Lucky Seven

Seven months ago I got run over on the streets of London for the second time.

Last week The Times launched a cycle safety campaign. Their Save Our Cyclists campaign has garnered plenty of support from cyclists including myself. I signed up and gave them a small summary of my experiences of cycling in London. They were nice enough to ask for more and ran the following paragraph as the experiences of one Alex Ingram of Hammersmith aged 30 who commutes daily to Kew Bridge:

In the seven years that I’ve been cycling in London I’ve been run over twice. My first accident was in 2007, at a T-junction. A young mother drove out of a side road and knocked me flying into the air. I was lucky — I was only bruised. My last accident was in July, when I was run over from behind by a pair on a stolen moped at a busy gyratory in Hammersmith. I’d been scraped across the road on my right-hand side. I was rather lucky.

(link to full story and others)

Lucky, you might wonder? What’s lucky about being run over twice? Well, despite suffering pretty nasty road rash (which took months to heal and has left some scars) in July and awful bruising (which only healed after a few months) a few years back I’ve not broken anything worse than a front fork, some cranks and a pair of glasses. It could have been so much worse. The page my story was printed on shared its space with those of my fellow cyclists and that of James Cracknell. They had proper accidents, the changes they experienced were not just in the mind.

For sure, having been run over – both times – I did not emerge the same person. The first time I found that I changed my riding habits completely. I had been becoming an ever more confident road cyclist, delighted by my shiny new racer and was developing a love of speed. I cannot see how it was my fault to be hit by a driver who put their foot to the floor and accelerated out of a side road into my bike. Yet at the same time my head decided I was too vulnerable and I shied away from enjoying the sport I have always loved. So my immediate reaction to that accident was to cycle less. I regret that.

However, I have always balanced my love of the road with an understanding of the complexity of risk and danger. James Cracknell says “If you are cycling without a helmet, you are being selfish to your family and friends”, he’s wrong. What you are doing is taking a view of the dangers and risks. Now, yes, if you’re going to cycle across America on major roads shared with trucks driving at speed a helmet is effectively mandatory. Arguably so too would be a support vehicle. However, when I ride a Boris Bike (no, Ken Bike, dammit!) and dart a few miles in the middle of a city I simply should not need a helmet. I ride with a helmet on my own bike because it’s more convenient to me to have one, I ride without on a Boris bike for precisely the same reasons.

What was my reaction to my second accident, as an experienced victim of London’s roads? Well, I took things more seriously. I made sure I got checked over, I took some days to let the impact and the most important effects of shock, disorientation and fear to subside along with the auto-immune response, though I think I felt a bit off for a good few weeks thereafter. What I didn’t do was let it affect my cycling. I felt defiant to have been run over again. Road rash was the most challenging thing. Being disfigured on your face, even temporarily has weird psychological effects. No healing is fast enough. I found myself ringing up NHS Direct in a panic one evening. Had someone offered me a leaflet to reassure me and tell me how to heal my wounds I’m sure I’d have felt better. I can see why an accident can make so many change their attitude to something they love.

Weirdly I also wound up learning to drive not much later, and in the process found myself really improving my skills on the road. My instructor was also sensible enough to help me take the skills I learnt as a cyclist into my driving.

Kaya Burgess should be commended for being open and responsive as a journalist in explaining his aims for The Times campaign. His opening piece on Mary Bowers’ accident and its aftermath is a heavily moving piece that explains eloquently why so much of the campaign is necessary. The problem we cyclists face is that we are the victims of chance events which are only predictable and understandable on long timescales. In the timespace of a humble ordinary commute we are only a few glances, one missing signal or a piece of crap road design away from danger.

You could get feart and argue cyclists shouldn’t place ourselves in danger. But to me, cities, roads, these lands are for people. Danger for cyclists means danger for pedestrians equally. And that means we should ensure that when we need to restrain the freedom and simplicity of the motorised brigade to let a vibrant set of users make their city come alive you bite the bullet. Maybe you do build weird cyclist only bridges. Maybe you reallocate road space. It might be tight in London, but that shouldn’t mean we can’t find the space for a single dedicated East-West route for bikes. And if we really can’t, why not take the vision of Crossrail into another mode and make something elevated or tunnelled if we must. Cyclists aren’t going to go away. My favourite cities that I’ve visited lately such as Bilbao delight in understanding that you actually do need to spend money on infrastructure and planning. I don’t want to live in the decaying ruins of a city, I want to live somewhere that changes.

I’m not convinced that The Times campaign has a monopoly of wisdom. Quite the opposite, in fact. It has based itself neatly around the aims that many – especially in London – have had for some time. Elements of what it proposes such as a cycling budget of £100m a year are eminently sensible. However, I do think it could be a lot more ambitious.

It’s a step – for sure – to move up from a laissez faire attitude that cyclist safety is a matter only for cyclists into believing in interventions. However, it’s a further step to match the efforts of our neighbours. We must finally learn from our European neighbours that standardised junction design makes sense and that road space must sometimes be reserved for cycling alone. We should be willing to make it a lot harder for cars to be in our cities. And we must, we must not rest, not for one second until anyone, even a small child feels safe cycling in our communities. We don’t have to tolerate even a single cyclist death in London, if it Paris doesn’t. Cities are for people. The cars are merely for a few who can afford them. We must all be able to get around, and safely.