should be watching Borgen to see how Copenhagen does it and learning from it, but quickly.

  18. Alan says:

    The bicycle is great invention and is now very refined. What a waste peddling through a city. Needs must. Look to The Netherlands or Sweden to see how its done for urban types. I’d rather mountain bike and take to the hills.

  19. duncan says:

    Easy solution, move out of London. My 4 mile each way daily commute is through beautiful Perthshire countryside, backroads and cycle path. Biggest danger is suicidal rabbits jumping out.

  20. Jim McCabe says:

    I cycle to work every morning in Liverpool &, to some degree, the perilous nature of cycling in the capital is replicated here. Cycling won’t be taken seriously at high political level because comparatively few voters are also cyclists. Compare that sad but salient fact to the importance attached to motorists & you’re halfway there in understanding the institutional inertia regarding the issue. Thatcher lauded “the great car economy” & that adoration has persisted through the ensuing decades (New Labour paid lip service to the health benefits & green credentials of bike travel but largely limited itself to commending local councils for cycle “lanes” which weren’t worth the term).

  21. Sandi Dunn says:

    Yes, an urban planning revolution which I believe Amsterdam undertook some time ago successfully.
    Jon, please do a piece asking what has happened to the profits from the ‘con’gestion charge /tax? (Which changed nothing). Get Boris on to commit to an ‘high I Q’ solution. He should spend the dosh on bringing over the Dutch to sort out our cycling nightmare situation using fresh eyes and know how

  22. Alex says:

    I cycle in Manchester everyday and face nowhere near the problems I would in London, most other road users are actually alright (although pedestrians are a bit dopey at that hour).

  23. scoutisimba says:

    >You cannot inflict sporting greatness on a country and its people through Olympic cycling exceptionalism, and expect the normal not to emulate and get on their bikes. It’s good for obesity, good for the heart rate, good for congestion, good for bike shops, and good for the environment… **It’s rotten for the potential cycling death statistics.**

    I am not convinced this is strictly true, or at the very least it depends on how think about the issue. The number of accidents involving cyclists is inversely proportional to the number of cyclists on the road. So in other words the more people we have cycling the less dangerous cycling is for the individual cyclist. By increasing the number of cyclists we make cycling as an activity safer. This is a well documentation fact.

    Actually presenting cycling as “mad and dangerous” isn’t helping things. Our cycle infrastructure is mostly ridiculous but a well prepared cyclists can still navigate much of our road network safely enough (at a net benefit to health if we consider factors like obesity etc).

  24. Jon Wood says:

    We need Ken back. All Boris has done is repeat the usual fact-free prejudice with a tinge of pretend concern. Nothing will change.

  25. SQW says:

    I agree that it is surprising there are not more deaths of and injuries to cyclists in London, and given the increasing numbers of cyclists in the last few years (hard stats anywhere?) it is remarkable that the number of casualties has not risen proportionately.

  26. John Kirk says:

    Interesting blogpost, and impressionistic. I normally commute 8 miles into Birmingham from a posh suburb. I see very few cyclists and am surrounded by Range Rovers and Jaguars…both made in Birmingham. Not so many lorries on my route and not many building lorries as the city has very little construction at the moment. The journey is mostly unremarkable except for the excitement provided by three roundabouts and peddling past all that expensive metal stuck in queues. Despite £24 Million won to invest in city centre cycling, there is very little being done to make arterial routes any more cycle or pedestrian friendly. Hope the keys fitted after all that.

  27. Dave Parsons says:

    No-one has mentioned the fun that it can be. My commute now is mainly rural, but I get to work on a high, I feel like I have already done something with the day. I will pass stationery traffic too, and that is a great feeling. I’m careful when I do this; I don’t make sudden or unpredictable movements, I always look all around, and it isn’t “get to the front of the queue at all costs”. If the queue starts moving I tuck back into the left hand side of the road when it is safe to do so.
    The problem is people driving and not paying attention, it is very easy to glance at a junction and think it looks clear and it often isn’t.

  28. margaret brandreth-j says:

    I seem to remember a piece being written about you jumping red lights Jon and weaving in and out of traffic.I am sure it is all lies. I only wish I could get into the habit. Every few months i look at my bike , but have a flat tyre and can’t do anything about it there and then so forget for another few months.

  29. David McGrath says:

    It’s bad in the UK. IT’S WORSE IN AUSTRALIA. Cyclists are perceived to have NO rights to the road and are forced onto pedestrian footpaths! The situation is DIABOLICAL!

  30. Meg Howarth/ @howarthm says:

    Below is the full text of Boris Johnson’s response to a recent online survey of London cyclists by City Hall in the wake of the recent spate of deaths – six cyclists killed over ten days. In light of the title of Jon’s blog, see in particular Johnson’s penultimate/final paras. Three pedestrians were killed over the same recent ten-day period. It’s time City Hall asked their opinion of how safe they feel on London’s streets/crossing its roads – maybe that’ll be the trigger for the ‘urban planning revolution’ Jon rightly suggests is necessary – most Londoners would say ‘urgent’.


    Message from the Mayor of London on Cycle Safety
    Date: 5 December 2013 08:06:48 GMT

    Dear Sir/Madam

    Thank you for writing to me. I share your deep concern about cycle safety in London. That is why I am spending almost £1 billion to provide for cycling, including two fully-segregated superhighways through the heart of central London, remodelling dozens of the most dangerous junctions, and a network of back-street “quietway” routes.

    It is why I have promised to upgrade all the existing superhighway routes, with fully or semi-segregated cycle lanes, and to complete all new superhighways to the same standards.

    It is why I have plans to turn a number of outer London boroughs into “mini-Hollands”, with large amounts of money spent in relatively small areas to achieve dramatic and transformational pro-cycling change.

    It is why I have announced that I intend to impose a substantial and deterrent daily charge on any lorry which is not fitted with basic safety equipment, and why I am also studying time or place-specific lorry bans.

    It is why I am using my planning powers to ensure that all new major developments and road schemes are cycle-friendly.

    It is why I am paying for free cycle training for any Londoner, adult or child, who wants it; it is why I have appointed a cycling commissioner, making cycling the only transport mode to have its own dedicated representative in my senior staff; and it is why I am recruiting almost 130 extra staff to Transport for London to help deliver my cycling programme.

    This is a massive programme of change, which dovetails very closely with what cyclists have been demanding, and I share your impatience to see it delivered. But at the same time, I have promised that we will do it properly, and that cannot happen overnight. If we made changes without working out what to do with the buses, the traffic, deliveries, parking and pedestrians, then we would risk repeating some of the problems of the past.

    Nor will I make rushed changes in response to a tragedy which could inadvertently make things more dangerous for cyclists or other vulnerable groups, such as pedestrians – who get a great deal less media attention than cyclists, but are just as important to me. And I own only five per cent of London’s roads; on the others, I can proceed only with the agreement of their owners, usually the London boroughs. But real physical change has already started; our first fully-segregated cycle superhighway was opened earlier this month.
    My heart goes out to the victims of these awful accidents and their families and I will do my utmost to learn the lessons from their tragic deaths. But in order to learn the right lessons, it is imperative that we establish the facts of what happened, and avoid jumping to conclusions before we have done so. We should not, for instance, automatically conclude (as so many have) that all or most of these deaths are the fault of the road design. Nor should we automatically assume (as many others have) that they were caused by bad or careless behaviour by the cyclists themselves.

    It is my responsibility, and the responsibility of the London boroughs, to provide safer roads for cycling. But, as I have also said, all users of those roads must also take responsibility for using them safely. There is no solution any traffic engineer can devise which will remove that individual responsibility or completely end accidents and deaths.

    It is also, I believe, important to separate what are clearly particular problems in particular places, such as Bow roundabout, from the general picture, which is more encouraging. In 2002 there were 110 million cycle journeys in London, of which 20 ended in death. Last year there were 180 million cycle journeys in London, of which 14 ended in death. Over the last ten years, the cyclist death rate per journey in London has more than halved. Despite the terrible recent events, the number of deaths in London in 2013 so far, 14, is the same for the whole of 2012.
    I entirely understand why the recent horrific events have obscured these facts. But I am concerned that the all-consuming media and political focus on individual deaths may in fact harm, not help, the cause of cycling in London – by scaring away potential cyclists, and by giving succour to those who say that I and my successors should not encourage cycling as it is, in their view, unsafe.

    I am glad to say that I completely disagree with that group of people. I can assure you that cycling is, and will remain, at the heart of my administration. It is, and will remain, one of my highest priorities. These terrible events will only reinforce my determination to make things better for cyclists in London.

    Thank you again for your concern.

    Yours sincerely

    Boris Johnson
    Mayor of London


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