Cycling in the capital: a dangerous affair
It was just another ride home from work.
Jack Ostrofsky, a 44-year-old building surveyor, unlocked his bike on Westminster Bridge Road after a long day at work and began his way home to Hackney, just like he had done nearly every day for the past four years. It was a cold Friday evening and he was heading northbound on the Blackfriars Bridge.
“Without a car in sight I felt free to hammer the pedals and was going on a good pace when, from across three lanes, a driver in an A6 drove illegally into my lane,” he says. “I flipped, landed and slid about 20 ft beyond.”
He survived with bruising and was able to ride his bike home, albeit in serious pain.
Mr. Ostrofsky was back on a bicycle a week after his accident, but has since avoided cycling through Blackfriars and developed an alternative route via Essex Road and east of Angel in Islington.
What the numbers say
Mr. Ostrofsky’s is one of the numerous cycling accidents happening in the capital every year. The London Evening Standard recently wrote about an Islington local, 50-year-old Melanie Burrows, a cyclist who was involved in a road accident this year.
Ms. Burrows was seriously injured in a collision with another cyclist and suffered a broken rib and fracture to her tibia as a result of the crash. According to Ms. Burrows, the other cyclist tried to overtake her at a junction.
Mr. Ostrofsky and Ms. Burrows both survived their accidents with injuries, but not everyone is as fortunate. Sometimes the fleeting moment of inattention, unfortunate timing or another road user’s mistake can cost a life.
Although casualties have stagnated over the past few years, the number of deaths is on the decrease when compared with the overall number of bike journeys. More and more active commuters choose to hop on their bikes every day, whereas the number of fatalities seems to have stabilised. In proportion, this means that a smaller percentage of cyclists has been involved in fatal accidents.
However, the total number of deaths alone can be slightly misleading – the numbers are a bit too small to establish a clear trend. The Department for Transport data analysis established a combined record for cyclists killed and seriously injured (KSI), which shows an increase in recent years. The number of KSIs in London has risen from 468 in 2010 to 673 in 2012, which proves that cycling-related injuries continue to be a risk with increasingly active roads.
It has long been a topic of open speculation whether introducing new cycle lanes and improving existing facilities would decrease road accidents.
Matthew Hilton, the owner of the Islington-based cycling workshop Micycle, thinks it’s more about the traffic dynamics than new cycling facilities. As an expert in the field, Mr. Hilton, 56, says both cyclists and drivers are getting better on the road and that he is “not entirely sure” whether new cycle lanes would make any difference.
“It’s an idealistic situation rather than a practical one,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to have designated cycle lanes on the road.”
Mr. Ostrofsky, however, thinks that new lanes would help to resolve the tension between drivers and cyclists. He says that a failure to take further action could have serious implications. “If this [opening new cycle lanes] stalls then London’s cycle network will remain truncated, exposing people to risks that could be avoided with lanes. It’s discouraging to cyclists.”
Better safe than sorry
Whether cycling is becoming safer in the capital can still be a question of personal experience, but it seems reasonable to expect that some drivers are becoming more alert and cyclists generally more experienced with the increasing trend of active transport. On the contrary, busier roads can increase the risk of accidents.
“Drivers are getting much better without a shadow of a doubt. They’re looking after the cyclist more. So in that respect, it has gotten better,” Mr. Hilton says. “What has gotten difficult is roads are getting busier and busier, so they’re fuller, and there’s only so much space on the road. So therefore more traffic is going to be dangerous.”
And like Ms. Burrows’ case demonstrates, the fault is not always your own – no matter how cautious you remain, the risk of danger might present itself at any time.
When it comes to safety on a bicycle, it is crucial to make yourself seen. “Be an aware ambassador of cycling,” Mr. Ostrofsky says. As ever, it is also important to be respectful of the laws and remain courteous to drivers, pedestrians and, naturally, to your fellow cyclists.
“I enjoy the surprised and grateful smile people give to you when you stop at a Zebra [crossing],” Mr Ostrofsky says. “They will be the next driver that will give space to another cyclist later that day or the next.”
It is, however, fair to note that traffic can be highly unpredictable and some incidents do unfortunately lie beyond our control. Mr. Hilton thinks an individual cyclist can only do so much to limit their vulnerability. “Obviously there will always be accidents. If you cycle you will have an accident, it depends on how severe it’s going to be.”
This doesn’t mean that cycling should be regarded as a scary activity. The growing popularity of cycling suggests that more people feel comfortable commuting on a bike and this increasing trend ensures that cyclists are no longer an unusual sight in the midst of traffic. In the end, cyclists have the same right to be on the road as everyone else.
In any case, it is important to remember certain precautions during every journey – even the most unforeseen of circumstances might occur on just another ride home.