Lorries/HGVs/LGVs killing cyclists: an appeal to London listeners

Last Thursday, on what felt like a warm, sunny first day of Spring, I was witness to the immediate aftermath of a collision involving a cyclist and a 32 tonne articulated lorry. It was a truly horrible, chilling sight. The lorry was stopped in the middle of the road and the crushed remains of a bicycle were clearly visible under its wheels. The cyclist, a woman in her twenties, was on a stretcher, receiving treatment from the fantastic and heroic paramedics of the London Ambulance Service. I gather than woman was was taken to the Royal London Hospital with serious leg injuries. I don’t know the extent of her injuries and whether she’ll be able to make a full recovery, but while she was desperately unlucky to be hit, she was probably very lucky to have survived.

Too many cyclists are being killed each year by lorries on the streets of London. Something has got to be done.

The Bike Show has been campaigning on this issue for years and this year I’m planning to crank up the volume. As a first step I’m encouraging everyone who can make it to come along to Critical Mass this Friday to join a mass ride that is going to show London’s cyclists making a united stand on the issue. I’m not the greatest fan of Critical Mass, but this month, with spate of deaths caused by lorries, I’m making an exception. This is a call not just from me but from a united platform of London bike campaigners and bike bloggers (including the London Cycling Campaign, Southwark Cyclists, ibikelondon, Bike Tart, Moving Target, Cycle Chic, Cyclodelic, VeLo City and Real Cycling).

If you come along on Friday, you’ll be among friends, you’ll be able to put a few faces to familiar Bike Show voices. Meet from 6.30pm on Friday 26th March on the South Bank, right under Waterloo Bridge.

To hear the appeal in full, click on the links below.

We’re all Aristoteleans now

Nigel Warburton, whose Philosophy Bites is among the brightest stars in the podcasting firmament, appeared on The Bike Show late last year, with materials scientist Mark Miodownik in a discussion about the talking about the physics and ethics of running red lights.

In the current issue of Prospect Magazine, he takes a deeper look at whether breaking the law can ever be morally justified. In a passage on ‘the red light question’ Nigel writes:

Jack Thurston, of Resonance FM’s Bike Show, argues that cyclists are different from other road users: “I see a bicyclist as a kind of hybrid pedestrian that should be granted the freedom to keep rolling as long as it’s safe to do so. Those who say cyclists should follow precisely the same laws as drivers of motor vehicles are making a basic category mistake.” This is more promising ground, suggesting an Aristotelean approach in which we clear up what the “essence” of a cyclist is understood to be, and also what the telos—or goal—of traffic signalling really is. If the aim is to create a safe flow of traffic without unduly hindering progress of the various users (including pedestrians) then perhaps cyclists should be deemed a special class of road user, and given their own appropriate laws. People like Thurston think that cyclists are not quasi-car drivers, but a species of quasi-pedestrians. Running a red light, on this logic, should be treated more like jay-walking.

You can read the article in full over here.

Red light means go (or does it?)

Should cyclists stop at red lights? Why do we feel such a strong urge to keep rolling? Should our behavior be guided by the law of the land or the laws of common courtesy? What would Isaac Newton and Thomas Aquinas have to say about the matter? Bringing their expertise to a discussion of the physics and philosophy of cyclists and red lights are Nigel Warburton of the Open University, the popular Philosophy Bites podcast and author of several classic textbooks on philosophy and Mark Miodownik, head of the Materials Research Group at King’s College London and writer and broadcaster.

The physics of running red lights

It’s the Christmas silly season and newspapers are again rounding on cyclists (aka ‘lycra louts’) for running red lights and putting other road users at risk. Never mind the lack of any hard evidence of injuries or deaths caused by cyclists running red lights, it’s a story that appears to please news and online editors, such as at the Sunday Times yesterday and The Times today.

To borrow a memorable phrase from Peter Mandelson, I am intensely relaxed about cyclists running red lights, where it is safe to do so, i.e. when there is no obstruction caused to anyone using the junction who has priority at the time. Josh Hart has a great blog post on the subject.

Josh says it’s important not to confuse safe behaviour with law-abiding behaviour. “You can follow every law and still put yourself in a terribly dangerous position (i.e. in the door zone). By the same token, you can slow and look around carefully at red lights and stop signs and proceed when no one is coming and you’ll likely never get into trouble. Blindly following the law is a recipe for getting hurt on your bike. Better to trust your own hearing, sight, and instincts than the government’s rigid idea of ‘health and safety’.”

There’s some evidence to suggest that cyclists stopping at traffic lights on the left hand side make themselves more vulnerable to getting squashed by lorries and HGVs/LGVs that find it hard to see a cyclists in that position. This may explain why London Mayor Boris Johnson is considering allowing cyclists to turn left on red as well as riding the ‘wrong’ way down one-way streets as is already the practice in Brussels, among many other cities.

This would go some way towards addressing the second plank of Josh’s argument, that the Highway Code is inappropriate for cyclists. He say’s “unfortunately we live in a society where the needs of one class of road user are prioritised at the expense of more vulnerable road users.”

Buffalo Bill made the same point long ago on The Bike Show when he said that traffic rules were only needed to address the problem of automobiles on the roads, not cyclists, and therefore the rules should not apply to cyclists in the same way. As Josh argues, “The bicycle is a kind of a hybrid animal– somewhere between a pedestrian and a vehicle, and we need to treat it as such… Let’s stop trying to fit the round peg of cycling into the square hole of overly regimented traffic regulations.” Amen to that.

But before anyone accuses me of encouraging a free-for-all at red lights I strongly believe that to run a red light safely you need to have all your senses about you. You need to be looking hard enough to see that there’s no danger. You need to give way to pedestrians who have priority and anticipate those that have not yet stepped off the pavement. Setting traps to catch cyclists running red lights is so obviously an instance of wasting police time, though there is one small respect in which I do approve of Fixed Penalty Notices for red light jumping: If you don’t see the rozzer who nicks you, you weren’t looking hard enough to be safe running the red light, were you? So pay up and consider it a £30 lesson in cycle training. Sometimes when I’m cycling I can’t really be bothered with the effort involved in running red lights so I am quite happy to stop and wait, assuming there’s no potentially left-turning lorry looming over me.

What never seems to be discussed in the whole debate on red lights is why cyclists feel such a strong urge to run red lights, why it makes so much sense for us to do it. Those who write about it invariably ascribe it to the perceived arrogance and smugness of the cyclist, an expression of their innate sentiments of self-satisfaction and superiority. I feel a lot of things when riding the streets of London but superiority is rarely one of them. Certainly not when it’s pouring with rain and another bus has whistled past within a few inches of me, accompanied by a billowing cloud of filth and spray.

Cyclists run red lights not because we consider ourselves to be supreme beings but because of the forces of physics. The nature of the bicycle is that we have to use our own energy to move. Getting going is not simply a matter of disengaging the clutch with the left foot and easing the right foot onto the accelerator. When cyclists stop we have to give up all the kinetic energy we’ve built up and when we start again we have to overcome the inertia of our own body masss and that of the bicycle, the road resistance, wind, and so on. Cyclists running red lights are like people walking in a park who walk in the direction of where they want to go rather than following the paved paths. If enough of them are doing it, the result is a muddy rut in the grass. We don’t blame the walkers, we blame the planner who didn’t think about desire lines when making the paved paths.

It’s my sense that running red lights is much less about saving time than saving energy. A cyclist who runs red lights generally doesn’t save much time because she’ll usually end up stopping at a major junction at which point a law-abiding cyclist will have caught up, or nearly caught up. The vital point is that the red light running cyclist will have expended much less energy. And this is important. Cycling can be hard work, and the perception of effort puts a lot of people off riding bikes. The easier it is, the more people are likely to take it up. (By the same token, all those roadies who use their daily commutes to work out as a form of training, should perhaps reconsider their red light running, since stopping means they use more energy and therefore get a better workout. The expenditure of energy to get up to cruising speed might be considered as a form of interval training.)

All this is just my intuition based on my own experiences of cycling. I’d really like to find a physicist or an engineer who would be able to properly quantify the time loss and the energy loss involved in stopping at red lights. I think the results would be interesting and would help illiuminate the debate. The implications might go beyond the debate on red light running and could be useful for transport planners who, if you ask me, should be working hard to design routes for cyclists that minimise the amount of stopping that’s required. If you’re a physicist or an engineer who could apply your knowledge to these questions, please get in touch.

Calling Time on “Sorry Mate, I Didn’t See You” (SMIDSY)

smidsy-stop-signThe Bike Show moves into advocacy mode this week with guest in the studio Debra Rolfe, Campaigns Director of the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC), Britain’s largest cycling organisation with 60,000+ members. Debra is spearheading the CTC’s new campaign against bad driving by motorists called Stop SMIDSY. The aim is to draw attention to the dangers of inattentive dangerous driving and the oh-so-familiar refrain ‘Sorry Mate, I Didn’t See You’. We discuss the campaign and how cyclists can report near misses online.

Also in the show is a preview of 116 to Sea, an exhibition of photographs of the Dunwich Dynamo night ride by Joe McGorty. Joe is joined by Dunwich Dynamo godfather Patrick Field. And then there’s the second installment of Paul Fournel reading from Need for the Bike. Phew, all that in just half an hour!

Play MP3 on links below. Other file formats coming soon.