I was cycling through Holborn junction as a part of my regular commute to work at 9:25 this Monday morning (15 July 2013). But what I witnessed was a male body in a white T-shirt being revived. There were parts of a purple bicycle scattered around a small lorry that had stopped right in front of me. A simple glance at the scene was enough to understand what had happened just a minute earlier. A big lorry was parked diagonally from the smaller one and the bleeding body was lying between them.
The truth is that I was running late. I should have cycled on the side of the New Oxford Street lane that was now stained with fresh blood 5 minutes earlier. If this were any other morning, this dead body would have been me. My personal feelings of imbalance cannot measure the sentiments of the deepest compassion that I approve for the family and friends of the cyclist who had to pass away so brutally.
This is not the only time I was looking into the eye of my own death while paving my cycling way through the clotted streets of London. My last memory embraces minutes before I reached Holborn junction on Monday morning, when a van just like the one, or possibly the one that caused the fatal collision, would not give me way as I tried to overtake a car stationed in front of a cycling corridor created at a construction site.
I live in Aldgate, a street away from what you pride yourself with as a Cycle Superhighway. But I must agree with my fellow cyclist blogger Two Wheels Good that “Cycle ‘Superhighway’ 2, like most of the cycle ‘superhighways’, is simply some blue paint on the road where cyclists and heavy traffic mix freely."
Avoiding cars stationed on the blue patch and loaded lorries rushing down the blue band to reach central London, makes every cyclist feel that this is the most dangerous path one can take in East London. My survival instinct tells me to systematically avoid it. As you know, the young death that occurred just over a week ago on the Superhighway is not a solitary case on the splash of blue paint that vehicle drivers duly ignore.
But I would believe that you are more familiar with casualties’ statistics than I am. A&E reports that disclose details about serious cycling accidents are probably presented to you on a daily basis. I am but a millionth of the large pool of Londoners and yet I know several first-hand stories of people who have been severely injured whilst cycling on your roads. The most severe one I know was a facial reconstruction done after cycling over a pothole. This young woman’s life will remain permanently affected both physically and psychologically. Not to mention that she has not touched her bicycle since.
I have a full-time permanent job in central London, but, like many Londoners of my age and status, I am unable to afford living on my own, much less purchasing a monthly tube pass. The buses are a more affordable option, but I could risk getting sacked due to the delays caused by an unreliable service of condensed routes that link my home to my workplace.
You not only promote cycling, but also push Londoners to opt for this transport option. You offer Barclays Bikes, the Cycle to Work Scheme, and encourage local communities to offer cycling classes. But there is a deadly contradiction in your initiatives. You welcome vulnerable cyclists to medieval infrastructure that is hardly fit for walking. Oxford Street, the heart and pride of London, would see even two carriages collide. Yet the shabby topography is forced to support speeding cars, overcrowded double-deckers, bulky taxis, swift motorbikes and modest bicycles alike.
What I saw on Monday morning dragged me into a state of severe shock. I have relapsed several times since. A counselling session has been arranged for me though my GP and another one through my work. I have lived and cycled in Ljubljana, Paris, Berlin, Antalya and Seattle before I moved to London 6 years ago. Most of the cycling I knew until I moved to this city was blissful rides on separated cycling lanes. It was not until I started riding through Old Street, Aldwych or Elephant and Castle, that I discovered the necessity of body protection.
I wear a helmet, a reflective jacket and lights. I only cross green lights. I make eye contact with drivers when I cycle in front or on the side of their large vehicles. I am unable to think how else I could personally contribute to my own safety on my regular commute to work.
But on Monday morning the idea of safety extended to the notion of trauma. I was robbed of my freedom. My love for cycling was terrorised by a shocking scene. Today, a simple sound of a passing lorry frightens me. I am petrified of crossing the street on foot. Thinking that I could ever use my bike again sounds like a naive dream.
My close friends are scattered around London and the job that I like is in Soho. Simply uprooting my life and planting it in another city would be a painful process. But, Mayor, I appeal to you as a fellow cyclist. If you are not ready to rationalise your urban planning and accept the deaths on your streets with more heart, I will just have to give up.